Posted by David Kalat on June 16, 2012
“Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”
Before you answer, please understand: this is not a Yes or No question.
There is no point wasting taxpayer money to ask you this, because the incentive to lie is too great. If we cared about the answer—and we do—we would want a more efficient and reliable method of gathering that information. And so, you are here, being asked this question, because we already know that you are a Communist. Someone you know has already given us this information. What this means, of course, is that you better not answer “No.” That would be perjury, and you will go to jail.
That doesn’t mean the correct answer is “Yes,” either. That won’t get you anywhere.
Think of it as a game of tag. Right now you’re “it,” and you need to tag someone else. Last one standing loses. You see, when we ask, have you been a member of the Communist Party, what we really mean is, who else with you is a member of the Communist Party?
Now, maybe you don’t want to betray your friends. Maybe you don’t want to play this game: you’ve got an idea that it’s rigged, that no one wins. But just to be clear: if you don’t play, you are certain to lose—you job, your friends, your reputation. We will charge you with Contempt of Congress and you will go to jail, and everyone will assume you have something to hide.
The Blacklist was an absurd joke with real casualties. In what universe could anyone think filmmakers were a threat to national security? Why did Congress even care about the political affiliations of screenwriters—the lowliest and most unloved of all Hollywood’s drones? It’s not like anyone was alleging that Hollywood’s Communists were spies, or saboteurs, or assassins. So why bother?
Let’s dispense with the easy answer first: for some attention-hungry and cynical politicians, attacking Hollywood was a cheap way of looking like they were doing something about the existential crisis of the Cold War. They could look heroic and patriotic and bold, without having to do much more than grandstand. And in the mob psychology that was whipped up, it was very hard for anyone to resist the Red Scare without looking like one of the enemies of the state.
But let’s set that answer aside, because there’s something more interesting, and more problematic, to deal with instead.
The Cold War was not fought with bombs and bullets—it was fought with rhetoric and symbolism. Khrushchev pounding his shoe on the table, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” mobs of German youths tearing the Berlin Wall down—and aside from these ostentatious examples of symbolism hid the quieter war of information management, of spies and codes and defectors full of secrets. And on the home front, American popular culture promoted American values both domestically and abroad. Whoever controls the media controls the message. Put another way, movies are a matter of national security.
And then there’s this: Hollywood’s leftists actually did use their positions as filmmakers to advance progressive values to a mass audience. They genuinely did see moviemaking as a moral endeavor, with a proselytizing mandate. They made themselves into targets.
To tell the story that follows, we need to make this clear: the Blacklist was not an official thing. Here’s how it played out—Congress called people in, to account for their political beliefs. Then, a group of ten filmmakers—the Hollywood Ten—refused to play. They stood on principle, insisting that the Constitutional protections of freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom from self-incrimination were important American values, and that HUAC’s activities were the only genuinely un-American thing going on. All ten were charged with Contempt of Congress; all ten served jail time.
This posed a significant public relations problem for Hollywood. They didn’t want audiences to rebel against movies, thinking they were being made by subversives who defy the American government. So the studios barred the alleged subversives from making movies. This was how the Blacklist was born—not something imposed by the government but a desperate attempt by studios to shield themselves from audience revolt.
As a PR gesture, it had flexibility. The studios did this with an awareness that their policy was depriving them of tremendous amounts of talent. Blacklisted personnel were able to continue working, as long as it could be done in secret. This was easier for screenwriters, whose work could be concealed behind a false name or a front, than it was for actors and directors who could not disguise their participation.
Christ in Concrete was created the exact opposite way: it was made by a team of outlaws (director Edward Dmytryk, one of the notorious Ten, screenwriter Ben Barzman, star Sam Wannamaker) who made a point of foregrounding their involvement. Unable to work in Hollywood, they set up shop in England to make the film independently. The point of the exercise was to break the Blacklist. The plan was to make a film of undeniable high-brow quality and sharp political content, with Dmytryk’s name brazenly affixed above the title, and when audiences and critics flocked to the film it would prove that the Blacklist was a silly waste. The madness would end.
The fact that you reading this know what I mean by the phrase “Blacklist” but probably have never heard of Christ in Concrete is a clear sign that this plan went off the rails. It was a fine and noble idea—but the facts on the ground didn’t play out that way.
Christ in Concrete started as a book—and an extraordinary one at that. But actually, it didn’t start as a book at all—it started in real life, on Good Friday, 1922. On that day, a construction worker named Geremio di Donato was killed in a bricklaying accident and buried in concrete. His body was not recovered until Easter Sunday—a religious portend that weighs heavily on the imagination of his eldest son, Pietro. At age 12, Pietro is now the “man” of the family, responsible for his illiterate mother and six destitute siblings. He takes over his dead father’s job laying bricks—what else is there to do?
But he is a sensitive and intelligent young man, who has been given one hell of a chip to carry around on his shoulder. He seethes with rage at how America can abandon its workers in their greatest need, can allow hardworking citizens to die so that others might profit. The death of Geremio has thrust young Pietro into an Oedipal situation as a surrogate for his father, radicalized him, and forced him into one of the most dangerous of trades just as the Great Depression revealed the ugliest face of American capitalism. In the 21st century, he might have “occupied” New York. Pietro did something else.
He wrote a book. And it became a best-seller and a household name. In 1939, an agent of his publisher Bobbs-Merrill came to the construction site where Pietro was still stacking bricks and mortar together, and handed him a royalty check for more money than the di Donato family had ever seen before. Pietro promptly chucked his tools into the river and stalked off the construction site, never to return. From then until his death in 1992, he was a literary celebrity, activist, raconteur, and libertine. He left behind a body of work that scholars continue to explore.
In 1946, his agent Lucy Kroll started shopping movie rights to Christ in Concrete. She made a connection with producer Rodney Geiger, who had just risen to some acclaim for producing Roberto Rossellini’s Open City. Geiger had hired Pietro di Donato to write the English subtitles for the US release of Open City, and the two men formed a bond. By 1947, Geiger was making plans to produce a movie version of Christ in Concrete in Italy, to be directed by Rossellini.
That didn’t happen. Adaptations to be helmed by Luchino Visconti and Frank Capra also didn’t happen. Finally, Geiger came to Edward Dmytryk, whose film noirs established him as a director capable of handling the dark, tragic, socially-conscious material of Christ in Concrete. The only problem was, this was 1948, and Dmytryk’s reputation as a Hollywood Ten now meant more than his reputation as the director of Crossfire, Cornered, and Murder My Sweet.
There’s a story that one day around this time, Billy Wilder and a colleague noticed a plume of black smoke billowing out of the RKO lot, and when the other man asked what was burning, Wilder quipped, “Poor Eddie Dmytryk’s career.”
Dmytryk, you see, had joined the Communist Party, but swiftly became disenchanted with it and by the time he was called before Congress to name names, Dmytryk felt he had nothing to hide. He simply rankled at the question, and stood his ground on principle. He was sentenced, for defending beliefs he didn’t even really believe.
Dmytryk saw Christ in Concrete as an escape route from this HUAC-imposed nightmare. Producer Geiger had arranged co-financing with the J. Arthur Rank Organization and rented space at Denham Studios in England. All that remained was to hightail it to England before the Feds came for him, and that meant getting a script around in short order. Enter Ben Barzman, a friend of Dmytryk’s, a gifted screenwriter, and a leftist who knew his time before HUAC was certainly coming. Barzman figured the move to England would be beneficial for him and his family.
And by family, I need to single out his wife Norma Barzman, who was the true screenwriting genius behind Christ in Concrete, despite the singular billing to her hubby. I love the irony that Ben Barzman fled a system where writers had to hide behind fronts, only to thoughtlessly serve as a front for his own wife, whose writing career he tried to efface. If you want to learn more about the Blacklist era, I can heartily recommend Norma’s glorious autobiographical account, The Red and the Black. She rocks.
When Dmytryk asked Ben to write Christ in Concrete, the hitch was that he was already contracted to producer Dore Schary. Ben initially shrugged off Dmytryk’s request, but it was Norma—who knew and loved di Donato’s book—who talked him into working for Schary during the day and writing Christ in Concrete at night.
The challenge to the two Barzmans was to find a way to shape di Donato’s dreamlike, episodic novel into a punchy narrative. The book switches point of view across many characters, no single one of which is a clear protagonist. The Barzmans elected to craft the film as a sort of prequel to the book, with the finale of the movie dramatizing the opening scenes of the novel. To make the social critique more acute, the events were pushed forward about a decade from 1922 to the pitch of the Great Depression.
When Ben handed his first draft to Geiger and Dmytryk, they gushed with enthusiasm and asked for no changes. Ben was flabbergasted. Aside from a few trims mandated by the British censors, his script was filmed as written—a unique experience for the veteran writer.
But such triumphs were tempered with frustration, too. He had uprooted his family to move to England, and burned bridges behind him such that he was unable to return. The Barzmans would stay in Europe as ex-pats, on the lam from the Blacklist, for decades (far longer than the actual reach of the Blacklist). And upon arrival in England, he found that Geiger didn’t have the money to pay him. Geiger didn’t have the money to pay anyone.
In order to get the production funds from the bank, Geiger needed to first prove to the bank that he owned the material that was going to be filmed. This meant he needed a letter from the Barzmans attesting they had been paid in full. Which meant the only way the movie could be made was if the Barzmans surrendered the only leverage they had to be paid what they were owed. He could stand up for himself, but then the project would die and everyone would have to pack up and go back home.
It was the same damned trap as HUAC: pass on the hurt to your friends, or martyr yourself to the cause.
True to his principles, Barzman signed the letter. The movie was made, and he never received a single cent.
It must be noted, this dilemma is what drives the plot of the movie. Geremio (played by Sam Wannamaker) is out of work and hard on his luck. A job offer comes his way, but it’s dangerous work. More importantly, the job offer is for him to be foreman, which means he won’t be risking his own life, he has to persuade his friends to go risk their lives. He’ll have to lie to them, tell them the job is safe, or tell the bosses to take their sucky job and shove it—and watch his family starve.
He can either pass the hurt on to his friends, or destroy himself to save the others. What would you do?
Geremio looks at his wife, and his seemingly numberless children, and knows he has no choice at all. He takes the job, puts a happy face on it, and shoves his friends into harm’s way. And for this act of selfishness, Geremio ends up crushed by rubble, buried in concrete.
And in another of the ironies of this tale, Dmytryk managed to not heed the message of his own film.
Dmytryk received a summons from the US State Department to come back to renew his passport. Dmytryk had plenty of job offers in England and figured he could easily continue his career there, but he would need a valid passport to do so. It was a risk going back to America, but he was reassured by the news that Dalton Trumbo and John Howard Lawson had appealed their convictions and the Supreme Court was expected to rule soon. Expecting the Supreme Court to find in favor of the Ten, Dmytryk returned to the US to resolve the bureaucratic formality. Trumbo and Lawson’s convictions were upheld, and Dmytryk found himself returning to arrest, trial, and jail.
Six months into his sentence, Dmytryk decided to name names.
Why he did so remains the subject of debate. Some say it was just a cynical ploy to buy his way back into Hollywood (indeed, he immediately landed a multi-picture deal and was back to work in a giffy). Some say he was pressured into it by his new wife who resented their mounting legal bills. Dmytryk himself, in interviews at the time, said he simply no longer wanted to be a martyr to a cause he didn’t believe in. He had defied Congress as a civil rights issue, not out of any love for Communism, and when the Supreme Court’s ruling made it clear the civil rights issue was a dead letter, he decided that the only thing he was achieving by staying mute was to protect the infrastructure of the Communist Party. So he went before HUAC and named names, among them Norma and Ben Barzman. Dmytryk was back in Hollywood’s good graces, and they would remain exiles.
Like Geremio’s death in concrete, there would be consequences for this betrayal.
Remember, the whole point of this exercise was to create a film to break the Blacklist. The film was ostentatiously promoted as “Edward Dmytryk’s Christ in Concrete,” proudly declaiming its makers’ incendiary names. The movie picked up top prizes across European film festivals, and some critics hailed it as a masterpiece, but it was being imported to the US precisely at the time that Dmytryk was making headlines for defying HUAC. The very thing that had inspired the Blacklist in the first place—audience revolt, pickets, protests, boycotts—now happened. The US distributor of Christ in Concrete, Eagle-Lion, tried to rename the film—Give Us This Day, or Salt to the Devil—but the damage was done. It sank without a trace. And without the American market, the producers back in England could not recoup production costs, no matter how many rave reviews and festival prizes they collected. Geiger and his partners were ruined, their companies went bankrupt, and Christ in Concrete effectively vanished off the Earth.
In the post-Blacklist era of the 1960s and 70s, an opportunity for a revival of the film could theoretically have been countenanced. In some alternate universe one can imagine college kids falling in love with this blunt, gritty critique of American capitalism, made in the heart of a conservative time. But, you see, in the same way that late 1940s audiences objected to Dmytryk’s name as a Commie pariah and boycotted the film, 1960s and 70s audiences objected to Dmytryk’s name as a soulless sell-out and turncoat. Christ in Concrete was maligned and abandoned by both the Left and the Right, thanks to Dmytryk’s role as a political lightning rod.
The rights to the film reverted to Pietro di Donato, thanks to a unique clause written into his contract by his wily agent Lucy Kroll. The problem was, rights to a film aren’t the same thing as a film. Geiger’s company, Plantaganet Films, filed for bankruptcy in the disastrous aftermath of the film’s distribution, and its assets were plundered by creditors. But Kroll’s clause, giving ownership of the film to di Donato, meant that it wasn’t technically an asset of Plantaganet’s, and so nobody took over the caretaking of the film elements. Eventually, in the 1960s, di Donato wanted to market the film to television, but found that although he owned it in name, he didn’t actually have a copy, and couldn’t find one.
He eventually found a copy on file at the Library of Congress and duplicated that for limited screenings in the 1970s; for the DVD restoration (which was screened on TCM) I helped master a restored presentation from archival 35mm nitrate sources stored at the British Film Institute.
But such “restoration” wouldn’t have been needed if the film hadn’t vanished in the first place. Pietro di Donato wrote what is by all criteria a masterwork of American literature, nothing less than required reading. Edward Dmytryk made from it what may be his greatest film. It was a film that took a true story, one that happened in the 1920s and was dramatized in print in the 1930s, and made it into a relevant work for the 1940s, a parable of the Blacklist era. A man was killed because his job was unsafe; filmmakers were driven into exile because their beliefs were considered unsafe. Christ in Concrete dramatized these things both explicitly and metaphorically. The Blacklist implied that the makers of this film were criminals, and that the film they made was antithetical to American interests.
Which returns us to the question: can a movie hurt you?
The movie certainly hurt itself. For all it did right, there was that transgression to the moral order, which brought down a disproportionate punishment from an angry Old Testament God. Dmytryk’s testimony betrayed his closest allies and orphaned his best work. Geremio took a dirty job in a moment of desperation and consigned himself to a fate at the bottom of a pool of concrete.
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