- FILM CRITICISM, THE COLD WAR, AND THE BLACKLIST: Reading the Hollywood Reds by Jeff Smith, and: HOLLYWOOD EXILES IN EUROPE: The Blacklist and Cold War Culture by Rebecca Prime
Hollywood Exiles merits a special place in the literature of the blacklist, spawned by the 1947 House Un-American Activities Committee’s investigation into the so-called communist subversion of the movie industry. While other studies have focused on the publicity-seeking committee—whose chairman, J. Parnell Thomas, was later [End Page 155] convicted of embezzlement—the First Amendment stand of the Hollywood Ten, the testimonies of the friendly and unfriendly witnesses, and the careers that were derailed or destroyed, Prime concentrates on the screenwriters and directors who preferred expatriation to remaining in an America where a subpoena would bring them before a tribunal that would demand an answer to the question, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” Refusing to answer could result in a charge of contempt of Congress; taking the Fifth would make one unemployable.
The European exiles were a mixed group—e.g., directors (Jules Dassin, John Berry, Joseph Losey) and writers (Michael Wilson, Paul Jarrico, Cy Endfield, Carl Foreman) who chose to work abroad, mostly in London and Paris. The author has woven a compelling narrative, starting with the émigrés’ arrival in an alien environment and concluding with the end of the blacklist that left some with better résumés than they would have had in Hollywood; and others with little to show for their time of exile. It is one thing to take a sabbatical abroad. It is quite another to relocate because a committee is running roughshod over the First Amendment. Culture shock is common, but even abroad the exiles were under continual FBI surveillance; some had their passports confiscated and were required to renew their residency permits to prove they had landed a job, while knowing their name might not appear in the credits unless they used a pseudonym.
Some of the exiles did extraordinary work during the diaspora. For example, Jules Dassin, who added American grit to French film noir in Rififi (1954), with its thirty-three minute jewel heist done entirely without sound. American audiences were mesmerized by Rififi because it was a unique kind of movie: a Franco-American gangster film. Expatriation gave director Joseph Losey the freedom that he never enjoyed in Hollywood, where he could not have made such films as The Servant (1963) and King and Country (1964). Others like Paul Jarrico and Cy Endfield fared less well. But that is Prime’s point: Some exiles found their niche; others did not. Talent obviously mattered, as the author implies. But so did luck, which eluded some.
Indirectly, the blacklist backfired on a Hollywood in decline as the studio system began to crumble with independent production companies rising from the ruins, which, like the exiles, left the sound stage for the world stage as filmmaking became truly global. Hollywood Exiles is an engrossing story with an ending more ironic than upbeat.
Smith takes a more comprehensive view of Cold War Hollywood, with an emphasis on encoded films that can be read as anti-McCarthy, anti-communist, or both. Although at times Film criticism is heavily theoretical, Smith wears his learning well, and his earnestness does not have the anaesthetizing effect of jargon-studded criticism. Smith is readable, using theory as a point of departure for his own interpretations. He makes excellent use of David Bordwell’s distinction between comprehension (the film text as understood by the viewer) and interpretation (the film text with all its metonyms, symbols, and allegories—evident, hidden, or inferable—brought to light through rigorous critical analysis).
Since Smith is a close reader, his analyses are meant to be read “with diligence and attention,” as Francis Bacon in “Of Studies” recommended for books to be [End Page 156] “chewed and...