Abraham Polonsky

b. Abraham Lincoln Polonsky

b. December 5, 1910, New York, New York, USA
d. October 26, 1999, Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, California, USA

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If I had my first choice in the world, I’d prefer to be a political dictator. But barring that, I’d as soon be a director because it’s the same job. You have to take the responsibility.

– Abraham Polonsky (1)

When thinking of “great directors”, Abraham Polonsky’s name is not one that immediately springs to mind. His output as a director stretches to three films, with a gap of 21 years separating his first and second films, while his third and final film has been the victim of poor distribution and exhibition. Polonsky is, in fact, probably most famous for his blacklisting from Hollywood between 1951 and 1968 due to his membership of the Communist Party, and the work that he is probably most famous for is not one of his directorial efforts but his screenplay for the boxing film Body and Soul (Robert Rossen, 1947). And yet Polonsky remains an important director, not least because of the importance of “reclaiming” and remembering the work of those blacklisted by Hollywood as a result of the House Un-American Activities Committee, but also because he attempted to create mainstream films with political meaning by infusing a socialist critique of American society into “popular” genre films, initially during the end of the “Golden Age” of the Hollywood Studio system – a project apparent in his screenplays but most strongly realised (for obvious reasons) in the films directed by him.

Perhaps the main reason for Polonsky’s lack of recognition as a “great director” is that he never imagined that he would find himself in Hollywood. Polonsky instead wanted to be a novelist. His road to Hollywood was as long and turbulent as his subsequent career there. Abraham Polonsky was born in New York’s Bronx area in 1910 to Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father, Henry Polonsky, was a pharmacist. Henry was a well-read man and considered himself a socialist, although as his son would recall, “he never really had time to be political.” (2) From Henry, Abraham would pick up his love of literature and his socialist worldview although, unlike his father, Abraham would find the time to be political.

In 1923 the Polonsky family moved from The Bronx to Manhattan to be close to the pharmacy that Henry owned. Abraham would help out in the pharmacy when his father’s health, which was never in the best of shape due to diabetes, began to fail. Abraham helped out until the early 1930s, when the time came for him to go to university. Polonsky chose to go to City College, New York, because “[l]ike the host of other future prominent Jewish intellectuals, artists and businessmen, he could pay a mere $2.75 bursar’s fee, have his books provided free, and live at home.” (3) It was there that Polonsky would develop both his radical left-wing politics, becoming immersed in the theories of Marxism, as well as his writing, although his studies only got going on his second attempt – he was initially dissatisfied with his classes and got a job working on a freight ship for a few months before his father sent him a letter imploring him to return home and try again at the College.

Polonsky eventually graduated with an English degree and promptly went to Columbia Law School. The reason for this was a practical one: his father insisted that he have a trade and suggested medicine, Polonsky refused and studied law instead. While at Columbia he was appointed to teach at the English faculty at City College and fitted in teaching English in-between his classes learning law. It was at this time, “around 1935 or 1936” (4) that Polonsky made the decision to firmly commit to his Marxist beliefs and joined the Communist Party. Polonsky then “took the bar [examination] and got a job with a law firm dealing mostly in corporate law,” (5) a job that would indirectly lead him to write radio scripts for the popular serial The Goldbergs. The main star, producer and writer of the show, Gertrude Berg, a client of the firm, wanted to know the processes of the law courts for an upcoming episode. Polonsky was given the job of explaining and, to demonstrate, dictated a “sample” scene to his secretary. When Berg read Polonsky’s work, she hired him to become a writer for the show. Polonsky would subsequently learn that “Berg always had help on scripts, [Polonsky] was both successor and predecessor in a long line of talented youngsters who helped get the work done and never challenged her creative control.” (6)

Nonetheless, this began Polonsky’s writing career, the one he’d always wanted, and soon he was writing a few episodes for Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater on the Air, where his childhood friend, Bernard Herrmann, was the musical conductor, and he eventually saw two novels published: one, a comic mystery story written pseudonymously in collaboration with a friend called The Goose is Cooked (1940); the other, more serious work, The Enemy Sea (1943)was written under his own name (7).

The Enemy Sea had originally been serialised by America magazine in 1942. This wartime story, with its plot of a Nazi attempt to sink an American oil tanker, showed Polonsky mixing “genre and antifascist political material very much as the Hollywood Left had reached its widest audience with real or implied war-action features like Pride of the Marines.” (8) Indeed, it would be this work that got Hollywood studios interested in Polonsky and he accepted an offer to work at Paramount as a screenwriter. But Polonsky wasn’t quite ready to set off to Hollywood. With the war raging, Polonsky was keen to help the fight against the Nazis; despite his avowed Communist politics he was still aware of his Jewish roots. As his eyesight was poor, military service was out of the question. But, with the help and advice of his brother, Polonsky was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) who, as Polonsky recalled “knew everything about me. My membership of the [Communist Party]…I had been investigated before they called me in, so they knew everything…” (9) Polonsky served in France, helping out the Resistance, before returning to Hollywood to begin his career in films.

Polonsky’s tenure at Paramount was brief and unfulfilling. This was most likely due to the then head of screenwriters William Dozier’s dislike of Polonsky. This dislike had resulted from their first meeting, just before Polonsky was sent to France by the OSS, when Polonsky began to make some less than flattering comments about Dozier who had kept him waiting for longer than Polonsky had deemed socially polite. Unfortunately for Polonsky, Dozier heard his outburst of “ ‘Who the fuck does this cocksucker think he is?’ You know, that intelligent New York way of talking…” (10) and upon Polonsky’s return from the war promptly gave him the worst assignments on offer. Polonsky’s first film credit was as a co-screenwriter for the Marlene Dietrich film Golden Earrings (Mitchell Leisen, 1947) despite the fact that, as Polonsky would later claim, “there isn’t a single word or scene of mine in it…” (11)

Nevertheless, Polonsky had arrived at Hollywood at an important time. America was the only country that had emerged from World War Two with a strong and stable economy. As a result, the late 1940s were “the first relatively unruffled period of peace and prosperity that [Americans] had enjoyed in almost two decades,” (12) and a strong sense of optimism was felt in those first few immediate post-war years. This optimism was reflected in the Hollywood community and many of the top directors, producers and actors were breaking away from the major studios and using their power, influence and money to form independent production companies. The actor John Garfield had formed one of these new production companies, Roberts Productions. Needing a base from which to work, Roberts Productions chose a new independent studio – Enterprise. As Allen Eyles in an article on the studio remarked, “In its time [Enterprise Studio] created a tremendous stir and still stands as a noble failure of artists versus the system…” (13) Sadly, Enterprise, like many other independents, would not live long enough to continue production into the 1950s as “[t]oo much rode on individual films whereas the big studios could balance out the hits and flops across a wide production slate.” (14) Yet, during those brief years of optimism Enterprise was “an idealistic attempt at independent filmmaking, and many of the creative people shared a liberal philosophy: for them a film could and should do more than entertain.” (15)

Polonsky knew Garfield socially; the two had met at several meetings and parties thrown by members of the Hollywood Left, most of who, but not all, were members of the Communist Party. In 1947, while still at Paramount, Polonsky had been visited by a screenwriter friend who was working on a screenplay about the Jewish boxer Barney Ross, a story which was having development trouble due to conflicts with the Production Code – Ross, a war hero, was a notorious drug user. Polonsky and his friend decided to visit John Garfield over at Enterprise Studios and on the way Polonsky thought about the Barney Ross story and came up with his own version of it. Polonsky told Garfield about his idea for a film about a young working class Jewish man who, after starting out promisingly on the amateur circuit, turns professional with the help of a corrupt, capitalist manager and, as his fame and wealth increases, begins to lose touch with his family and his community – to the point where he seriously considers throwing a fight on which his neighbourhood has bet on him to win in order to collect on the money made from him and his manager betting on him losing. Garfield liked what he heard, as did the studio head who got Polonsky “on loan” from Paramount to script the film, which was called Body and Soul.

John Garfield in Body and Soul

In the screenplay for Body and Soul, Polonsky presented his views on the capitalist system, hidden under the guise of a boxing film. In its central character, Charlie Davis (played by John Garfield), Polonsky created a representative of the proletariat who successfully fights his way out of the slums – literally – and into the high living world of material wealth. Through Charlie’s actions Polonsky allows his views on capitalism’s corrupting influence to come through; each time Charlie makes a choice, someone he knows suffers in some way, until he makes the right choice at the end between losing his final fight but winning money for himself or choosing to win the fight and losing his money, in short the dilemma between the self and the community, between body (material wealth) and soul (spiritual wealth).

Body and Soul was directed by Robert Rossen, himself a member of the Communist Party and former screenwriter of several 1930s “social conscience” films, such as 1937’s They Won’t Forget and 1939’s Dust Be My Destiny, which happened to star John Garfield in the lead role – films which Body and Soul, in its central theme and treatment of Jewish working class life,refer back to. Given Rossen’s background as a screenwriter, it would be easy to assume that he would take into consideration the anxiety felt by many screenwriters as their work is turned from written words into visual action. This, however, wasn’t the case. Polonsky was constantly on set during the making of Body and Soul, as Robert Aldrich, then working as an Assistant Director at Enterprise, testified: “Polonsky, although he had written a marvellous script, really interfered too much.” (16) It has been suggested by some that Polonsky became, in effect, an uncredited co-director but Polonsky would later point out that “No one co-directs with Robert Rossen.” (17)

That didn’t mean that there weren’t disagreements about how the film was transferring from script to screen. The biggest conflict between Polonsky and Rossen regarding Body and Soul was based on the film’s ending. In Polonsky’s screenplay, after Charlie has disobeyed his manager’s instructions to throw the fight and has beaten his opponent, he is met triumphantly by his wife Peg (Lilli Palmer) to the cheers of his neighbourhood crowd. His manager, Roberts (Lloyd Gough), confronts him. Charlie, like the slum kid he once was, taunts Roberts: “What are you going to do, kill me? Everybody dies!” The words are those which Roberts had used earlier in the film after Charlie’s friend and trainer Ben – a former boxer who Charlie had defeated and who, like Charlie, fell in with Roberts – had died as a result of a stroke brought on by brain damage. Rossen felt that Polonsky’s ending was too “happy” and shot an ending which Polonsky admitted “was really carrying through my ending which was very ambiguous,” (18) where Charlie is killed by Roberts’ gangsters, in a dark alleyway, in retaliation for going against their agreement and, as Polonsky so eloquently described it, “rolls through the ash cans, and they fall on top of him, and he’s dead amongst the garbage of history.” (19) However, “in the collaborative atmosphere of Enterprise […] the writer’s view could prevail over the director’s, at least if he had the artistic respect of both the producer and star. Polonsky got his way.” (20)

Body and Soul would prove to be Enterprise’s biggest hit and earn Polonsky an Oscar nomination. This success and his friendship with John Garfield and others at the studio enabled him to direct his first film and therefore avoid the frustrations that he felt witnessing Rossen’s treatment of his screenplay. The only condition placed on Polonsky was that the film had to be a vehicle for John Garfield, specifically a melodrama of some description. Polonsky chose to adapt the Ira Wolfert novel Tucker’s People,originally published in 1943. The novel, as John Schultheiss describes it, was:

a terrible, blinding vision of the whole of modern society mirrored in the microcosm of the New York underworld […] Tucker’s People is from a group of novels written, during the 1930s and 1940s, in the ambience of Marxism. The theme is the elimination of the individual by the world of business. It is a generally negative view of the world and of human nature. (21)

Polonsky, working from a draft script by Wolfert and also from conversations with the author, set about fashioning his adaptation, titled Force of Evil. Retaining the theme and a fair amount of the dialogue of the novel, Polonsky stripped down the number of characters in the book and shifted the protagonist of the action from the character of Henry Wheelock to that of Joe Minch, or Morse as Polonsky renamed him. In the book Joe is little more than a gangster. Polonsky conflated this character with Wheelock to create his protagonist – a Wall Street lawyer who is as much a gangster as those whose business interests he protects. The move of focus onto Joe allowed Polonsky to play up a theme of the novel, that of the relationship of Joe with his brother Leo, similar to that of Cain and Abel, adding to the moral choice that Joe must ultimately make a personal stake. In doing so Polonsky was able to flesh out a theme he had explored in Body and Soul: the effect of personal greed on personal relations.

As the critic William Pechter noted of Polonsky’s 1940s film work, “In theme and meaning, Body and Soul and Force of Evil form an extraordinary unity.” (22) It is a view Polonsky himself endorsed: “in Force of Evil every character and situation is compromised by reality while Body and Soul is a folk-tale.” (23) In several ways Force of Evil [1948] is a darker view of Body and Soul, stripped of the surface optimism of its predecessor, the somewhat romantic story of the slum kid who rises to the top removed: Joe Morse (John Garfield) may have been a kid of the slums, as the desire to repay Leo for the sacrifices he made confirms, but when the audience first see Joe he is not, like Charlie was at the start of Body and Soul’s story, “poor and impatient” (24), but is already a hot-shot lawyer with an office “up in the clouds” in Wall Street. Joe’s success is metaphorically expressed through the use of the office tower; the opening shot of the film is a downward tracking shot from high up on a tower block onto the streets of New York below, the people seen from such a height as to appear little more than moving dots. Joe’s fight “upward” is over at the film’s outset, “he is not fighting to escape poverty, but to annex greater wealth.” (25)

Force of Evil

Yet it is not just Joe who seeks to increase his wealth; all the characters presented by Polonsky in Force of Evil are just as corrupt. Joe’s brother Leo (Thomas Gomez) is just as much of a crook as he is. Whereas Joe operates at the high end of the numbers racket – making the decisions, reaping the big rewards, Leo is at the lower end – a difference visually represented in the contrast between their offices; Joe’s is large, bright and well furnished while Leo’s is small, dim and black with dirt. When Leo refuses Joe’s offer to join the combination of numbers banks which will merge after the banks are bankrupted when 776, the “old liberty number” is rigged to hit on July 4th, he insists he is running an “honest” business. Joe retorts with a truth which Leo has tried to deny but can never escape: “Honest! Respectable! Don’t you take the nickels and dimes and pennies from people that bet just like every other crook big or little in this racket?” Even Doris (Beatrice Pearson), Leo’s former secretary, who offers Joe salvation through love, is not entirely a saint. Although she fears Joe is corrupt she still pursues him and goes for a job to work in his office. The lure of money is too great for her, just as it is for Joe, Tucker, Leo and the others. As Polonsky explained in an interview, “There’s nothing wrong with money except that you can manipulate money and therefore people.” (26) The bleakness of the characters is reflected in the cinematography; even the dawn looks grey and downcast.

Now that Polonsky was directing he could decide what visual motifs best reflected his views as expressed by the film’s narrative and dialogue. For inspiration, he turned to the work of American artist Edward Hopper. Hopper’s work was a big influence on, as well as being influenced by, film. Hopper’s 1940 painting, Office at Night, for example, is very similar in its use of light and composition to several shots of Joe’s office in Force of Evil.

It was fitting that Polonsky chose to echo qualities of Hopper’s work for his debut film, as it was a big influence on the development of the visual style of films made during, but mostly after, World War Two. Hopper’s use of single source lighting in some of his pictures was transplanted into the films that French critics would later categorise as film noir (27). Force of Evil, in its use of single source lighting (specifically in the climatic shoot out in Tucker’s house) and in its thematic content – the sense of despair and existential angst that runs through the film, tied together within the false promises of money – is often recognised as a classic example of a B-movie (that is, low budget) film noir. Lary May, amongst others, have made a claim for film noir possessing, perhaps more than any other Hollywood genre, a political perspective:

To attain realism and dramatize the struggle over [post-war] identity, the makers of film noir generated enduring stylistic innovations coupled to a continuation of the social criticism and exposé that permeated films of the New Deal period. […] The success of left-wing noir productions rested on their capacity to reorient cultural authority from officials to the antiheroes…(28)

Joe Morse’s corrupt status clearly aligns him with the figure of the antihero; the representation of the “Law” in Force of Evil is a rather unflattering one, the police know of the existence of the numbers banks but only seem to do anything when they are tipped off, and the Special Prosecutor, Hall, who is crusading against the racket, is only mentioned, never seen. The dialogue of the film strongly implies the link between Tucker’s gangsters and business and Hall’s relation to the notion of crime as business: “Hall is in the business and Ben Tucker is his stock in trade.” All of this implies that thematically as well as visually the film is a noir.

Force of Evil

By working within the film noir genre, we can assume that Polonsky was trying to disguise the capitalist critique embedded in Force of Evil where “not only is crime a business, as one character after another repeatedly emphasises, but business is a crime.(29) Polonsky would later comment on what he was trying to say when audiences looked behind the veil of the crime conventions: “That under a system based on profit there’s the destruction of morality and judgement and therefore people should all be romantic socialists, I guess…” (30) Unfortunately for Polonsky, several factors combined to make this message obscure, at least to 1940s audiences and anyone who has only been able to see the film once.

The biggest of these problems was the censorship regulations that the Production Code Administration (PCA) operated and safeguarded. The film in the version we have today breaks two of the Production Code’s three “general principles”: “the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin. […] Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor sympathy be created for its violation.” (31) Since Force of Evil‘s protagonist is a lawyer safeguarding the interests of a gangster and that the police are shown to be ineffective on their own, it is remarkable that Polonsky got away with as much as he did. Perhaps Polonsky fell back on the excuse that it was “only” a crime film.

Another problem of the film is its complexity; although it is admirable that Polonsky chose to tell a socially relevant story within a commercial generic framework there is too much to take in on one sitting, visually, aurally and intellectually. This is partially to do with the film’s length, as MGM, who agreed to distribute and exhibit the film after Enterprise studios went bankrupt before Force of Evil’s release, placed the film onto the bottom half of a double bill and in order for the film to fit, Polonsky would have been asked to keep the running time to less than 90 minutes. Even the reviewer of the film in Variety remarked that the film “bears evidence of having been put through the editing mill a number of times…” (32)

1948 saw the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoena the “Hollywood Ten” in an attempt to purge Hollywood of any Communists it may have had in its midst – and it had many. It was a sign that the Committee’s fight against Communists in Hollywood was about to step up a gear, and that the Cold War in the American mainland was intensifying. In a bitter coincidence, by the end of 1948 the Enterprise Studio was bankrupt, its dream crushed.

By 1951, when Polonsky was finally called to testify, the blacklist had begun. Old colleagues were hounded out of Hollywood, others like Robert Rossen eventually gave in and, as Joe Morse did at the end of Force of Evil, decided to “help” the Committee. Polonsky stood his ground and refused to testify against anyone he knew, despite the fact that several people, including Sterling Hayden, had named Polonsky as a member of the Communist Party – a fact which Polonsky never denied. Polonsky’s time in the OSS was also questioned but Polonsky remained quiet on that subject, he had signed a loyalty oath before being accepted to the OSS. Someone, possibly a CIA agent, intervened at his hearing at this point and the subject was never broached again, although Congressman Velde would infamously dub him as “a very dangerous citizen.” (33)

Polonsky was, unsurprisingly, blacklisted from working in Hollywood. His last credit was for the screenplay of the film I Can Get It For You Wholesale (1951), where Polonsky replaced the original novel’s anti-Semitism arising from its treatment of Jewish businessmen into a story about the oppression of women in the world of business. The screenplay was, apparently, originally too radical for Twentieth Century-Fox, the studio who Polonsky was under contract with following Enterprise’s demise, and several parts of his dialogue were “softened”. The times became even darker for Polonsky when in 1952 his friend and former colleague John Garfield, hounded by accusations he was a Communist, died of a heart attack, aged 39.

Polonsky’s blacklisting, which lasted from 1951 to 1968, effectively, as he would recall, “destroyed my directing career. I never had one, even though I came back years later. Those seventeen years would have been the rich years of directing. So that was that.” (34) Not that Polonsky was idle. He wrote a novel under his own name, as the blacklist didn’t apply to literature, called A Season of Fear (published 1956), which dealt with blacklisting directly. Unsurprisingly, the novel didn’t do well in America but was quite successful in Europe. He also wrote several TV scripts, notably for the CBS series You Are There, and several film scripts under either pseudonyms or “fronts” (names of real people used with their consent.) Most of these films haven’t come to light – Polonsky intended to honour those whose names he used by allowing them to take credit – although one, Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, 1959) has had its credit to Polonsky restored. This film, starring and produced by Harry Belafonte, was a crime film, to some it was the final “classic” film noir, which tackled the theme of racism in a harder way than other contemporary films, such as Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, did. It presented its black character, Ingram (played by Belafonte), as an average, down on his luck man, with gambling debts and a broken marriage forcing him into accepting a job to rob a bank with Burke (Ed Begley), a former policeman, and Slater (Robert Ryan), the troubled ex-soldier and wholehearted racist whose attitude towards Ingram ultimately provides the luckless trio’s downfall.

Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here

Polonsky’s first official credit after being blacklisted was as a co-screenwriter on Don Siegel’s film Madigan in 1968. Polonsky’s return from the cold would be complete when Universal studios, which had produced Madigan, allowed him to direct his second film and his first for 21 years. Originally, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969) was to have been made for television but before production began it was decided that it would be produced for theatrical release. The film was based on a book by the author Harry Lawton called Willie Boy, published in 1960. The book was a reconstruction of an actual historical event which took place in the town of Banning where an Indian named Willie Boy killed a fellow Indian named Old Mike Boniface, and ran off with Boniface’s daughter Lolita – in doing so he was reviving an old Indian custom of marriage by capture. News of Willie Boy’s act spread and a posse was sent out to track him and Lolita down. The unfortunate timing of the manhunt coincided with a visit to the area by President Taft, and the newspapers transformed Willie Boy into a crazy Indian who was plotting to kill President Taft: he had killed before and he’d do it again – or so they claimed. Willie Boy was eventually hunted down by several posses and killed, Lolita’s body having been found a few days before Willie Boy was located. As a result of the newspaper’s creative licence surrounding the incident, Willie Boy and the manhunt for him was ingrained into the minds of Americans, the affair becoming, in Lawton’s words, a “final chance for Western glory.” (35)

Polonsky was initially reluctant to tackle the project but changed his mind when “I saw that in fact this [Old West] myth was still operating – as a notion of American life – and that it was possible to tell the story [of Willie Boy] and set in motion a counter-myth to it. […] The counter-myth is genocide.” (36) In another interview he made his feelings about the “civilising” mythology which the “West” has come to symbolise clear: “Civilization is the process of despoiling, of spoliation of people, which in the past we considered a victory, but we now suspect is a moral defeat for all.” (37)

Polonsky’s return coincided with a time of political unrest in America, triggered by the youth led “counter-culture” and its anti-establishmentarianism particularly with reference to America’s conflict in Vietnam. The emergence of the counter-culture provided the culmination of a decade of political unrest in America (particularly after President Kennedy’s 1963 assassination) and abroad (the strikes in Paris in May 1968), a decade which resulted in “a revisionist impulse which stimulated many Americans to look critically at themselves, their history, and social and political ideas and institutions.” (38) Polonsky’s film would be one of several films that took the Western into its final stage as a popular film genre. This stage became known as the “revisionist” Western which attempted to presented the Native American people as human beings and not, as earlier films had portrayed them, as “savages”.

In adapting Lawton’s account to the screen, Polonsky had to change various aspects. The most important was the condensing of the several posses that hunted and killed Willie Boy into one man, Deputy Sheriff Cooper (the name being a deliberate reference to actor Gary Cooper whose most memorable role was as a Sheriff in the classic Western High Noon [Robert Zimmermann, 1952]), played by Robert Redford. This allowed him to set up a conventional confrontational set up within the Western genre: the duel between the lone sheriff and outlaw. But, given Polonsky’s similar use of genre conventions in Force of Evil it was more than just a set piece. By reducing the posse into one man not only does Polonsky allow Willie Boy (played by Robert Blake in the film) some dignity in his last stand, giving him a fair chance to fight, but it also affects how we perceive Cooper – he ultimately carries the burden of history on his shoulders; by killing Willie Boy he effectively kills the idea of the Western frontier since all the other Indians are assimilating into white “civilisation”.

Polonsky makes it clear that Willie Boy and Cooper are, in some way, “brothers symbolically, one representing the light and the other dark side of the same character. Willie Boy is cunning, impetuous and violent […] Cooper is equally cunning and violent but [is] a reluctant, rather than confident, hero, one who must be spurred to action.” (39) Cooper is the only one to guess what Willie Boy is up to, there is also the important visual moment near the end, as the chase begins its climax, where Cooper comes across a water hole and sees a hand print – left by Willie Boy – and places his own hand in it. The match between them is close. Later, after killing Willie Boy and carrying his body down from the mountain, Cooper will wash the blood of the Indian off his hands with dirt, the dirt of the land that is “civilised” now the dangerous Indian is dead. Through this action, “Coop replays Pontius Pilate washing his hands of the death of Jesus […] meaning that Willie Boy has become a Christ figure…” (40) Willie Boy forced Cooper to kill him, in doing so, he ensured himself immortality through martyrdom, his name forever synonymous with Indian defiance.

Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here was met with widespread critical acclaim, Robert Ottaway writing in the Daily Sketch said it was “a film that is both taut in its action and tingling to the mind”, (41) while Alexander Walker concluded his review by declaring, “We have gained a film of stature this week – and America has regained a filmmaker of brilliance”, (42) referring to Polonsky’s return from the blacklist. There were, naturally, a few dissenting voices, including Pauline Kael’s who dubbed the film as “Ideology on horseback.” (43)

Romance of a Horsethief

Despite the film’s acclaim it was, unfortunately, not as successful in terms of box office takings. Yet this did not prevent Polonsky from directing a third film, Romance of a Horsethief, released in 1971. Due to its poor distribution and exhibition at the time and subsequently, I have yet to see this film. Yet from accounts made by those who have managed to see it, the film has been described as presenting “a radical version of Fiddler on the Roof, the pre-Holocaust Eastern European Jewish saga as only an unbroken Marxist could tell it.” (44) It seems to have been a deeply personal (and, by extension, political) film for Polonsky despite the fact that the script didn’t originate from him. The script was adapted from a Yiddish story about two horse thieves who fence their goods to a proconsul of the Tsar Nicolas II during the early days of the Russo-Japanese war, the type of story Polonsky would have been told as a child and the film is, from all accounts, quite playful and light in tone.

Sadly, after this film Polonsky’s brief directorial career ended due to health reasons. After undergoing surgery on his heart in London, Polonsky’s doctor in Hollywood advised him that his heart was now too weak to undergo the stresses of film directing. Polonsky contented himself to write novels and screenplays, which were either unproduced or produced unsympathetically to his ideas, and also taught film at USC – where he found himself teaching alongside Edward Dymtryk, who had informed to HUAC. Polonsky went out of his way to ignore Dymtryk and would also make some less than flattering comments when another informer, Elia Kazan, was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Oscar: “When he goes to Dante’s last circle in Hell, he’ll sit right next to Judas”, (45) and, “I’ll be watching [Kazan receive the award], hoping someone shoots him.” (46) Despite his hostility to HUAC informers, Polonsky died relatively peacefully from heart failure in 1999, aged 88.

In an interview in the early 1970s, Polonsky was asked about his use of genre in the films he had directed. Polonsky replied:

I think genre […] speaks for us in terms of summaries of the way we see life. We live out genres as we live out myths and rituals, because that’s the way we systematize our relationship to society and our relationship to people. […] I don’t think that the development of genres in the art forms are accidents. I think they’re fundamental to the way art operates on our life. […] So in the long run, they’re inescapable. (47)

From this, Polonsky implies that he used genre as a vehicle on which to hang his political views on, it enabled him to structure his film visually and thematically, and it is this ability of his that, for me (and no doubt others) marks him as a “great director”. Few directors working in Hollywood during the late 1940s (and, arguably, even today) can claim to have attempted to use the form of a mainstream Hollywood genre movie, as Force of Evil and, later, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here did in order to take an explicitly political worldview out into the public eye. Force of Evil‘sdamning critique of crime as business (and vice versa) and Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here‘s comments on American imperialism and the genocide of Native Americans were, at the times of their respective releases, radical in their wholehearted embracing of a Marxist critique of the capitalist system, and the history that the system is built on, that is central to American society.

Force of Evil publicity still


As Director

Force of Evil (1948)
Screenplay: Abraham Polonsky and Ira Wolfert, adapted from the novel Tucker’s People by Ira Wolfert

Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969)
Screenplay also by Polonsky, based on the book Willie Boy: A Desert Manhunt by Harry Lawton

Romance of a Horsethief (1971)
Screenplay: David Opatoshu, based on the novel by Joseph Opatoshu

Other Credits

Golden Earrings (Mitchell Leisen, 1947)
Screenplay: Abraham Polonsky, Frank Butler and Helen Deutsch, adapted from a novel by Yolanda Foldes

Body and Soul (Robert Rossen, 1947)
Screenplay: Abraham Polonsky

I Can Get It For You Wholesale (Michael Gordon, 1951)
Screenplay: Abraham Polonsky, from the novel by Jerome Weidman

Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise, 1959)
Screenplay: John O. Killens (front for Abraham Polonsky) and Nelson Gidding, based on the book by William P. McGivern

Madigan (Don Siegel, 1968)
Screenplay: Abraham Polonsky and Henri Simoun, from the book The Commissioner by Richard Dougherty

Avalanche Express (Mark Robson, 1979)
Screenplay: Abraham Polonsky, based on the novel by Colin Forbes

Monsignor (Frank Perry, 1982)
Screenplay: Abraham Polonsky and Wendell Mayes, based on Jack-Alain Leger’s novel

Select Bibliography

Edwin T. Arnold and Eugene L. Miller Jr., The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich,The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1986.

Peter Biskind, Seeing is Believing,Pluto Press, London, 1983.

Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, A Very Dangerous Citizen,University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 2001.

Mark Burman, “Abraham Polonsky: The Most Dangerous Man in America” in John Boorman and Walter Donohue (eds), Projections 8, Faber & Faber,London, 1998.

Jim Cook and Kingsley Canham, “Abraham Polonsky Interviewed” in Screen, vol. 11, no. 3, summer 1970.

Richard Corliss, Talking Pictures, The Overlook Press, Woodstock, New York, 1974.

Allen Eyles, “Films of Enterprise: A Studio History” in Focus on Film,no. 35, April 1980.

Howard Gelman (Introduction by Abraham Polonsky), The Films of John Garfield,The Citadel Press, Secaucus, 1975.

Ron Henderson (ed.), The Image Maker, John Knox Press, Richmond, 1971.

Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies,Elm Tree Books, London, 1983.

Harry Lawton, Willie Boy: A Desert Manhunt, Malki Museum Press, California, 1960.

Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono, Weidenfield and Nicolson, London, 1990.

Lary May, The Big Tomorrow, University of Chicago Press, Chicago/London, 2000.

Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle (eds), Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Blacklist, St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, 1997.

William P. McGivern, Odds Against Tomorrow, Carroll and Graf Publishers, New York, 1996.

Brian Neve, Film and Politics in America,Routledge, London/New York, 1992.

William Pechter, “Abraham Polonsky and Force of Evil” in Film Quarterly, vol. 15, no. 3, spring 1962.

Abraham Polonsky, A Season of Fear,Seven Seas Publishers, Berlin, 1959.

Abraham Polonsky, “How the Blacklist Worked” in Film Culture, no. 50–51,autumn–winter 1970.

Abraham Polonsky, Force of Evil: The Critical Edition (edited by John Schultheiss and Mark Schaubert), The Center for Telecommunication Studies, Northridge, 1996.

Abraham Polonsky, Odds Against Tomorrow: The Critical Edition (edited by John Schultheiss), The Center for Telecommunication Studies, Northridge, 1999.

Leonard Quart and Albert Auster, American Film and Society Since 1945, Macmillan, London, 1984.

James A. Sandos and Larry E. Burgess, “Film as Mirror, Film as Mask: The Hollywood Indian Versus Native Americans in Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here” in Film and History, vol. 23, nos 1–4, 1993.

Eric Sherman and Martin Rubin, The Director’s Event, Atheneum, New York, 1970.

Eric Sherman, Directing the Film, Acrobat Books, Los Angeles, 1976.

Eric Sherman, “Abraham Polonsky” in Jean-Pierre Coursodon, American Directors Volume 2., McGraw-Hill, New York, 1983.

David Talbot and Barbara Zheutlin, Creative Differences, South End Press, Boston, 1978.

Variety Film Reviews, Vol. 7, 1943–1948, Garland Publishing, New York/London, 1983.

Ira Wolfert, Tucker’s People,Victor Gollancz Ltd, London, 1944.

Articles in Senses of Cinema

Abraham Polonsky’s I Can Get It for You Wholesale Reconsidered by Mark Rappaport

A Very Dangerous Citizen: Abraham Polonsky and the Hollywood Left book review by Brad Stevens

Force of Evil (Cinémathèque Annotations on Film) by Mike Robins

Web Resources

Conversation with Blacklisted Director Abraham Polonsky
David Walsh’s interview with Polonsky regarding Elia Kazan’s “special” Oscar.

Hollywood Red: The Life of Abraham Polonsky
Article by Michael Shepler for PoliticalAffairs.net.

Turner Classic Movies: This Month
Feature on Force of Evil.

Images – Film Noir
Article by Grant Tracey on Force of Evil.


  1. Quoted in Eric Sherman, Directing the Film, Acrobat Books, Los Angeles, 1976, p. 6.
  2. Polonsky, quoted in Mark Burman, “Abraham Polonsky: The Most Dangerous Man in America” in John Boorman and Walter Donohue (eds), Projections 8, Faber & Faber, London, 1998, p. 233.
  3. Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, A Very Dangerous Citizen, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles/London, 2001, p. 28.
  4. Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner, “Abraham Polonsky” in Patrick McGilligan and Paul Buhle (eds.), Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Blacklist, St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, 1997, p. 483.
  5. Burman, in Boorman and Donohue, pp. 234–235.
  6. Buhle and Wagner, p. 46.
  7. These were not, however, Polonsky’s first novels – his debut novel The Discoverers had been advertised and was in the process of being printed when a changeover of editors at the publishers, Modern Age Books, resulted in the novel being dropped from the publishing schedule.
  8. Buhle and Wagner, p. 65.
  9. Burman, in Boorman and Donohue, p. 239.
  10. Burman, in Boorman and Donohue, p. 240.
  11. Quoted in William Pechter, “Abraham Polonsky and Force of Evil” in Film Quarterly, vol. 15, no. 3, p. 50.
  12. Leonard Quart and Albert Auster, American Film and Society Since 1945, Macmillan, London, 1984, p. 36.
  13. Allen Eyles, “Films of Enterprise: A Studio History” in Focus on Film, no. 35, p. 13.
  14. Eyles, p. 13.
  15. Edwin T. Arnold and Eugene L. Miller Jr., The Films and Career of Robert Aldrich,The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1986, p. 9.
  16. Arnold and Miller Jr., p. 11.
  17. McGilligan and Buhle, p. 486.
  18. Polonsky quoted in an interview with James D. Pasternak and F. William Hawton in Ron Henderson (ed.), The Image Maker, John Knox Press, Richmond, 1971, p. 22.
  19. Polonsky quoted in Henderson, p. 22.
  20. Buhle and Wagner, p. 115.
  21. Polonsky quoted in John Schultheiss, “Force of Evil: Existential Marx and Freud” in Abraham Polonsky, Force of Evil: The Critical Edition (edited by John Schultheiss and Mark Schaubert), The Center for Telecommunication Studies, Northridge, 1996, p. 163.
  22. Pechter, p. 47.
  23. Pechter, p. 52.
  24. John Schultheiss, “Annotations to the Screenplay” in Polonsky, 1996, p. 124. That phrase was part of Joe’s opening voiceover narration but Polonsky, for reasons that later eluded him, cut it out. He admitted that he regretted the decision.
  25. Pechter, p. 48.
  26. Burman, in Boorman and Donohue, p. 255.
  27. The debate as to whether or not film noir constitutes a film genre is one that still goes on in film criticism to this day. Given that films noirs have a stylistic and thematic unity in their use of darkness in both respects and have involve situations and characters which are now familiar to most people as “noir” (many films in TV guides are described as being a film noir or, in more contemporary cases, a “neo-noir”) I will, for the sake of argument class film noir as a genre in itself, rather than a “style” or just a subsection of the broader “crime” genre.
  28. Lary May, The Big Tomorrow, University of Chicago Press, Chicago/London, 2000, pp. 219, 229.
  29. Peter Biskind, Seeing is Believing, Pluto Press, London, 1983, p. 195.
  30. Burman, in Boorman and Donohue, p. 252.
  31. Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono, Weidenfield and Nicolson, London, 1990, p. 284.
  32. Review signed to “Brog”. Reprinted in Variety Film Reviews Vol. 7, 1943–1948, under the reviews for December 29, 1948.
  33. Buhle and Wagner, p. 145.
  34. Burman,in Boorman and Donohue, p. 266.
  35. Harry Lawton, Willie Boy: A Desert Manhunt, Malki Museum Press, California, 1960, p. ix.
  36. Pasternak and Hawton, in Henderson, p. 19.
  37. Eric Sherman and Martin Rubin, The Director’s Event, Atheneum, New York, 1970, p. 25.
  38. Quart and Auster, p. 75.
  39. James A. Sandos and Larry E. Burgess, “Film as Mirror, Film as Mask: The Hollywood Indian Versus Native Americans in Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here” in Film and History, vol. 23, nos 1–4, 1993, p. 84.
  40. Sandos and Burgess, p. 86.
  41. Review of Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here,from “Daily Sketch (15-1-70)” by Robert Ottaway, British Film Institute Library Microfilm.
  42. Review of Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here,from “Evening Standard (15-1-70)” by Alexander Walker, British Film Institute Library Microfilm.
  43. Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies,Elm Tree Books, London, 1983, p. 582.
  44. Buhle and Wagner, in McGilligan and Buhle, pp. 482–483.
  45. News For Abraham Polonsky.
  46. Ibid.
  47. Polonsky interviewed by Pasternak and Hawton in Henderson, p. 26.

About The Author

Andrew Marsden graduated from the University of Reading, England, in 2004 after studying the BA (Hons) Film and Drama course. One day he'd like to write and direct films as well as write about them.

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