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I Was a Communist for the FBI stands first in the list of Hollywood studio pictures dedicated to the patriotic fight against communism. That corner of mid-century movie extremism was dominated by laughably distorted Cold War delights like Republic's The Red Menace and Howard Hughes' The Woman on Pier 13, and some see this Warners production as a righteous alternative. It's based on the story of Matt Cvetic, an FBI informant who actually spent time as an undercover mole in a real communist cell in Pittsburgh. Although nothing in the film's advertising claims that the film's events are true, the public knew Cvetic through the "true" accounts of his experiences that he wrote in a tell-all book, which was first fictionalized as a popular radio serial.
The film is more technically sophisticated and can boast a strong central conflict. A big plus is the input of Gordon Douglas, a Warners workhorse director of the early 1950s. No matter what the assignment -- this controversial show, the god-awful Liberace vehicle Sincerely Yours or the far-out giant bug bash Them!, Douglas gave his pictures an impressive dynamism and immediacy.
The story purports to be a truthful account of the demanding undercover life of Matt Cvetic (Frank Lovejoy). He's been collecting information for the FBI for years, but the secret job has ruined his family relationships. His brother Joe (Paul Picerni) hates him, and his own son Dick (Ron Hagerthy) is getting into fights at school because he can't understand why his father is a dirty traitor. Matt's day job is in a factory. His commie handlers Jim Blandon and Harmon (James Millican & Edward Norris) are happy that Matt can get honest citizens fired and have Party members hired in their place. An "accident" is arranged to mangle a worker's arm, to make room for another commie stooge. Jim and Harmon decide to promote Matt, and introduce him to Gerhardt Eisler (Konstantin Shayne), a top CPUSA organizer dedicated to the subversive overthrow of the United States. Matt also meets Eve Merrick (Dorothy Hart), "one of a thousand" commie teachers in the local school system. Just as Matt guesses, Eve has been assigned to seduce him and to report his personal opinions. Matt and Eve soon witness a communist-instigated strike, complete with thugs hired to create a violent incident. Matt's brother Joe, a sincere onlooker, receives a nasty facial scar in the fighting. Matt impresses his FBI contacts Mason and Ken (Philip Carey & Richard Webb) with his ability to maintain his secret identity even as his family despises him. Matt is desperate to "retire", but he's asked to stay undercover while a better court case is being prepared.
Some writers promote the idea that the swarm of Cold War propaganda pictures -- few of which were winners at the box office -- was instigated by the federal government. It wasn't that simple. A better case can be made for the opposite being true. The movie industry's eagerness to jump on the anti-Red bandwagon and its covert support of the Blacklist were symptoms of the hysteria-fed panic that gripped the whole country, when Congressional committees and patriotic organizations were insisting that a plague of traitors held America by the throat. The studio heads fought to be the first to proclaim their patriotism, out of self-defense.
Perhaps the most heinous evidence of Studio collusion in the selling of fear and hate in this banner year for anti-commie hysteria is the fact that I Was a Communist for the FBI was nominated for an Oscar, for best documentary.
Along with the Red smears came the usual anti-Semitism, racial slurs and general xenophobia that mar the American landscape. Although the Communist Party had practically been alone in opposing Fascism and supporting civil rights, movie commies are invariably portrayed as racist opportunists. At RKO, Howard Hughes circulated a script for an anti-commie film for over a year as a kind of 'litmus test'. Any director that turned down the project was considered suspect, a Pinko. When trying to push through a Loyalty Oath at a now-famous Producer's Guild Meeting, C.B. De Mille tried to silence the liberal opposition by calling them a bunch of "foreigners" with names like Zinnemann and Siodmak. Seeing their friends and associates blacklisted and unable to earn a living, directors, writers and actors grabbed for work that might 'prove' their all-American credentials. I Was a Communist for the FBI's Frank Lovejoy had earlier acted in Stanley Kramer's civil rights-angled war picture Home of the Brave. Just recently he had starred in blacklisted director Cyril Endfield's Try and Get Me!, a movie that equates American values with lynch-mob savagery. Is it possible that Lovejoy decided to play Matt Cvetic to protect his career?
I Was a Communist for the FBI has good Warners production values. The effective script assumes that pernicious communists are active everywhere, especially in labor unions. Its picture of "the Party life" is still fairly silly. The head organizers hatch their devilish plans in swank hotels, congratulating themselves on their first-class lifestyle while their comrade stooges do all the work and take all the risks. The bosses sneer at religion, making a spectacle of themselves at the funeral of Matt Cvetic's mother. They take orders directly from Moscow, naturally, but even their top man Gerhardt Eisler is characterized as a cynical opportunist. Red ideology is something the faux-intellectuals worry about in theory sessions. Such meetings are for spreading the Party's stranglehold and keeping the comrades in line. The Party steals jobs from 'good' Americans and uses sex to spy on its own members. When Matt and Eve come under suspicion, Jim and Harmon unaccountably become personally involved in kidnapping and murder.
In its most ultra-right scenes, the movie shows communist agitators fomenting a labor strike for the sole purpose of inciting violence. Yet accounts of almost all strike battles show the violence being instigated by police, or hired muscle working for management. We in America have a curious sliding scale of values. When confronted by a political party directed from Moscow we're ready to suspend civil liberties, but nobody minds that much of our information media is controlled by unaccountable private corporations with their own political agendas.
The Gerhardt Eisler portrayed in the movie was a real communist leader scooped up in 1947 and unceremoniously deported. Eisler came to America in the 1930s along with thousands of German political refugees from Naziism; it should have been obvious that many were socialists and communists. Gerhardt's brother was a composer in the movie industry and closely associated with Bertolt Brecht, the multi-talented Marxist playwright. The State Department made them all unwelcome, and persecuted Charles Chaplin for refusing to denounce them. The Eisler case helped the HUAC target Hollywood as a supposed nest of subversive activity. Seeing actor Konstantin Shayne play Eisler as a Goebbels-like malignant vermin is one of the low points of Cold War moviemaking.
Director Douglas gets good performances from all of his actors. Dorothy Hart is soulful as the commie teacher who balks at her fellow commies' evil methods. Frank Lovejoy lends Matt Cvetic impressive moral resolve; he shows the man's inner suffering without coming off as a neurotic. The kicker is that the real Matt Cvetic was nothing like the heroic figure in the movie. He was a self-promoter who grossly exaggerated his activities as a mole in a Pittsburgh communist cell. He became such an embarrassment to the FBI that he was let go in 1950. J. Edgar Hoover sought to dissociate the Bureau from both Cvetic and the movie. The real Cvetic didn't supply any big information against the Reds and certainly never 'rose' in the ranks. His wife reportedly left him for drunkenness and physical abuse, not because he joined the Communist Party. Less than four years into his service Cvetic had reportedly divulged his secret work to family members and was bragging about it in bars. According to one source, Matt Cvetic's main business with his FBI contacts was to demand higher pay.
Author Daniel J. Leab concludes that Cvetic was a 'reckless professional witness', and states that his version of the truth was discredited by the courts. Supporting that view are a number of declassified FBI files showing interoffice correspondence regarding Matt Cvetic and the movie. Warners repeatedly asks for the Bureau's endorsement. One letter asks if the Bureau objects to their taking Matt Cvetic to cities where Hearst Papers and American Legion Posts are willing to promote the film. There's also a lot of exhibitor correspondence, asking for FBI materials to promote the film, pictures of known communists, that sort of thing. The FBI lawyers politely turn down all requests to be associated with the film, taking care to use language to prevent Warners from twisting their replies into a semblance of Bureau approval.
Another memo talks about the Bureau's desire to distance itself from Matt Cvetic. It never identifies Cvetic as an actual FBI agent. The ex-informant's widely heard radio drama implies that he's an official FBI agent, and portrays him busting commie cells left and right. Cvetic boasted in interviews that he knocked out a nest of WW2 Nazi spies as well. One FBI letter is concerned that Cvetic is telling people that he knows a Friendly Witness who was assassinated with a poisoned needle. He's also telling audiences at public appearances that he knows a communist in charge of the water works in a large California city, who can poison millions in a few hours. The commie is being 'protected' at the moment but "we" will take care of him, said Cvetic. "By all means, nail this down," is Hoover's response.
In other words, in no way was I Was a Communist for the FBI a movie subject imposed upon the film industry as FBI or government propaganda.
What is more likely is that the movie was part of a deal between the studio and the HUAC Committee to cooperate with the purging of 'disloyal' elements in the film industry. A HUAC testimony session is depicted as the highest form of public service. Even though Cvetic offers only a couple of patriotic statements, the scene presents the Committee glowing exemplar of Freedom in action. After the gunplay is over and the key Reds are rounded up, true-blue Matt has forgotten all about the Pittsburgh Mata Hari Eve, despite the fact that she was shown in a positive light. Her fellow thousand commie teachers are also not mentioned. In reality, unofficial blacklists deprived thousands (if not more) of educators and other working people of their livelihood on the basis of a blind denunciation or a smear in the publication Red Channels. No matter -- Matt's brother and son are now as proud as pumpkins over their heroic family member.
Communist agents were indeed active in the United States in the early Cold War years, looting industrial secrets and, when they found their way through security, top-secret info about weapons. And communists were surely working alongside other pro-labor individuals to improve working conditions and demand fair wages in American industries. I Was a Communist for the FBI is essentially one big falsehood. Too many Americans accepted it as gospel over the years, mainly because asking questions in the Cold War was considered suspect activity. The Warner Archives' package copy identifies the movie as "a celluloid relic from the days of blacklists and bomb shelters." I wish it were a relic, but its spirit is very much alive.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of I Was a Communist for the FBI was among the first titles offered back in 2009; the transfer is quite good in all respects, from a fine-quality film transfer. I'm glad I caught up with it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
I Was a Communist for the FBI rates:
1. Leab, Daniel. I Was a Communist for the FBI: The Unhappy Life and Times of Matt Cvetic. University Park: Penn State University Press, 2000.
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T'was Ever Thus.