Cinephile, historian, filmmaker and one of the most knowledgeable persons I’ve ever met, Thom Andersen visited the Austrian Filmmuseum during the fall of 2017 where I interviewed him about Red Hollywood (1996), a film he co-directed with Noel Burch. The groundbreaking documentary studies the films directed, written or produced by the victims of the Hollywood Blacklist, using both archives from their films and interviews with the people concerned. Red Hollywood doesn’t simply tell the story of the witch-hunt, but brings all the important issues of those filmmakers to light, such as the depiction of World War II or their relation to European communism and feminism, among others.
SP: I’d like to ask you about the subgenre of documentaries about film history. Are there films that you particularly liked?
TA: Well, the problem originally was that everything was controlled by the studios. In order to do the film it was necessary to get the footage from the films, and in order to get the footage from the films, one had to get access from the studios, so they had the control over the content of such movies. As a result they were always quite pious. The breakthrough came really when it became possible to record movies on VHS or Betamax. That’s when the genre for me really begins with the work of Mark Rappaport, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (Mark Rappaport, 1992) and From the Journals of Jean Seberg (Mark Rappaport, 1995). When I started working on Red Hollywood in the ‘80s, we weren’t thinking so much of that possibility because there were a lot of films from the ‘30s and ‘40s and we couldn’t get the copies. I realized in the middle of the next decade that it would be possible to do it from VHS copies. It was all VHS. When Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, 2003) came about, there were some films available from laserdisc and a very few from DVD. I remastered both of the movies in 2013 and also made some changes. Obviously, a lot more movies have been made since. Mark Rappaport has continued to make a number of films, which I liked a lot, particularly the one about Marcel Dalio. There is this movie, Vancouver Never Plays Itself (Tony Zhou, 2015) that has many views on YouTube, which is nice. Some others as well, but I’m not sure there is anything as radical as what we were proposing. I liked Room 237 (Rodney Ascher, 2012) quite a bit. I was happy to see that the studio finally agreed to the use of footage from the film.
SP: Let’s talk about Red Hollywood! Can you tell me about the circumstances of the interviews?
TA: The first interviews we conducted were in the film festival in Amiens, in 1991. There we interviewed, particularly, Ring Lardner Jr. Unfortunately, the conception of the film changed later, so we weren’t able to use so much from the Ring Lardner Jr. interview. The others were all conducted in the summer of 1995, and then we had very specific things that we wanted to discuss with the people. (Alfred Lewis) Levitt unfortunately couldn’t remember some things that we wanted to talk about. He didn’t have such strong memories about other films of his, as he did with The Boy with Green Hair (Joseph Losey, 1948), which I think from all of his work was most important to him. With (Paul) Jarrico, there was of course Salt of the Earth (Herbert J. Biberman, 1954). It was also good to interview him about things where he disagreed with the line of the Communist Party. Certainly, he was critical of the way in which the American Communist Party responded to the Hitler- Stalin-Pact. Abraham Polonsky was in general very critical, let’s say with the intellectual level of the Party. He was very self-confident, sometimes you might even say arrogant. He attended the Vancouver Film Festival when Red Hollywood was shown there, along with some of Polonsky’s films. After the screening of Red Hollywood he said: “Well, that was some boring stuff!”. We didn’t really choose the subjects of the interviews in the sense that it was the matter of who was still alive. There was Jarrico, Polonsky, Levitt and Lardner and then a few women, who we met later. Still, I think we were fortunate to have interviewed the people we could.
SP: About the blacklist itself. Do you think there was an anti-Semitic or xenophobic motivation behind it?
TA: I think there were members of the House Un-American Activities Committee who were anti-Semitic, yes. One reason they chose the original witnesses and The Hollywood Ten or Hollywood Nineteen was that they hadn’t been in the military during World War II. There were I think also a lot of Jews among them. I don’t know. I wouldn’t want to say that it was necessarily anti-Semitic, although certainly one could say that. Anti-Semitism was still being strong in the United States at that time and more openly allowed.
SP: The segment in your film in which Frank Sinatra appears is also about the state of anti-Semitism. Gentleman’s Agreement (Elia Kazan, 1947) isn’t mentioned there. What do you think about that film?
TA: It was directed by Kazan. I don’t think we really considered it a film that comes from the culture of the Hollywood Reds. The novel was written by someone, who wasn’t a part of that and the film is certainly a straightforward adaptation of the novel, whereas None Shall Escape (André De Toth, 1944) was a film that only could have come from that culture. To make a film at that time denouncing the Nazi death camps was unique or almost unique during the course of the war. Even after the war, there was a film Judgment in Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer, 1961), and that was considered brave… The killing of the Jews was generally not acknowledged so much. I think there was an East German film, Die Mörder sind unter uns (Murderers Among Us, Wolfgang Staudte, 1946). Anyway, in the United States there wasn’t much written about or taught about in relation to the extermination of the European Jews until the Eichmann Trial. Alain Resnais’ film is one of the exceptions.
SP: Mentioning Kramer is a good segue to move on to the films depicting racism, paranoia, McCarthyism and the Cold War in general. Apart from some exceptions Red Hollywood mostly concerns about films made until 1951. What do you think of the films made after? It’s claimed at the beginning of your film that John Wayne was right-wing. Does it mean that you don’t believe that his character in The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) is a symbol of his remorse?
TA: No, I don’t think that. Regarding The Searchers, I’ve always thought that lot of people who praise the film as a masterpiece, they talk about the film as if John Wayne had actually murdered Natalie Wood. If you see it as a film that is critical of racism, that’s an important point. There are some critical references to the blacklist, such as Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954) and Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957). Burt Lancaster was a liberal, Mackendrick was English and Clifford Odets who wrote the final version of the screenplay was a person of the left certainly. There are a few others, little bit later. Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960).
TA: Sure, Exodus (Otto Preminger, 1960) is a film about the Jews, Israel. Well, yeah, but we were only concerning ourselves with films made by people who were victims of the blacklist.
SP: Did the blacklist influence filmmaking in Hollywood later as well? I’m thinking of Waldo Salt who wrote the screenplay of some New Hollywood films or the themes of John Frankenheimer’s films from that time.
TA: Sure, there were younger people who were touched by the blacklist at the beginning of their career, like Martin Ritt, who made films that were underestimated critically for somewhat political reasons. Both Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, in different ways, were right-wingers, particularly Kael. Her first published article was a denunciation of Salt of the Earth. Frankenheimer, yeah, his earlier films were more political and more interesting because they experimented with TV aesthetics on film, what Hitchcock also did with Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960).
SP: Is it possible that the films you are talking about in Red Hollywood had an influence outside of Hollywood? I particularly mean the tradition of leftist ideas in Italian cinema, starting with neorealism towards the comedies of ‘60s and ‘70s. Can there be a connection?
TA: The film by Edward Dmytryk, Give Us This Day (1949) has an Italian source. It might have been influential, because I’ve heard younger left-wing filmmakers speak about it. Of course, a number of blacklisted writers were working on films that were being produced in Spain and in Italy. These people were part of Italian cinema for a while. But it’s hard to speak about a possible influence of American leftism on Italian cinema, the Italian tradition of socialism and the communist party being stronger than it ever was in the United States.
SP: That’s right. It just came to my mind while watching your film because during the segment from The Asphalt Jungle (John Huston, 1950) you talk about the leftist explanation of the origins of crime, which doubtlessly reminded me of Visconti’s explanation in Rocco and his Brothers: the dangerous influence of the capitalist city on a person. Anyway, there you also describe the explanation of the origins of crime by right-wing directors. Who do you consider right-wing from the canonized, influential filmmakers?
TA: Mervyn LeRoy, but his artistic significance ended around 1935. William Wellman, yeah. You have to mention Leo McCarey, a certainly artistically significant right-wing director. Hawks, maybe.
SP: Moving on to the part about gender, considering that the more famous examples of feminism in European cinema only came about later, would you say that the films by the Hollywood Reds were groundbreaking in that regard?
TA: Often the criticism of the Nazis had to do with their attitudes towards women, particularly in Tomorrow, the World! (Leslie Fenton, 1944), a film that Ring Lardner wrote. I think in general, of course you would expect to find in films written by communists a more of a feminist position than in other films of that era. That was one of their criteria.
SP: Finally, the second last question. I found it elegant that you didn’t talk about those who named names…
TA: We thought about it a long time. The politics of the later films by Kazan or Dmytryk were consistent with their positions as informers. Kazan even asserted a statement that he released at the time of his testimony and then repudiated in his autobiography. I wrote a little bit about Dmytryk in an essay. The Caine Mutiny (Edward Dmytryk, 1954) is a reactionary work. One should accept authority, they should have gone along with Captain Queeg, or at least if they had been more willing to go along, he would have never reached the point where he endangered the ship, that’s the idea of the speech at the end of that film. I would say furthermore that in Dmytryk’s communist period there was an authoritarian streak, in Cornered (1945) for example, or Crossfire (1947). He was the most Stalinist of the Hollywood communists in his work.
SP: My last question is about Abraham Polonsky. Do you think he has place in the mainstream American canon based on his work and not as a martyr?
TA: I am not really involved in academic film studies, so I don’t know if I have a particularly good sense of that. At least Force of Evil (Abraham Polonsky, 1948) was always accepted as a part of the canon. Back in the ‘50s there was an article about Force of Evil by William Pechter in Film Quarterly. Then, of course Sarris put that one film in the canon, also I guess Body and Soul (Robert Rossen, 1947, written by Polonsky) in a way. Scorsese has spoken often of that film. Polonsky was a very strong advocate. I think yes, I think he still holds that place, probably not the other films that he directed. Body and Soul was directed by Rossen. Of course, Polonsky claims that everything that’s good in that film is his responsibility, which is, you know, the way writers often are. I think that of all the films Rossen directed that’s probably the best one.