"Red" Films in Black and White

in 17th Athens Panorama of European Cinema

by Ronald Bergan

Very often at film festivals, the most interesting sections are the retrospectives. However, most critics are so busy trying to see all the films in competition and the new films in other sections that they have no time or, sadly, interest in any movie made in the last century. But, as the Athens Panorama of European Cinema (which also shows films from outside Europe out of competition ) proved, 20th Century Fox is far better than 21st Century Fox.

Ninos Mikelides, the personification of the festival, had astutely chosen two tangential sections related to the McCarthy era: one which featured films by directors Abraham Polonsky, Jules Dassin, Edward Dmytryk, Herbert J. Biberman and Dalton Trumbo, all of whom suffered in different ways from the Hollywood blacklist and the House Un-American Activities Committee, and six films devoted mostly to the earlier work (i.e. pre- Streetcar Named Desire, 1951) of Elia Kazan, who was a ‘friendly witness’ for the HUAAC.

Although Kazan (born Kazanjoglou), who was of Greek origin, disclaimed many of the films he made in the 1940s, they already show his strong interest in social themes, his keen sense of location and his sympathy with actors. It was Kazan who first built Marlon Brando into a star, ‘discovered’ James Dean and gave Jack Palance and Zero Mostel (Panic In The Streets), Lee Remick (A Face in the Crowd) and Warren Beatty (Splendor in The Grass) their first screen roles.

It was particularly interesting to be able to see two films about prejudice side by side: Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) on anti-Semitism and Pinky (1949) about white racism. They both wear their liberal credentials on their sleeves and are, in some aspects, rather dated. But it was rare for Hollywood’s ‘dream factory’ to tackle such subjects at the time. In the same year as Gentleman’s Agreement was Dmytryk’s less schematic Crossfire, a brilliant film noir in which Robert Ryan at his sneering best as a rabid anti-Semite. Again, seeing the two films together, was illuminating.

Also in context, which opened them up to accusations from the American Right of being ‘communist propaganda’, were Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948), an anti-capitalist parable; Michael Curtiz’s Mission To Moscow (1945), which praises the Soviet Union and Stalin — after all America and the USSR were allies at the time —; Dassin’s forceful and innovatively-shot Naked City (1948) and Biberman’s Salt of the Earth (1954), about a miner’s strike, probably the most left-wing movie made in the USA, which was the subject of FBI harassment and hardly shown in cinemas. Appropriately, to sum it all up in retrospect, was Martin Ritt’s The Front (1976), with Woody Allen paid to put his name to the work of blacklisted screenwriters during that dark period. Altogether a fascinating lesson in both film and social history.

Ronald Bergan