Academic journal article Film Criticism

Film Gris: Crime, Critique and Cold War Culture in 1951

Academic journal article Film Criticism

Film Gris: Crime, Critique and Cold War Culture in 1951

Article excerpt

One widespread perception holds that after the October 1947 Hollywood Ten trials--particularly after the studio heads pledged in their November 25 Waldorf Statement that they would "not knowingly employ Communists or other subversives"--socially critical filmmaking immediately halted in Hollywood. (1) That perception, however, is a misperception. In 1985 Thom Anderson suggested that some of the most significant cinematic achievements of the filmmakers blacklisted in the late 1940s and early 1950s were released between the Hollywood Ten hearings of October 1947 and the resumption of HUAC investigations of Hollywood in early 1951. In his essay Anderson specifically names directors Abraham Polonsky, Joseph Losey, John Berry, Robert Rossen, Jules Dassin, and Cyril Endfield, along with "their artistic fellow travelers"--that group includes, I believe, such figures as directors John Huston and Nicholas Ray, screenwriters Dalton Trumbo and Hugo Butler, actor John Garfield, and producer Bob Roberts, among others. According to Anderson, this group of six directors--most of them either blacklisted or living under a cloud that would soon lead to blacklisting and/or exile--created a small group of films characterized by a combination of crime and social critique, which he labeled "film gris"--gray films. Distinguishing these films from the contemporaneous film noir, Anderson wrote that film gris was characterized by "its greater psychological and social realism" than film noir (183).

Anderson suggests that the genre includes at least thirteen films:

 
FILM                 DIRECTOR           RELEASE 
 
Body and Soul        Abraham Polonsky   1947 
Force of Evil        Abraham Polonsky   1948 
Thieves' Highway     Jules Dassin       1949 
Night and the City   Jules Dassin       1950 
They Live by Night   Nicholas Ray       1949 
Knock on Any Door    Nicholas Ray       1949 
We Were Strangers    John Huston        1949 
The Asphalt Jungle   John Huston        1950 
Breaking Point       Michael Curtiz     1950 
Lawless              Joseph Losey       1950 
Try and Get Me       Cy Endfield        1951 
The Prowler          Joseph Losey       1951 
He Ran All the Way   John Berry         1951 

Some of the films on this list--like Force of Evil and The Asphalt Jungle--are fairly well known. Others, however, have registered barely a blip on the radar screen of film history. They are interesting as a group, however, because most are made by filmmakers who matured and became politically engaged in left politics during the depression of the 1930s--products of what Michael Denning (1996) has called "the cultural front" (2)--yet got their first opportunity to direct feature films during or after World War II. In their films directed after 1946, as the Cold War began to set in, viewers are given a unique opportunity to see how such engaged filmmakers were seeking to ply their craft in Hollywood during an era increasingly hostile to both their politics and their conceptions of what popular cinema should do.

This essay, then, is an exercise partly in recovery and partly in exploration. I would like to consider the notion of film gris--social realist crime films--by examining two of the least well-known films on the list, both released in 1951: Joseph Losey's The Prowler and John Berry's He Ran All the Way. (3) Besides being made by directors who would become exile filmmakers following the release of the films rather than testifying and naming names before HUAC, the films are notable because blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was the central (if uncredited) author of both screenplays, and He Ran All the Way featured John Garfield's final screen appearance. Each director also believes the film is his best American work. (4) In this essay I focus first on contextual concerns, particularly on the backgrounds and political engagements of these four key creative personnel and of the shifts in the film industry and American culture that made it possible, albeit difficult, for them to make the films they wanted. …

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