Writer-director Abraham Lincoln Polonsky, one of the most prominent victims of the Hollywood blacklisting of communists and social progressives in the post-World War II period, was born on December 5, 1910, in New York, New York. An unreconstructed Marxist, Polonsky never hid his membership in the Communist Party. (Indeed, it was known by the federal government during World War II, when he was a member of the O.S.S. working in France with the Resistance, given credence to the charge that the House Un-American Activities Committee wasn't interested so much in "ferreting out" communists and fellow-travelers as in making progressives of the F.D.R. coalition publicly repudiate their beliefs in a form of public penance.) After being named by former fellow O.S.S. member Sterling Hayden, Polonsky himself was arraigned before HUAC in 1951. After defying the committee by refusing to name names, he was blacklisted for 17 years by the U.S. film industry.
As director and screenwriter, Polonsky was an "auteur" of three of the great film noirs made in the last century: Body and Soul (1947) (screenplay; directed by fellow CPUSA member Robert Rossen, who kept his career by "naming names"), Force of Evil (1948) (which he wrote and directed), and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) (which he wrote using a front).
Polonsky studied English at City College of New York (CCNY) and, after briefly shipping out as a merchant seaman, went to Columbia Law School. Polonsky's father wanted him to have a profession, and he preferred the law over medicine. The young Polonsky had wanted to be a writer, and he taught English at CCNY while matriculating at Columbia Law, but the law was his first career. After graduation from Columbia Law, he became a practicing attorney, which ironically, led to his career in screenwriting.
Gertrude Berg, the creative force behind the popular radio show "The Goldbergs" (which later made the transition to TV), was a client of his firm. Needing background for an episode that would feature the machinations of the law, Polonsky was assigned to Berg as an expert. Berg was so impressed when Polonsky dictated a scene to his secretary, she hired him as one of her writers. Thus, in 1937, by a serendipitous route charted originally by his father, who wanted his son to be a professional, not a writer, Polonsky was on his way to becoming a hot, Oscar-nominated screenwriter and writer-director.
Polonsky eventually left Berg and became a labor organizer. In 1939, after organizing autoworkers at a General Motors plant near his home in Briarcliff, New York, he became the educational director of the Congress of Industrial Organization, the major labor federation for skilled workers, in upstate New York. While working as a labor organizer, Polonsky wrote his first novel, "The Discoverers", a novel dealing with New York City bohemians, radicals, and frustrated intellectuals. The book was optioned by a publisher that unfortunately went out of business; it remains unpublished to this day. However, he began to thrive as a novelist: Simon and Schuster published a novel he co-wrote, "The Goose Is Cooked," in 1942, and Little Brown published his sea-adventure story "The Enemy Sea," which originally had been serialized in "Colliers Magazine".
Paramount became interested in Polonsky and offered him a contract. However, as a dedicated anti-Nazi, Polonsky was determined to serve in the war despite being turned down for military service due to poor eyesight. Recruited by the O.S.S. (likely because of his communist background; it was said that during World War II, communists made the best secret agents due to their propensity for secrecy and their dedication to their ideology). He signed a contract with Paramount guaranteeing him a job after the war, and then was shipped off to London before serving in France as a liaison with the French underground.
Back from World War II, Polonsky alienated Paramount's head writer when he complained that his nominal boss had kept him waiting too long for their initial meeting. The peeved head writer gave him the Marlene Dietrich potboiler Golden Earrings (1947) as his first screenwriting assignment, and although he received a screen credit, he claimed that nothing he wrote made it to the screen. He quit Paramount to take a job with John Garfield's Enterprise Productions, which had a collectivist philosophy akin to the old Group Theater on Broadway, of which the former Julius Garfinkle (Garfield) had been a member. Garfield was a leftist, though not a member of the Communist Party, though he did employ director Robert Rossen, who was a member of CPUSA, as was Polonsky, who had joined during the Depression.
Working from Polonsky's script, Rossen shot the classic boxing drama Body and Soul (1947). Polonsky actually was allowed on the set (not a common occurrence for the film industry) and actively gave Rossen advice. Some critics see Polonsky as a "co-director," a claim Polonsky rejected as "no one," he said, "co-directs a Robert Rossen Picture." However, in the collectivist atmosphere of the studio, he was able to prevail over Rossen's conception of a "happy ending," ensuring that his own ending was part of the picture. Polonsky won an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for the film that was hailed as a classic by cineastes not long after its release. Garfield encouraged Polonsky to become a director, a development the screenwriter relished as it would give him more control over his screenplay and enable him to bring his vision to the screen just as he saw it. Adapting a 1940 crime novel "Tucker's People," Polonsky wrote and directed Force of Evil (1948), which has been hailed as the greatest low-budget film noir ever.
By the time production had wrapped, Enterprise had gone bankrupt, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was impressed enough to pick up the picture, though its hard-hitting indictment of big business, capitalism and political corruption was not Louis B. Mayer's cup of tea. MGM essentially dumped the picture as the bottom half of a double bill released for the Christmas season. This classic noir, with its indictment of capitalist society, was not exactly Christmas fare, and as Turner Classic Movies' Robert Osborne has said, it was quickly forgotten until rediscovered in the early 1960s. It has been considered a classic for at least a generation and had a big influence on Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972), whose equation of crime with business, and business with criminal behavior had been aired 24 years before in Polonsky's debut. In a huge loss to American cinema, Polonsky's debut was to be his last directorial effort for 20 years.
Both Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil (1948) are about the deleterious effects of materialism on the soul, as both protagonists (both played by John Garfield operating at the peak of his talent) face the loss of their soul due to the temptation of big money. Indeed, it is easy to see why conservatives would be offended by Force of Evil (1948) as it arguably is the most radical film to have come out of mainstream Hollywood, and definitely is informed by Marxism.
Blacklisted after his uncooperative appearance before HUAC in April 1951, Polonsky did not get a chance to direct another film until 1968, when he helmed the production of the revisionist Western Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), which he turned into an indictment of genocide. Although he wrote screenplays and marketed them through fronts (most famously, with the indictment of racism Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), directed by Robert Wise, it wasn't until 1968 that he was credited on a film, for the screenplay for Don Siegel's exegesis of police corruption, Madigan (1968). After the release of the well-reviewed "Willie Boy," Polonsky enter4ed into "Fiddler on the Roof" territory and helmed the more light-hearted Romance of a Horsethief (1971). After that, he was told by his physician that his heart could not take the strain of movie directing, so he retired from that part of his work, though he continued to write screenplays until the end of his life.
After the tide of public opinion turned against the HUAC informers after Victor Navasky's 1980 history "Naming Names," Polonsky was rediscovered by scholars of the cinema. However, he proved a frustrating subject to those that wanted to ferret out the films that had been produced from his fronted-work screenplays. Similarly to his stand 40 years earlier, when he had refused to "name names," Polonsky refused to cite the pictures he had ghostwritten or to name the fronts he had used for his fronted screenplays during the days of the blacklist. He said he had given the men his word that he would not betray their confidence, and indeed, he refused to cite his anonymous work as he felt it would have gone back on his pledge to the men who had helped him through a tough period, as it would have resulted in them being denied credit for the work. Polonsky had bargained with them in good faith, and a man of principle, he refused to go back on his pledge to them.
An unrepentant Marxist until his death, Polonsky publicly objected when director Irwin Winkler sanitized his script for Guilty by Suspicion (1991) to make the character played by Robert De Niro a liberal rather than a communist. He also was prominent in objecting to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences awarding an honorary Academy Award to director Elia Kazan, who was the most prominent of the people who "named names" before HUAC.
Abraham Polonsky died of a heart-attack in Beverly Hills, California, on October 26, 1999, convinced that he had been exonerated by history. As the auteur of three classic films that will live on in cinema history, he was right.