Perhaps the most talented—and certainly the most politically sophisticated—of Hollywood blacklistees, Bronx-born writer-director Abraham Lincoln Polonsky made a remarkable debut with the poetic, Marxist noir Force of Evil (1948). In a way, it’s amazing that this numbers- racket drama equating crime and capitalism got made at all; in any case, Polonsky had to wait 21 years to direct another film, the New Left western Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.
Unamerican Activities: The Films of Abraham Polonsky brings together both these unusually cerebral and openly left-wing movies, as well a number of others scripted by Polonsky, both before and after he was blacklisted. The 1947 boxing saga Body and Soul is the best-known of these, but Polonsky’s résumé also includes a kitschy Marlene Dietrich spy drama, Golden Earrings (1947); a half-terrific adaptation of I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1951) reconfigured to allow Susan Hayward to play the novel’s ambitious (male) garmento; the late-’50s noir
Odds Against Tomorrow (written with novelist John O. Killens as his front); and, once again under his own name, Don Siegel’s bitter, pre–Dirty Harry policier, Madigan (1968).
Rarest of all is Polonsky’s final feature, the 1971 Romance of a Horse Thief. Among other things, this anti–Fiddler on the Roof account of red-blooded Jewish criminals confounding the czar’s minions was the first Hollywood movie taken from a Yiddish-language novel. (Joseph Opatoshu is the author; his son David is in the movie, along with Eli Wallach, Yul Brynner, Lainie Kazan, and Serge Gainsbourg.) I had the pleasure of introducing Horse Thief‘s most recent previous New York screening, nearly a decade ago. Polonsky was present and de- lighted the audience by assuring them that this 35mm print (borrowed from a Finnish archive) was “the mohel’s own cut.” September 13 through 19, Anthology Film Archives.
By the mid-’60s, nearly every national film industry had its own “new wave”—none, however, was more caustic or politically adventurous than the Yugoslav variety, led by former documentarians like Dusan Makavejev and Zelimir Zilnik and celebrated in BAM’s series, Yugoslavian Black Wave. The rubric “black wave” was bestowed by the Yugoslav CP’s national daily, and it was not complimentary; the titles of “black wave” features—The End of the World Is Coming and When I Am Dead—give some sense of their anti-heroic, blatantly unpatriotic attitude. From an official point of view, the most provocative filmmaker was likely Zilnik; one show is devoted to his taboo-breaking shorts on subjects ranging from the Yugoslav New Left to poverty and unemployment. The series includes Makavejev’s first two features, Man Is Not a Bird and Love Affair, or the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator, with his third, W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, getting a weeklong run. September 12 through 23, BAM.