The film noir era coincided with the beginnings of the Cold War.   After the end of WWII the Soviet Union acquired the atomic bomb, sealed off Eastern Europe and challenged the West over access to Berlin. By the early 1950s the Communist had seized control of China and invaded South Korea.  As American school children practiced “duck and cover” nuclear attack drills in the classroom there was a rising fear of the Red menace throughout the country. These fears were fueled by the hype of Sen. Joe McCarthy whose investigation alleged  infiltration of Communist into the highest levels of the U.S. Government.  The House Committee on Un-American Activities also conduction hearings on the influence of Communism within Hollywood.  These hearings led to the “Black List” and put pressure on studios to dispel any public doubt about Red influence in their industry.

With this in mind, films with anti-Communist  themes began showing up among those being produced by Hollywood.  Some of these struck a philosophical tone and focused on the shortcomings of the political system itself;  Man on a Tightrope, The Iron Curtain, Diplomatic Courier and Assignment Paris.  Ironically just a few years earlier when the Soviet Union was America’s ally during WWII, Hollywood turned out films that showed the totalitarian state in a favorable light. Nevertheless Hollywood would use the public’s increasing anxiety over Communism to  create a new set of villains, and film noir seemed  to be the logical genre. This was a contemporary issue as was film noir and many of the themes were the same;  seduction, greed, blackmail, bad decisions and losing control of one’s life. The dark, shadowy world of noir was an ideal atmosphere to showcase Hollywood’s newest bad guys. Of course as Hollywood often does, the portrayal of Commies as villains went over the top.   While the Communist Party was active (and legal) in America, their recruits were usually individuals of politically like minded thinking.  The subversive agents of the Soviet Union certainly used seduction and played upon greed to achieve their objectives but violence was seldom in the mix. But in film noir, Commie agents were more often  depicted as gangsters and killers.  No doubt the studio chiefs were happy to send a message about the evils of Communism after the HCUA hearings.  

The Commie villains in film noir faded as the country moved on from the McCarthy era.  But a decade later Hollywood would reconstitute them in a more entertaining form.  In 1963 Dr. No, the first of the James Bond films was released.  Its popularity set in motion a wave of spy and espionage films which defined a new genre that is popular to this day.  Like their predecessors of the 1950s, the new subversive villains were presented as  killers, but they would be called secret agents and they came with slick gadgets in glamorous surroundings.  The violence was homogenized to that of an arcade game and the good guys crack one-liners as they killed their foes.   The success of the spy genre in subsequent years of the cold war owes much to the efforts put forth in film noir.   As campy and misguided as they often were, the noirs that featured Commies as heavies are an important subset of the film noir genre.  Some represent good film noir - remembering that Commies were interchangeable with regular hoodlums, while others are laughable, but they all serve as relics of an era.    

Film noir and the Red menace

PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET      1953       Twentieth Century Fox     Director:  Sam Fuller

Richard Widmark,  Jean Peters,  Richard Kiley,  Thelma Ritter,  Willis Bouchey  


Petty criminal Widmark snatches Peters purse.  Little did he know she was a dupe courier for Commie agents and the purse contains stolen microfilm. Widmark ultimately discovers what he has and tries to sell it back to the Commies.  Kiley plays the increasing desperate Commie who will kill anyone to get the microfilm back.   To further vilify Kiley, we get to see him beat up Peters leaving her face a mess.   There is an effort to make Widmark something of a hero at the end but it comes up short.  Even with the Commies exposed, Widmark is still a lowlife.   Irregardless of the Commie connection this is a first rate film noir.






5 STEPS TO DANGER    1957      Henry S. Kesler Productions (Released by United Artist)     Director:  Henry S. Kesler

Sterling Hayden,  Ruth Roman,  Warner Klemperer


After having car trouble Hayden is given a ride by Roman.  Hayden soon learns that Roman is on the run and may be involved in a Los Angeles murder case.  He thwarts an attempt by the cops to arrest them and then encounters a doctor (Klemperer of Hogan’s Hero  fame) who wants to return Roman to a mental hospital.  Hayden then discovers that Roman is needed by American agents to confirm the identity of a scientist who defected and is working on a secret project.   Klemperer is exposed as a Commie agent as he and his henchmen try to “eliminate” Roman.


Interesting note that Hayden was once a member of the Communist Party but later downplayed his involvement as nothing more than a flirtation.   

WALK A CROOKED MILE   1948      Columbia Pictures    Director:  Gordon Douglas


Dennis O’Keefe,  Louis Hayward,  Raymond Burr,  Louise Allbritton


This is one of the earliest of the Commie themed noirs.  O’Keefe is an FBI agent and Hayward from Scotland Yard.  They team up to try and catch a group of Commies that are stealing secrets from a Los Angeles defense plant.  Burr is a leader of the Commies and takes delight in his violent treatment of both Hayward and O’Keefe after they are exposed and captured.  For good measure Burr beats up their landlord (Tamara Shayne) as she gives him a patriotic lecture.  Big shootout at the end with all the traitors rounded up.  Overall, works well as film noir.


This was directed by Gordon Douglas who had a long resume of low budget films including I Was A Communist For The F.B.I.

SHACK OUT ON 101       1955    Allied Artist      Director:  Edward Dein

Lee Marvin,  Keenan Wynn,  Frank Lovejoy,  Terry Moore,  Whit Bissell


The “shack” is a cheap diner near the beach run by Wynn.  Marvin is his cook who is only called “Slob.”  But as we learn, the lowly cook’s job is only a cover for the sly Marvin so he may coordinate espionage activities at a secret defense plant down the road.  He also will kill anyone who he gets in his way.   Lovejoy is a government agent and a regular customer of the shack  all the while trying to infiltrate Marvin’s Commie group.  Moore is a waitress at the shack and  the love interest of all concerned.


This is an ultra low budget film with most of the action taking place inside the “shack.”  There is a scene in which  Marvin and Wynn are weightlifting and comparing their muscles.  It is rather hilarious and one can only assume it was simply to fill time.



THE RED MENACE     1949      Republic Pictures     Driector:  R.G. Springsteen

Robert Rockwell,  Betty Lou Gerson,  Hannelore Axman


Republic’s  entry into the Commie as bad guys derby was one of the first and they laid claim to the best title.  Republic was low budget all the way and the no name cast reflects how cheap it really was. Rockwell in the lead role became best known as Eve Arden’s love interest in the television version of Our Miss Brooks.


Rockwell is a disillusioned vet who falls for the Commie line with a little help from seductress Axman.  They both wise up when they witness a fellow member killed after challenging the leaders with a patriotic speech about the virtues of democracy.  The message is you can never leave the Party as  Rockwell and Axman both become targets and are hunted by Commie goons when they try to leave.   The theme of loosing control of your life after a bad choice reoccurs throughout film noir and seems to be the warning here.



THE WHIP HAND    1951      RKO    Director:  William Cameron Menzies

Elliot Reid,  Carla Balenda,  Raymond Burr,  Edgar Barrier


Reid is a journalist on fishing trip in the backwaters of Minnesota when car trouble forces him into a small out of the way hamlet. He soon realizes something strange is going on.  What he discovers is a ring of Commies led by Burr who are running a biological laboratory and preparing to unleash germ warfare on America.  Not only that, but they are using humans  to test their concoctions and the captured Reid and Balenda will be their next victims.


With the helpless Balenda strapped to a table about to be made  into a mutant and the hero Reid fighting to save her, this plays out like a Republic serial making it entertaining if nothing else.  The story was originally written with ex-Nazis as the bad guys trying to extract revenge after the end of WWII.  But Howard Hughes, who by then owned RKO and was staunchly anti-communist, insisted that Commies, however implausible, be the villains.


WOMAN ON PIER 13    1949     RKO      Director:  Robert Stevenson

Robert Ryan,  Thomas Gomez,  Laraine Day,  John Agar,  Janet Carter,  William Talman


Ryan is an executive with a San Francisco shipping firm who once belonged to the Communist Party.  Party leader Gomez tries to extort Ryan with exposure in order to use him to foment labor unrest on the docks.  As a backup, he uses Carter to try an seduce Ryan, all of which he is resist.  Talman is the party  hit man ready to kill anyone on Gomez’s orders.  And not just any killing will do, bound victims are thrown off the pier while others are pushed out of a window and run down on the street.


This is by far the best of the Commie themed film noirs.  Gomez could just as well be a mafia boss and it wouldn’t change the story. The dark atmosphere of Ryan’s predicament is captured by veteran noir cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca.   It’s pre-release title was I Married A Communist  but RKO changed it after preview audiences couldn’t make any connection.

I’LL GET YOU    1952      Lippert  Pictures    Director:  Seymour Friedman

George Raft,  Sally Gray


A foreign government is abducting scientist from the United States and England.  FBI agent Raft goes undercover to England to follow up leads on an abducted American engineer.  In London he is teamed with British agent Gray and together they zip around town in her cool looking Sunbeam Talbot following clues.  It’s  gets a little tedious with Raft not providing much emotion.  The foreign agents are seen as cold blooded killers who turn on those that help them.  


Raft, no longer a Hollywood commodity made this film for low budget producer Lippert Films.  Shot on location in London adds to its appeal and the feeling of a more expensive film.

A BULLET FOR JOEY    1955    United Artist     Director:  Lewis Allen

Edward G. Robinson,  George Raft,  Audrey Totter,  Toni Gerry,  Steven Geray,  George Dolenz


Raft in familiar role as a gangster who is hired by a “foreign power”  to kidnap a nuclear scientist (Dolenz) and smuggle him out of Canada.   Raft enlist the services of former girlfriend Totter to seduce Dolenz.   Robinson is a Canadian police detective keeping an eye on Raft’s activities.  As you might predict the invariable clash between the two includes Robinson appealing to Raft’s patriotic loyalties.  It’s interesting to note that the subversive agents were never identified as communist but the inference was  clear.


The most redeeming thing about this film is having Raft and Robinson together.  Both were near the end of their careers so this serves as something of time warp.  Robinson shows he could still deliver while Raft was still Raft.   Raft , who was never much of a screen lover, has very awkward clinch with Totter, who was also getting past her prime.

BIG JIM McLAIN       1952     Warner Bros.       Director:  Edward Ludwig

John Wayne,  Nancy Olson,  James Arness,  Alan Napier


This is an odd film.  OK, it’s not film noir but it’s about as close as the Duke ever came to one.  Wayne and Arness are government investigators who travel to Hawaii to check on Commie activity in the islands.  Soon after arriving Wayne strikes up a romance with Olson and before you know it they are engaged.   While the two of them enjoy all that Hawaii has to offer, Arness is abducted and killed by a Commie quack doctor trying to get information from him.  As one might expect there is a big fight scene with Wayne punching out a bunch of Commies who are rounded up.    The Commies all invoke the Fifth Amendment when called to a hearing and are set free.   


One would expect a  thorough demonizing  of Communism in a film starring Wayne.  But this one is pretty mild by comparison.   It could easily be described as a Wayne-Olson romance film with the Commies as a distraction.  There is even a scene where Hans Conried does a standup comedy routine for Wayne and Olson for no logical reason.  An odd film indeed.  





I WAS A COMMUNIST FOR THE F.B.I.      1951   Warner Bros.     Director:  Gordon Douglas

Frank Lovejoy,  Dorothy Hart,  Philip Carey,  James Millican


Based loosely on a true story, Lovejoy is an F.B.I. agent who goes undercover to infiltrate the Communist Party in Pittsburgh.  The Commies are are depicted more for their self-serving interest and dirty tricks than the violent thugs of other films of the era.  The film focuses mainly on the ostracisation of Lovejoy by his  family and friends as he upholds the  facade of an enthusiastic member of the of the Party.  

CAPTAIN SCARFACE       1953    Lincoln Productions      Director:   Paul Guilfoyle

Barton MacLane,  Leif Erickson,  Virginia Grey


The Soviets sink a freighter and kill all aboard so they can substitute their own ship with MacLane as Captain.  MacLane and his crew of dedicated Commies have a nuclear bomb on board an plan to explode it as they transit the Panama Canal.  Erickson stumbles on to the plot after assuming a dead agent’s identity to get passage.   He and other passengers attempt to foil the scheme.   


This was the one and only film produced by Lincoln Productions which apparently sought to capitalize on the Red scare with this far reaching tale.  The cast, with MacLane (whose accent is at first laughable and then becomes annoying) in the title role forewarns how cheap this film was made.    While the storey may have played well during the early Cold War era,  did anyone stop to ask what the Soviet Union had to gain by blowing up the Canal. And what about that title.

American Film Noir
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