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A rather good film noir exercise, The Woman on Pier 13 is one of the more prominent anti-Communist features during the years that the House Un-American Activities Committee dominated Hollywood. Either to demonstrate their patriotism or to cover their tails, the studio heads produced anti-Commie film fare, little of which has much merit, even as quality propaganda. American audiences displayed a strong sales resistance to propagandistic ideas. No matter which side was doing the selling, they resented cheap political messages in their movies.
The wildly eccentric and unpredictable studio head Howard Hughes climbed onto the anti-Commie bandwagon in a big way, tailoring several now-obscure films to the task of saving America from a foreign-run conspiracy. Hughes had an expensive habit of keeping finished films out of release for months and years while he tinkered with them through re-shoots. His John Wayne & Janet Leigh Korean War epic Jet Pilot, a laughable mess about a female Soviet fighter ace, was held up for five years so Hughes could play with its airplane footage. A Sci-Fi spy thriller about a Nazi resurgence called The Man He Found was partially re-filmed to turn the Nazi conspirators into Commie conspirators, and re-titled The Whip Hand.
The Woman on Pier 13 is a special case. As early as 1948, when it was still known as I Married a Communist, Hughes was using the project as a "litmus" test to see who among directors was a "loyal American". Joseph Losey and John Cromwell turned down the assignment, and presumably flunked the test. Nicholas Ray also turned it down but was not dropped from the list of acceptable directors for RKO: being something of an unpredictable wild man himself, Ray was one of few directors that Howard Hughes took a liking to. The trade papers announced that Ray would direct the film with Jane Greer and Paul Lukas in the lead roles, and then went silent on the issue. Hughes would massacre Ray's films as much as he would anyone's (see On Dangerous Ground, filmed 1950, released 1952) but kept him working at the studio longer than most.
English director Robert Stevenson eventually filmed I Married a Communist with top RKO cameraman Nicholas Musuraca. The movie aims fine actors at a ludicrous script that seems to have been adapted from a generic crime-movie mold. Successful Brad Collins (Robert Ryan) works for a shipping company that needs the cooperation of the San Francisco dockworkers to keep goods moving in and out of the port. Brad is particularly good at keeping the peace with the union, represented by Jim Travers (Richard Rober), an honest labor leader. Brad is also newly married to the lovely Nan Lowry (Laraine Day). But Brad was once a Communist Party member named Frank Johnson. Subversive party operative Christine Norman (Janis Carter of Night Editor) is Brad's former lover; she and the sinister Vanning (Thomas Gomez) put pressure on Brad to make sure that labor negotiations are broken off. Brad's in a fine pickle now -- the Commies make sure that he witnesses the murder of a 'treacherous' comrade (Paul Guilfoyle). Once a Party member, always a Party member!
I Married a Communist finally saw release in Hollywood in late 1949, and then months later in New York. Somewhere along the line its title was changed (but not in the U.K.) to the less strident The Woman on Pier 13 but its content could not be neutralized. All the actors are fine, with Robert Ryan cast against type as a good man turned into "something else" by a political indiscretion in his past. As Brad Collins begins to act more erratically, rebuffing sincere efforts to re-start labor negotiations, he arouses the suspicion of his wife Nan, who worries that he's taken up again with the mystery blonde from his past, Christine. An amoral commie temptress, Christine seduces Nan's longshoreman brother Don (vacant-headed John Agar). Under Christine's tutelage (and the influence of her "intellectual" friends, all phony creeps), Don is soon interrupting Union meetings with commie rhetoric, subverting negotiator Jim Travers' efforts to "make America work".
If that's not enough, Thomas Gomez plays the top Moscow agent as a hiss-able bad guy, only a notch or two less obvious than Boris Badenov. The script repeatedly underscores the idea that "orders from Moscow" are directing an economic sabotage campaign designed to bring America to its knees. Vanning delights in using his power to torment and terrorize Brad, not to mention his own operatives. He keeps advising Christine that her "personal emotional attachments" better not interfere with the Party's plans, or else. The Christine-Vanning relationship could be a blueprint for Lola and The Devil in Damn Yankees, except that Christine must settle for claiming the soul of the hero's brother-in-law. Clearly, all of our problems would vanish if we could only rid ourselves of this commie menace.
These obvious comic-opera bad guys could probably be rounded up by a Boy Scout troop, as they spend the greater part of their effort eliminating their own people. The film's big surprise is its relatively downbeat ending, which after the requisite nocturnal shoot-out doesn't so much tie up loose ends as it does make certain that everyone who ever thought the word Communism is stone cold dead. The dreaded "-ism" is not a philosophy or a historical theory or a political movement, but a dread curse that changes all who make contact with it. If you ever had a commie thought you're better off dead, and if you even know somebody who's a communist your soul is in mortal peril. Other anti-Commie films stress the need for atonement and confession (and naming names) but the doomed Brad Collins has no hope for redemption. This fatalistic premise qualifies The Woman on Pier 13 as a solid film noir.
The film certainly has a good noir look, provided by the great Nicholas Musuraca. Those night exteriors on the docks are very expressive, even when the subject matter is strained: the commies arrange to have Brad witness a man being tied up and thrown into the bay to drown, just to demonstrate their own ruthlessness.
When the blacklist was broken in the late 1950s (well, when token blacklisted screenwriters were allowed screen credit once more), the Hollywood anti-Communists changed their stories. Instead of admitting that HUAC and the American Legion had conspired to control the industry through blacklisting and intimidation, Ronald Regan simply said that the real threat was in the industry's labor unions, a battle that his fellow patriots had won.
This is the debut picture of favorite actor William Talman (The Hitch-hiker, the Perry Mason TV show). It's also a good place to see the promising actor Richard Rober, who appeared in some interesting pictures (The File on Thelma Jordon, The Tall Target) before losing his life in an untimely auto accident in 1952.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Woman on Pier 13 is a good transfer of elements in satisfactory, if not prime, restored condition. Unlike some RKO films "improved" by Howard Hughes' personal tweaks, The Woman on Pier 13 doesn't show signs of editorial monkey business. Audio is good, with Leigh Harline's music score making a fine impression. Propaganda aside, this is an entertaining and well-directed movie.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Woman on Pier 13 rates:
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