The films of Abraham Polonsky are filled with the ambitious and the opportunistic, with double crosses and betrayals, and with capitalist corruption and exploitation. They are the stuff of McCarthy-inspired nightmares, laden with paranoia about the loss of one’s constitutional rights.
Throughout the course of his turbulent Hollywood career, spanning from the 1940s to the early 1980s, Polonsky directed only three features and scripted a handful more. Blacklisted early in his career because of his Communist ties, Polonsky left a 21-year gap between his directorial debut, 1948’s Force of Evil, and his follow-up, 1969’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. (Tom Andersen and Noel Burch’s insightful documentary, Red Hollywood, chronicles Communist filmmakers in Hollywood and expertly examines the context in which Polonsky was working.) Polonsky’s oeuvre may be small in size, but it’s rich and complex in its political and artistic achievements.
In addition to the now-classic noir Force of Evil (Polonsky’s paradigm for moral corruption and betrayal), career highlights include Michael Gordon’s I Can Get It For You Wholesale (adapted by Laura’s Vera Caspary), a feminist tale about New York’s garment industry in the 1950s in which a female designer (Susan Hayward) tries to break through the male-dominated workforce; Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow, a race-tinged noir about a bank heist, starring Harry Belafonte and genre regulars Robert Ryan and Gloria Grahame; and Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, a revisionist Western about lynch-mob mentality, starring Robert Redford. Polonsky’s films are characterized by more than just his left-wing politics and sympathy for the underdogs: they attempt to understand — but not forgive — their villains, however corrupt they may be.