Geez. They're all about me again.
Philippe Halsman shot this sly commentary on fame featuring one of the most famous women in America, Marilyn Monroe, as his subject. She checks out a newspaper, and next to her you can see machines for the afternoon tabloids Mirror, Daily News, and Herald-Express, the latter of which is a publication we've mined often for historical crime photos. In that issue the front page says, “Fight Grows to Keep Chaplin Out of U.S.,” a headline that dates the photo to sometime in late 1952. Why was there a fight? People had been led to believe Chaplin was a communist theat to America for saying things like he wanted every person to have a roof over their heads. He wouldn't return to the U.S. for twenty years. So, the tabloids weren't all about Marilyn every issue. Just mostly. Even gossips need a little variety.
I'm going to reach the top and I'll do it by using the most American method of all—buying my way there.
Above are the cover and original uncredited art for the sleaze novel Convention Girl, written by Rick Lucas for Beacon Signal and published in 1954. This was a one-day read. Basically, at a yearly Washington, D.C. convention staged by the Association of Young Executives, oil tycoon Holly Carroll and beer baron James Barton are both convinced by AYE string-pullers to run for the position of association president. Both are promised the inside track to victory by means not solely involving how many votes they actually get. As ex-lovers, the complications soon pile up between them, as well as between other highly sexed characters. The reasons they were asked to run for president are obscure, but they eventually boil down to a vast communist plot to undermine the free enterprise system. Commie scare fiction mixed with sleaze? What a concept! Sadly, as usual with these anti-commie books, the political aspects are laughably simple-minded. But we expected that. The hurdle that can't be overcome is the tepid eroticism. There's just not much heat—and this in a book with so many reds. We don't think we'll be reading Mr. Lucas again.
When commies get their hooks into you it's forever.
The Woman on Pier 13, for which you see a very nice promo poster above, had a pre-release title that tells you everything you need to know about it. That title was I Married a Communist. What you get here is a melodrama about Laraine Day, whirlwind married to successful San Francisco industrialist Robert Ryan, an exemplar of American free enterprise, but who was once a member of the communist party back in New Jersey. Uh oh.
Long before meeting and marrying Day, he exited the party without even thanking his hosts for the snacks, moved to Frisco, and changed his name. Married life is going wonderfully until the commies track him down and threaten to expose him if he doesn't give over two fifths of his salary each month and sabotage labor negotiations between San Fran shipping magnates and striking dockworkers. They kill a guy in front of him, just so he knows they mean business. The sneaky, thieving, blackmailing, murdering rats. They're cruel squared. All they needed to be worse were monocles and riding crops. And maybe a handy tray of stainless steel dental hooks. And speaking of hooks, wait until you see what what Ryan can do with one. The Woman on Pier 13 is well made and pretty fun, but it's less useful as cinema than as a time capsule of anti-commie propaganda. It premiered today in 1949.
She likes to chill out, but never so much that she fully lets down her guard.
Above you see U.S. actress Judy Holliday, who debuted in cinema in 1938 and appeared in such films as Adam's Rib and The Solid Gold Cadillac. Her career was going okay until she was named in the red-baiting publication Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and TV as having communist connections. Called before a congressional committee, she refused to name names, but learned that freedom of association was an illusion in 1950s America. Holliday kept working in films until 1960, and died early five years later, at age 43, from throat cancer, in the place where she had been born and spent most of her life, New York City. The photo above was made in 1944, when she was filming Winged Victory.
Social critique lurks in the dark corners of Evelyn Keyes film noir.
This unusual poster was made for the film noir The Prowler, which premiered in the U.S. today in 1951 starring Evelyn Keyes and cinephile fave Van Heflin. When a woman reports a prowler one of the cops that responds to the call becomes infatuated with her and decides to make her his own, despite the fact that she's married. The process of claiming her involves him forcing himself upon her, but this being a mid-century drama, after the fade to black we fast forward a few weeks and the two are now having an affair.
This is the set-up of the film, not its story arc, so we haven't given anything anyway in terms of major plot points, however we wanted to mention the preamble because it's uncomfortable viewing—though we should note that the film doesn't present this behavior as normal. It also seems clear that Heflin is able to pull this off specifically because a fizzled Hollywood career has made Keyes' character vulnerable, and she's unhappy in a marriage that she agreed to for reasons of security. So if you watch the film don't get your hackles up. In order to condemn behavior it's useful to show it, and that's what Heflin's manipulations are all about.
But there's more going on here than just a noir drama about a bad man and a targeted woman. The movie was written largely, if not wholly, by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, and he always has a deeper message. Here's a notable line of dialogue concerning bad police officers: “It depends on what you think a cop's job really is. I figure that the job of a cop is to protect lives. Now some of these trigger happy guys, they think they have to protect things.”
Hmm. Relevant to today? Quite possibly.
Often you can identify a film noir by the simple fact that the lead male is screwed, and gets progressively more screwed as the movie unfolds. The Prowler reverses the formula and places Keyes in the screwed role and makes Heflin a sort of homme fatale, a sociopathic manipulator determined to get what he wants no matter the cost. What he wants is Keyes, and he'll destroy her marriage, her self respect, her mental stability, and any other pillar of her existence to have her. And of course, in so doing, he'll risk losing what humanity he has and descending into soulless desolation.
Evelyn Keyes was a talented performer. We've seen her several times now and she always kills it. Thanks to her and others The Prowler is a well acted movie. It's also beautifully shot. It was directed by Joseph Losey—soon to be blacklisted along with Trumbo, so presumably they were on the same page concerning social critique as cinematic subtext. Millions of average Joes made the same gripes as Trumbo and Losey, and millions of average Joes still do today. But when filmmakers weave a narrative tapestry that calls America broadly corrupt, trouble with the empty suits in Washington D.C. always looms.
Here's a parting shot from Trumbo: “So I'm no good. But I'm no worse than anyone else. You work in a store you knock down on the cash register. The big boss, [he cheats on] the income tax. [Politician] sells votes. The lawyer takes bribes. I was a cop. I used a gun.”
Don't criticize America like that! People will think you're a communist.
I have been re-educated by the House Un-American Activities Committee. I am happy. America is perfect.
One motivated American outsmarts an entire cabal of communists in Spillane crime drama.
Mickey Spillane's 1951 red scare caper One Lonely Night is, on one hand, classic Spillane starring his franchise sociopath Mike Hammer, but on the other, silly, polemical, and painfully dated. Mike Hammer the insane killer is kind of likeable, but Mike Hammer the insane killer with a political agenda is a bit tedious. Hammer's anti-commie pronouncements usually come across like set-ups for punchlines, as if he might go, “Just kidding! If we're comparing body counts we capitalists are running neck and neck with you! Gen-o-cide! Sla-vuh-ree!” But nope—Hammer remains both privileged and aggrieved throughout. In that way he's a very modern character. Since Spillane clearly thought Soviet influence in America was a serious threat he at least should have populated this violent slog through NYC's leftist underground with canny commies. But when they're this sloppy, why worry? Oh well. We'll always have Kiss, Me Deadly.
We're going to have fun. I'm well known as the life of the Communist Party.
This cover for M.E. Chaber's 1952 spy thriller All the Way Down is uncredited but pretty nice. The rear pleases the eye too. If we had to guess we'd say it was painted by Rafael DeSoto, who was often utilized by Popular Library during the early ’50s, but with no interior credit, alas, we cannot know for sure. What we do know for sure is that Chaber's real name was was Kendell Foster Crossen, and under various pseudonyms he wrote pulp fiction and sci-fi, and well as other spy novels. Most of the latter category starred franchise hero Milo March, heavy drinker and quick with a quip, with the above coming second in a series devoted to the character. It was originally called No Grave for March, but the good folks at Popular Library thought All the Way Down was a better fit, and of course when it comes to title changes they're always right.
All the way down where? Why into the underbelly of German communism. At the center of the plot is a superweapon—one of those hilarious sci-fi contrivances unique to 1950s mass market literature. March heads to Berlin bearing microfilm concerning this technological atrocity and poses as a member of the American Communist Party in order to infiltrate the German commies. Chaber's descriptions of post-war pre-wall Berlin, the streets, subways, and parks, are obviously written from experience, and those passages add considerable interest to the proceedings as Milo tries to earn the trust of suspicious enemies, stay alive while doing so, and—best case scenario—keep a low level brandy buzz intact the entire time. And of course there's a love interest. Greta is her name. She's German by birth but American by nationality and a member of the Denver Communist Party. Milo wants to march into her panties, so naturally smalltalk brings him around to asking why she joined the movement. Part of her answer:
“Then in 1942, after we Americans were at war against Hitler, someone wrote a name on the window of my father's store. It was the same name that the Nazis had written on his store window in Berlin—only it was written in English instead of German this time. The next day I became a Communist.”
She joined the Communist Party to oppose fascism. Why do we highlight that quote? Well, let's just say people are becoming confused these days about Nazis. It was once universally known that Hitler persecuted and imprisoned leftists, despite the deliberately deceptive name of his political party. Those episodes are mentioned time and again in All the Way Down, as Chaber makes clear that Nazis and communists were at opposite ends of the political spectrum. He probably never would have believed there would be confusion about this, yet here we are in 2019, and increasing numbers of Americans believe (or at least pretend) Nazism and communism were both leftist movements. In any case, Chaber has written an entertaining book here, in which a skirmish between communists and capitalists is deftly won by the capitalists. That's not a spoiler. In 1952, in a Popular Library paperback, it's obviously the only ending that could ever be.
The first symptom will be blood gushing from the center of your chest.
This excellent promo image shows U.S. actress Dorothy Hart in a shot made for the red scare flick I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. Hart made only about fifteen other films, among them The Naked City, Take One False Step, Undertow, Loan Shark, and Outside the Wall. We've seen none, but they all sound like potential winners to us, so we'll report back. This photo is from 1952.
He wasn't the first and he turned out not to be the last.
This issue of The National Police Gazette was published this month in 1954, with a cover asking whether Senator Joseph McCarthy was right or wrong. About what exactly? About whether the U.S. Army was infiltrated by communists. This Gazette appeared during the Army–McCarthy hearings, which were held from April to June of ’54, looking into accusations of corruption made against a McCarthy loyalist by high ranking members of the U.S. Army, and McCarthy's commie counter-accusations, as well as assertions by him that the Army's claims against his associate were politically motivated. You could mistreat and insult lots of groups in the United States back then and most people didn't greatly care, but as a politician you couldn't—and still can't—do it to the armed forces. McCarthy was a classic demagogue who trafficked in blame and demonization of entire groups of people, but he overstepped his bounds when he took on the Army. He came out of the hearings looking terrible, and his downfall was assured.
Police Gazette is solidly on McCarthy's side, though, which is no surprise if you know anything about the magazine. The basis of its support is that McCarthy was right that there were influential communists in America. At the time, only a brave few people seemed capable of asking why that was an issue at all.
Numerous western countries had fully functioning communist parties then, and for the most part they still do. Yet given a place in the arena of ideas, communists haven't gained much traction with the public. Possessing the right to elect communist politicians, the vast majority of people haven't voted for them, and in the case of the U.S. it's reasonable to assume they never will.
Yet McCarthy believed U.S. voters should not even be allowed to hear communist ideas. It may be stating the obvious in this day and age, but if traditional political offerings—from whatever end of the spectrum—can't win the debate against those of an upstart's, then it's because politics as usual are adjudged by the populace to be a failure. The obvious solution for mainstream parties is to have better policies, but often vested interests make that a practical impossibility.
McCarthy and the Gazette believed suppressing communist political thought was a sign of strength, but in reality it was a sign of weakness symptomatic of an irrational fear that their policies, if measured against those of communists, would fail to win the hearts of American voters. And this is perhaps why, while American demagogues such as him sometimes have their moment of support, history never judges their lack of faith kindly. The McCarthys of political life always pretend to be divinely guided, or driven by a greater purpose, or bestowed with an unshakeable public mandate—sometimes all three—but once the cruelty at the heart of their demagoguery becomes clear, their supporters quietly scurry for the exits.
In the end, demagogues go into the history books as, at best, national embarrassments, or at worst, scourges and human monsters. Americans don't much like presumptions to be made for or about them. Really nobody does, even presumptions for the supposed greater good. McCarthy presumed too much. Today his name has become an adjective signifying a type of opportunistic treachery, the place of honor in the American political pantheon he thought he was building for himself never came to be, and he died knowing people were glad he was going away. He won't be the last American demagogue this happens to. We have numerous scans below, and many more Gazettes in the website.
Widmark/Peters noir looks great and packs a punch.
It wouldn't be a film noir festival without at least one anti-commie thriller and Pickup on South Street is it. The movie stars Richard Widmark as a two-bit pickpocket who lifts a wallet during an NYC subway ride and unexpectedly ends up with a priceless government secret meant to be given to commie spies by a cabal of sweaty traitors. Widmark sneers his way into a position where he thinks he can sell the stolen info for fifty grand. He's got another think coming.
Best line: If you refuse to cooperate you'll be as guilty as the traitors that gave Stalin the A bomb!
Well, Stalin had help from spies but we don't think any gave him the bomb like a borscht recipe. He had help on other fronts as well, including from captured German scientists and homegrown Russian knowhow, but this is film noir, so go with it. The good team vs. bad team dynamic continues throughout, and numerous people try to convince Widmark to put his own interests aside and play for the home squad. They're wasting their breath.
The movie co-stars Jean Peters, a good actress and amazing knockout who's been a bit forgotten, even though she was in a few other good films and went on to marry nutball billionaire Howard Hughes. Her opening scene on a humid subway will stick with you. Sadly, she harbors yet another inexplicable film noir infatuation with a male lead who's about as nice as a sack of cold dick tips, but this is film noir so go with it. Ditto for the pushing and slapping Peters endures. She's even knocked cold by Widmark in their initial encounter. Deliberately.
His apology: You okay or did I bust something?
These sly flirtations increase Peters' ardor. The female heart wants what it wants, at least in the minds of wannabe-tough-guy Hollywood screenwriters. That screenwriter would be Samuel Fuller, who actually was acquainted with the underworld from his days as a crime reporter. So it could be that he knew more about gutter love than we do, but we doubt it. Here's what really matters—Peters absolutely kills her role, and does her own stunts too. Thelma Ritter, later of Rear Window, also gets a pivotal turn and nails her part as a tired older lady just trying to get by.
In the end Pickup on South Street comes full circle. While it's about patriotism, and trying to survive in New York City with zero means, and a weird kind of masochistic 1953 infatuation we'll never really understand, it starts with pickpocketing and eventually returns, in a symmetry that feels very modern in screenwriting terms, to that idea for the excellent climax. With Fuller directing and Joe MacDonald handling the cinematography, the final result is a knockout in both senses of the word—looks great, packs a punch.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1936—Crystal Palace Gutted by Fire
In London, the landmark structure Crystal Palace, a 900,000 square foot glass and steel exhibition hall erected in 1851, is destroyed by fire. The Palace had been moved once and fallen into disrepair, and at the time of the fire was not in use. Two water towers survived the blaze, but these were later demolished, leaving no remnants of the original structure.
1963—Warren Commission Formed
U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson establishes the Warren Commission to investigate the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. However the long report that is finally issued does little to settle questions
about the assassination, and today surveys show that only a small minority of Americans agree with the Commission's conclusions.
1942—Nightclub Fire Kills Hundreds
In Boston, Massachusetts, a fire
in the fashionable Cocoanut Grove nightclub kills 492 people. Patrons were unable to escape when the fire began because the exits immediately became blocked with panicked people, and other possible exits were welded shut or boarded up. The fire led to a reform of fire codes and safety standards across the country, and the club's owner, Barney Welansky, who had boasted of his ties to the Mafia and to Boston Mayor Maurice J. Tobin, was eventually found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
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