Class of 1932
When he was summoned before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1951 as part of the McCarthy-era hunt for Communists in Hollywood, Abraham Lincoln Polonsky was labeled “a very dangerous citizen.” The reason? He refused to become an informer. The result? His life as a movie director and screenwriter was almost terminally interrupted while he languished on the blacklist. Although he was unable to find work under his own name for nearly two decades, his Hollywood career was distinguished by a powerful sense of social consciousness and a strong moral vision. He had only nine movies to his credit, but he was an early master of film noir and a lasting influence on the work of Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Sidney Lumet, Warren Beatty and Harry Belafonte.
Two of his best-known pictures starred John Garfield, who was also blacklisted by Hollywood for refusing to cooperate with HUAC. The first was “Body and Soul,” in which Garfield played the part of Charlie Davis, a boxer who was willing to sacrifice everything in pursuit of money (photo left). Polonsky didn’t direct the movie — Robert Rossen did — but his screenplay, a seething anti-capitalism commentary, was nominated for an Oscar in 1947. In addition, “Body and Soul” raised the bar for boxing movies like “Raging Bull.” In 1948, Garfield starred in "Force of Evil," a 1948 film about corruption and the numbers racket that Polonsky wrote and directed. It was arguably the most political of all the noir films of the 1940s, drawing a vivid analogy between racketeering and capitalism.
Then came the blacklist, but Polonsky continued to work under other names and in other mediums. He wrote for television programs, including “You Are There,” fictionalized versions of historical events portrayed as newscasts. In 1959, as “John O. Killens,” he co-wrote “Odds Against Tomorrow,” a crime thriller with a race-based subtext. His real name was not restored to the credits until 1996. He also used pseudonyms for “You Are There” and other TV shows. In 1969, Polonsky directed his second film, “Tell Them Willy Boy Is Here,” a lament for the way the government treated Native Americans. In 1999, he was an outspoken opponent of an honorary Oscar given to director Elia Kazan, whom he loathed for naming names to HUAC in 1952.
Polonsky, the son of immigrants, was born in New York on Dec. 10, 1910, and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
“I was born into the Depression, into the failure of President Hoover to do anything,” he said. “My father was a socialist. The house was full of socialists. The attitude in our family was: if you're not smart enough to be a socialist, you're not smart enough to live.”
After graduating from CCNY and Columbia University Law School, he taught English at the College, then began writing radio scripts and novels. Ironically, after being turned down for military service during World War II because of poor vision, Polonsky volunteered for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor of the CIA, where his knowledge of political movements was utilized for “Black Radio,” a form of psychological warfare against the Germans.
“We were in a war — a nasty thing,” he said in 1996, when he became an adjunct professor at California State University at Northridge. “There was murder, bombings, killings and I’m writing junk and destroying morale within their own lines. We broke into German codes. We would pretend to be German stations and sign on just as they were signing off. It was a psychological institution.”
He also taught at the University of Southern California. Polonsky died on Oct. 26, 1999 in Beverly Hills at the age of 88. Earlier that year, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association honored him with a career achievement award. He responded by saying, “I’m glad to see that you don't think it’s enough to be a great artist, but that you should also be a person of honor.”