Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 5 December 1910. Education: City College of New York; Columbia University, law degree. Career: Lawyer with Manhattan firm, then quit to write; signed with Paramount, late 1930s; served in Europe with Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.), World War II; moved to Enterprise Productions, 1947; directed first feature, 1948; spent year in France, 1949; signed with Twentieth Century-Fox, 1950; called to testify
before House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), invoked Fifth Amendment, 1951; blacklisted until 1968; also novelist. Died: 26 October 1999, in Beverly Hills, California, of heart attack.
Films as Director and Scriptwriter:
Force of Evil
Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here
Romance of a Horsethief
Golden Earrings (Leisen) (sc); Body and Soul (Rossen) (sc)
I Can Get It for You Wholesale (Gordon) (sc)
Madigan (Siegel) (sc)
Avalanche Express (Robson) (sc)
Guilty by Suspicion (sc)
By POLONSKY: book—
A Cup of Tear: A Diary of the Warsaw Ghettos, with Abraham Lewin, Malden, 1988.
To Illuminate Our Time: The Blacklisted Teleplays of AbrahamPolonsky, Los Angeles, 1993.
Force of Evil: The Critical Edition (Films as Literature Series), West Hills, 1996.
You Are There Teleplays, West Hills, 1997.
Odds against Tomorrow, West Hills, 1999.
The World Above (Radical Novel Reconsidered), Champaign, 1999.
By POLONSKY: articles—
"Abraham Polonsky and Force of Evil," an interview with William Pechter, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Spring 1962.
Interview in Interviews with Film Directors, by Andrew Sarris, New York, 1967.
Interview with William Pechter, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1968/69.
Interview with Jim Cook and Kingsley Canham, in Screen (London), Summer 1970.
"How the Blacklist Worked," in Film Culture (New York), Fall/Winter 1970.
"Making Movies," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1971.
"Nuits blanches pendant la liste noir: Extrait de journal," in Positif (Paris), December/January 1977/78.
"Tutkijasta tekijaksi," an interview with P. von Bagh, in Filmihullu, no. 3, 1991.
On POLONSKY: articles—
Canham, Kingsley, "Polonsky," in Film (London), Spring 1970.
Butler, T., "Polonsky and Kazan: HUAC and the Violation of Personality," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1988.
Neve, Brian, "Fellow Traveller," in Sight and Sound (London), Spring 1990.
Schultheiss, John, "A Season of Fear: The Blacklisted Teleplays of Abraham Polonsky," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), April 1996.
Robinson, David, "The Unvanquished," in Sight and Sound (London), June 1996.
* * *
Abraham Polonsky's filmography is quite thin: his second film as director, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, was released twenty-one years after his first, Force of Evil. "I was a left-winger," he told Look magazine in 1970. "I supported the Soviet Union. In the middle 1940s, we'd have meetings at my house to raise money for strikers and radical newspapers." For these crimes—and, equally, for the less-than-superficially patriotic qualities of his protagonists—a promising, perhaps even major, directorial career was squelched in its infancy by the insidious Hollywood blacklist.
A discussion of Polonsky would be incomplete without noting his collaborations with John Garfield, the American cinema's original anti-hero. Polonsky scripted Body and Soul, one of the best boxing films of all time, and both authored and directed Force of Evil, a "B film" ignored in its time, but now a cult classic highly regarded for its use of blank verse dialogue.
Garfield stars in Force of Evil as a lawyer immersed in the numbers racket. When his brother, a small-time gambler, is murdered by his gangster boss, he hunts the hood down and turns himself in to the police. In Body and Soul, the actor portrays a poor boy with a hard, knockout punch who rises in the fight game while alienating his family, friends, and the girl he loves. In the end he reforms, defying the mob by refusing to throw a fight. "What are you gonna do, kill me?" he chides the chief thug, "Everybody dies." With that, he walks off into the night with his girl. The final cut of Body and Soul is as much Polonsky's as it is director Robert Rossen's. Polonsky claimed to have prevented Rossen from altering the film's finale.
Both of Polonsky's protagonists become casualties of their desire for success. They seek out the all-American dream, but are corrupted in the process. They can only attain status by throwing fights, aligning themselves with lawbreakers. Fame and money, fancy hotels and snazzy suits, come not by hard work and honesty but by cheating, throwing the fight, fixing the books—the real American way.
Polonsky, and Garfield, were blacklisted as much for the tone of their films as their politics. Polonsky's heroes are cocky, cynical loner-losers, estranged from society's mainstream, who break the rules and cause others extreme sorrow—not the moral, honest, often comic-book caricatures of American manhood that dominated Hollywood cinema. In addition, Polonsky created a character in Body and Soul, a washed-up boxer (lovingly played by Canada Lee), who was one of the earliest portraits of a black man as a human being with emotions and feelings, a man exploited. Body and Soul and Force of Evil played the nation's moviehouses in 1947 and 1948, when anything less than a positive vision of America was automatically suspect.
Polonsky's plight is particularly sad. His passport was revoked, and he could not escape to find work abroad. Years after others who had been blacklisted had returned to the good graces of the cinema establishment, he toiled in obscurity writing television shows and perhaps dozens of film scripts—some Academy Award winners—under assumed names. His first post-blacklist directorial credit, Willie Boy, is a spiritual cousin of his earlier work. It is the tale of a nonconformist Paiute Indian (Robert Blake, who played Garfield as a child in Humoresque), victimized by an insensitive society after he kills in self-defense. The parallels between Polonsky and his character's fate are clear.
Before the blacklist, Polonsky had hoped to film Thomas Mann's novella, Mario and the Magician; in 1971, he was again planning this project, among others. None was ever completed. But most significantly, the films that he might have made between 1948 and 1969—the prime years of his creative life—can now only be imagined.