Abraham Polonsky

April 7, 2011

Abraham Polonsky

Abe was a communist. Now, before you go all Reagan and shout “Evil empire” and stuff, go learn about communism first. Read about its ideology and philosophy. You may realize that the USSR and other communist countries were not truly “communist,” but more totalitarian. You may also realize how silly and impossible true communism is because human beings simply don’t operate that way. Altruism is fantasy no matter how much you believe in the goodness of man. We have wants, desires, and jealousies. We are apes with cars. Why the Hell am I talking about this, go read a book! Abe got called before HUAC and refused to name names (unlike Elia Kazan & Edward Dmytryk (Dmytryk, at first, refused to name names but flip flopped in order to save his career)), thus getting blacklisted.

Body and Soul – What?! Polonsky didn’t direct Body and Soul, Robert Rossen did. Yeah yeah yeah, but there’s so little of Polonsky’s work out there and this movie is so much about the writing. Abe had a distinctive style in his writing. There’s a certain cadence and word structure that’s simply Polonsky-esque (much like a Paddy Chayefsky or David Mamet script). Body and Soul is a boxing movie with themes most folks today would recognize from Rocky or Raging Bull. But here’s a couple things that stood out for me. They are subtle and they may not register to most folks as being significant. First of all, Charlie Davis (John Garfield) is Jewish. It’s significant because nothing is ever made of this, it’s just a throwaway line. This was the same year as Oscar winner Gentleman’s Agreement which was about anti-semitism and also had the actors John Garfield and Anne Revere from Body and Soul. Gentleman’s Agreement was also directed by name namer Elia Kazan whom Polonsky hated for the rest of his life. Another thing that stuck out for me was the treatment of the black boxer, Ben (Canada Lee). I felt he was treated as an equal. He was just another boxer on the same level with our hero. Bad guy Roberts may be perceived as racist, but I saw him more of treating Ben like any other piece-of-meat boxer. This was shot by the great James Wong Howe, who wore roller skates in the boxing ring to get some of his shots. This also had William (Louisville represent!) Conrad in it. And for you Trekkers, the role of best friend Shorty was played by future Trek directer Joseph Pevney.

Force of Evil – His directorial debut, and then he was blacklisted (which, if you didn’t know, is not good for your career). Really crisp writing. A great noir. Reminds me of the relationship I have with my brothers.
Odds Against Tomorrow – Again, Abe didn’t direct this, Robert Wise did. Wise is what I call a “studio plug-n-play” director. He doesn’t really have a style. He’s simply a craftsman that can go in there and be counted on to do a decent job (Ron Howard is a contemporary “plug-n-play” director, without the “decent job” part (ok, I like some of his movies)). When this movie came out, Abe was on the “no fly” list. He used the front, John O. Killens, in the credits. The WGA restored his credit in 1996 (a little late fellas, don’chya think?). We’ve got a classic caper noir here with an added message about racism. When Robert Ryan refers to Harry Belafonte as a “nigger,” my eyes went big. Did he really say that in a 1959 movie to show what a piece of shit racist he was? Kudos filmmakers. Yeah, racism had been dealt with before in movies, but far more heavy handedly. This seemed subtle in it’s overtness. Robert Ryan is the only obvious racist. With everyone else, Harry is just one of the guys (also, Belafonte produced this movie). Speaking of Bob Ryan, don’t you think he could be the lead in a biopic of Bill O’Reilly? This was cut by the late, great Dede Allen and keep an eye out for TV’s Trapper John (the 1st one, not the Bonanza one). This is good stuff with my only complaint being the White Heat-like ending.
Tell Them Willy Boy Is Here – This is an interesting little curiosity. It is the next to last movie Abe directed and concerns a manhunt for bad boy Native American, Robert Blake (yes I realize the irony of a social justice kinda guy like Polonsky having Yankees playing Indians). Some say this is an allegory for the HUAC witch hunt that Abe and his pals went through. Sure, you can say that, but you could turn me standing in line at the Aroma Cafe waiting to order a non-fat Chai latte, into an allegory for the HUAC witch hunt. Still, this is not bad and see if you can spot any parallels between this movie and any events in Baretta’s real life.

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