In 1945 John E. Rankin, the long serving, bombastic, and racist congressman from Mississippi stated “one of the most dangerous plots ever instigated for the overthrow of this government has its headquarters in Hollywood … the greatest hotbed of subversive activities in the United States.” As the war in Europe finally came to an end, only to be replaced by the Cold War, the rug was yanked out from under the burgeoning domestic communist movement by men such as Rankin, anxious to combat any threat (real or not-so-real) to the sanctity of the American way of life. The American Communist Party, which had previously been a refuge for intellectuals and naïve politicos in the movie industry quickly became the focus of the greatest paranoid witch hunt of the modern age. Writers, stars, moguls, and other assorted Hollywood players traveled east to testify before congress. Some named names and some refused to do so — but everyone got hurt. The Hollywood Ten went to prison, Edward G. Robinson became “number one on the sucker list,” and the extraordinary John Garfield was utterly destroyed.
Throughout the years of HUAC and the Blacklist, the film industry was placed squarely on the defensive. The studios were saddled with the massive public relations task of restoring faith in the movie business. In addition to shunning those tainted by the witch hunt, the studios began cranking out dozens of anti-communism pictures. Possibly the foremost example of these films is 1951’s I Was a Communist for the F.B.I.
The real-life inspiration for the film was Pittsburgh steelworker Matt Cvetic. When the war broke out Cvetic was deemed too short for military service and sent home. He subsequently decided to serve his country by becoming an informant for the F.B.I., and spent the next nine years posing as a communist party member in the western Pennsylvania steel mills, giving the Feds all the dirt he could churn up. According to most news sources of the day, Cvetic’s dedication and sacrifice was truly heroic: he had to live his cover day and night, lest he be found out. In addition to his reputation, it cost him almost every relationship in his life, including those with his wife and children. His only confidants were his priest and the G-men to whom he reported.
In the end, Cvetic went public to HUAC and became an overnight celebrity. Magazine articles, books, a radio show starring Dana Andrews, and the Saturday Evening Post all told his story. Like so many others unprepared for sudden notoriety, Cvetic handled things poorly. He failed to salvage a life with his family, and eventually slipped into alcoholism, He died at the young age of 52. The precise details of his recruitment by the F.B.I. and the extent of his contribution are the subject of much debate, and almost certainly lost to history — though if nothing else his exploits provided the fodder for I Was A Communist for the F.B.I., a film so important to Hollywood film collective that it was nominated for the 1952 Academy Awards in the Best Documentary Feature category, though the film is about as much a documentary as On the Waterfront.
Though Pittsburgh’s place in the hierarchy of American urban centers has greatly diminished with time, in the mid-20th century its position as the focal point of the nation’s industrial might was inarguable. According the film, our reliance on coal and steel made Pittsburgh the ideal place for the communist party to gain a foothold from which to “weaken America’s industrial heart.” The film covers the last few months of Cvetic’s nine years “in the red,” as he progresses from resolutely shouldering his burden to finally restoring his name at HUAC hearings in New York. Most of the scenes are episodic, intended to shine a light on the subtle ways in which communists operate. It’s impressive how well (and ironically, how subtly) the expose-style propaganda elements are inserted into an otherwise entertaining and suspenseful narrative.
Despite the far more important political and historical underpinnings, I Was A Communist for the F.B.I. is stylistically a film noir. Matt Cvetic, played by Frank Lovejoy, has much in common with the typical noir anti-hero. He leads a double life that is entirely defined by his alienation from the rest of society. He’s a natural loner, possessing some force of will enabling him to endure extreme hardship and isolation from everyone else. Some attempt is made to give the movie a femme fatale in the form of high school teacher Eve Merrick (Dorothy Hart), though it doesn’t last. Merrick, who teaches Cvetic’s son, is secretly communist herself. She is ordered to romance Cvetic and find out if he is the real deal — as an important party official he must be watched. Merrick trades her fatale identity for that of a damsel in distress after she witnesses a brutal beating and attempts to quit the party. When the red mob sends a few goons to keep her quiet, Cvetic is forced to blow his cover in order to save her.
Films such as I Was A Communist for the F.B.I. are obviously products of their special moment in time, yet the mid-century period is one of the most fascinating and disturbing in our history — for reasons less transient and much more deeply felt than the infiltration of subversives in Hollywood. This fact was not lost on screenwriter Crane Wilbur, who uses one of the film’s episodes to remind the moviegoing public that racial tension was an equally distressing issue in 1951 —though it could be argued that by placing communists behind racial violence Wilbur blurs the issue for the benefit of the movie industry and consequently doing much more harm than good. The scene finds party organizers attempting to incite black factory workers to riot, in hopes of filling their coffers with the millions donated to procure a legal defense for the rioters — one they have no plans to actually arrange. What’s disturbing and ironic is that after the communist speaker makes his pitch to the assembly, only one black man rises to question his motives — and he’s quickly shouted down. The film suggests that African-American workers really are as gullible as the communists believe; and then in a frightening subversion of real events corroborates its position by crediting the 1943 race riots in Harlem and Detroit to communist agitators using the same methods.
Although I Was A Communist for the F.B.I. is in many ways a problematic film, everything that makes it problematic today contributed to its success with audiences in 1951 — and therefore the hard-to-find film remains a provocative document of a troubled time.
Mark Fertig is chair of the department of art and art history at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. His film interests focus on mid-century crime films and the Academy Awards. For more on his views on cinema, visit Where Danger Lives.