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The Iron Curtain

07 May

The 50s saw the red scare, fanned by McCarthyite rhetoric, blaze into life in Hollywood. With the HUAC inspired blacklists casting a dark pall over the movie capital, there was a kind of desperation in the air, a need to prove one’s patriotism and simultaneous rejection of the evils of communism. This meant the decade saw the production of a number of films directly addressing the issue and sending out a message to the witch-hunters that the industry was aware and prepared to play ball. Whatever contemporary reactions may have been, these films, by and large, not only seem lousy when viewed today but they also remind us of all those careers and lives left in tatters by the taint of the blacklist. From a purely artistic standpoint, the ham-fisted presentation of political dogma and the judgemental tone adopted both bog down the narrative and, in the worst cases, leave a very sour taste. However, there are always exceptions, and William Wellman’s The Iron Curtain (1948) is one of the more polished and less hysterical pieces of work from a generally unsavoury interlude in cinema history. I think this is partly due to the skills of Wellman as a filmmaker, and partly as a result of the production taking place right at the beginning of HUAC’s reign of terror, before it’s raging paranoia had fully matured.

In keeping with a lot of Fox movies of the time, the film opens with a declaration that what we’re about to see is a true story, shot on real locations. The cool, authoritative tone of the narrator further enhances the sense that this is something more than mere Hollywood fantasy. I’ve often found that there’s a tiresome quality to some of these earnest eulogies to the dedication and responsibility of various government agencies remaining ever vigilant in the face of multiple threats from without and within. What sets the introduction of The Iron Curtain apart is its location if nothing else. The entire film takes place in Ottawa, Canada, so we are spared yet another hymn to the efficacy of the FBI, Treasury agents or other assorted G Men. Instead, the plot follows the establishment of a Soviet fifth column in Canada during the war and its subsequent dismantling as the big freeze of the Cold War set in. As I said, the movie doesn’t takes us behind the scenes of one of those complex government sting operations that were much favoured by contemporary filmmakers, but concentrates on telling the tale of how one man brought a spy ring to its knees off his own bat. The man in question is Igor Gouzenko (Dana Andrews), a cipher clerk freshly assigned to the Soviet embassy in Canada. The first third of the film goes to great pains to establish how loyal Gouzenko was to his own country and political system, one of those resolute, unthinking servants of the state with clear and direct convictions. As we observe the steadfast Gouzenko going manfully about his duties, we’re also afforded a view into the closed world of the Soviet diplomatic mission. And it’s a drab, forbidding world at that, peopled with stony-faced officials and dripping an atmosphere of suspicion and secrecy. There’s also a glimpse at the careful construction of the spy network, whose eventual unravelling provides the dramatic backdrop for the latter stages of the story. It’s Gouzenko who brings the whole thing crashing down, and his motivation for doing so is a slow realization that he’s serving a flawed master. The catalyst for his decision is the arrival in Canada of his wife Anna (Gene Tierney), and the birth of a son. The presence of this human element greatly strengthens the story and adds to the dramatic tension of the final third. By doing so, the political aspects necessarily take a back seat to the unfolding drama of a family suddenly cast into a perilous situation.

Even if it’s viewed purely as a propaganda piece, then I think The Iron Curtain is remarkably successful. The reason for that is the script and Wellman’s ability to sidestep the trap of sensationalism and instead adopt a more matter of fact tone, letting the events and their inherent drama speak for themselves. Of course, the air of quiet dread that seems to hang over the scenes in the embassy emphasises the stifling lack of personal and intellectual freedom, but this is quite subtly achieved. The ever-present music from Soviet composers, the inclusion of which in the score apparently caused something of a minor international incident at the time, has the effect of building up the brooding, sinister feel. The only time we take a detour into the realm of direct political preaching is when one of the Soviet residents (Eduard Franz) seals his own fate by getting drunk and lamenting the betrayal of the ideals of the revolution by the apparatchiks who have risen to prominence in Moscow. As a thriller, the film really comes into its own in the final third, as Gouzenko decides to take that leap of faith and defect. Wellman, and cameraman Charles G Clarke, employ classic film noir techniques of lighting and shooting angles to ratchet up the tension during Gouzenko’s theft of incriminating documents from the embassy, and then again in the climactic standoff in his apartment. Another notable aspect of the film is how the government agencies – I’m guessing the Canadian setting facilitated this slight subversion – are conspicuous by their lack of involvement. In fact, there’s initially a downright refusal on the part of the authorities to become involved in what they take to be the ravings of a lunatic.

Dana Andrews was never one of the most emotive or demonstrative of actors, the kind of guy who tended to keep it all inside and bottled up. Such characteristics can unfairly lead to accusations of woodenness when the truth is it’s simply another, and no less effective, style of performing. As it happens, that tight-lipped anxiety that he had a talent for fits the character of Gouzenko to a tee. After all, this is a man who’s been trained to exert self-control in the first place and who then finds himself in a situation where both his own and his family’s survival depends on the maintenance of a facade. Still, Andrews conveyed more than a blank countenance when he had to, the eyes in particular registering the mounting pressure Gouzenko was subjected to. Gene Tierney was making her fourth film alongside Andrews, the most successful being their partnership in Laura a few years earlier, and was good enough in a fairly undemanding role. Her main purpose was to act as a softening and humanizing influence on her previously stiff and determined husband, and that’s how she comes across. However, arguably the most memorable work is produced by the supporting cast. Berry Kroeger was making his screen debut as the shadowy head of Canada’s communists and carries off the part of the principal villain with aplomb. Playing such a Machiavellian puppet master required a good deal of restraint combined with implicit menace. Kroeger was blessed with the features and voice that were ideally suited to this kind of role and he makes a very strong impression. Stefan Schnabel also shines as the head of the NKVD, masking a dangerous ruthlessness with an outwardly reasonable persona. And finally, June Havoc appears as the embassy secretary with a wandering eye and a special brief to vet the reliability of all new staff.

I think the only DVD edition of The Iron Curtain to date is the one issued in Spain by Fox/Impulso. In terms of picture quality, it’s one of their mid-range efforts. There hasn’t been any restoration work done, as can be seen from the cue blips and so on, but the print used is in generally good condition and doesn’t display noticeable wear. Extras are limited to the usual gallery and text data on the cast and crew. The disc offers English and Spanish soundtracks - the Spanish subtitles are optional and can be deselected via the setup menu. While I certainly don’t think this film represents Wellman at his best, it is an interesting addition to his body of work. The main attraction of The Iron Curtain though lies in its historical significance, coming as it does near the beginning of the red scare. It’s interesting to observe the comparatively restrained approach it takes to its emotive subject matter in contrast to some of the more hyperbolic and offensive offerings that the following decade would eventually produce. Generally, this is worthwhile viewing for fans of Wellman and for providing a snapshot of early Hollywood reactions to the HUAC assault.

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30 responses to “The Iron Curtain

  1. Cavershamragu

    May 7, 2012 at 9:35 am

    Great choice Colin and certainly makes for a fascinating companion piece with De Toth’s later MAN ON A STRING. I had no idea it was out on DVD anywhere so that is really great news. And I love Juve Havoc (who was the sister of Gypsy Rose Lee!)

    As I understand it there was in fact quite a lot of controversy when the film came out, not least from the Soviet composers like Shostakovich and Prokofiev whose music was apparently used without their direct permission and eventually this actually went to court (Fox won, unsurprisingly, as the court of the day held that the USSR’s works were public domain the USA) . Zanuck was incensed by Bosley Crowther’s critical review of the movie in the New York Times who accused the movie of scaremongering. Zanuck sent a letter to the New York Times that in part said, “”My answer is that the picture is calculated to, and does, arouse the public to vigilance against a menace….The Communists and their ideological companions in this country did not picket the newspapers which printed accounts of the trials, the Cosmopolitan magazine, Reader’s Digest , or the publishing house which printed Gouzenko’s book. But they did picket the Roxy Theatre…they were more afraid of the printed picture than the printed word….Our picture does not preach hatred of the Russians, but of the hatred they have for our democratic way of life.”

     
    • Colin

      May 7, 2012 at 9:49 am

      Hi Sergio. Yes, the controversy over the score is a fascinating little footnote, isn’t it?

      These red scare movies seem like historical curiosities these days, but they give a lot of insight into the thinking of the time. The Iron Curtain works fine as a thriller in its own right though, unlike something along the lines of Big Jim McLain which is virtually unwatchable as a serious film nowadays.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        May 7, 2012 at 10:12 am

        The Wayne movie is completely laughable isn’t it? If nothing else, HUAC was responsible for a lot of bad art amongst its more egregious sins.

         
        • Colin

          May 7, 2012 at 10:22 am

          It’s an astoundingly bad movie – and this is from someone who considers himself a Wayne fan. When I first got round to seeing it a while back I thought it couldn’t possibly be as bad as its reputation suggested. I was wrong though; it’s much, much worse. The dreadful sermonizing that’s shoehorned in just kills it stone dead, and the characterization and truly lamentable attempts to inject some “humour” are borderline embarrassing. Wayne’s worst movie by quite some distance.

          Generally, I dislike overtly political films, whatever their stance, as I feel the need to get the message across usually dooms the narrative or leads to crass oversimplification. I think the red scare stuff, as opposed to more regular Cold War thrillers, may be among the worst offenders though.

           
          • Cavershamragu

            May 7, 2012 at 10:33 am

            Certainly a perfect double bill with THE GREEN BERETS which for some reason is getting repeated endlessly on UK TV at the mo and which is the other contender for the most dunderheaded movie Wayne ever made. As someone brought up on Italian cinema of the 1970s I think I am much more prone to enjoying movies that make political statements, like says BATTLE OF ALGIERS or even something muddled like THE CONFORMIST, but I agree that, especially in the context of Hollwood cinema, it often doesn’t work. I’m just doing a review of KEEPER OF THE FLAME actually for posting tomorrow which is a perfect example of this

             
            • Colin

              May 7, 2012 at 11:05 am

              Actually, I think The Green Berets works much better as a 60s action/war movie. Where it falls apart is the attempt to weld WWII politics and idealism onto a Vietnam War story.

              I’m looking forward to that Keeper of the Flame piece; it’s a film I’ve tried hard to like and get into but it just doesn’t gel.

               
  2. Barry Lane

    May 7, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    The Iron Curtain is nothing of what you say nor was the period. The blacklist did go wrong, but the people black listed were not social democrats but supporters of the Soviet Union which in historical terms was more brutal, more repressive and far more successful than Nazi Germany. But, the same kind of thing with some soft headed Americans on-side. As for Big Jim McLain–this was never a serious picture. The Russians were indeed the enemy. And a formidable one. Possibly, they still are.

     
    • Colin

      May 7, 2012 at 7:41 pm

      Barry, I’m not going to get into a spat over the blacklist or the politics of paranoia. I have my own views on the issue and no doubt others hold those which are different.

       
  3. Barry Lane

    May 7, 2012 at 7:47 pm

    That is at least in part what you were reviewing as opposed to the efficiency, style and effectivness of the film. That Paranoia was at lest somewhat in place, in some quarters, does not make the issue evaporate. Dangerous days.

     
    • Colin

      May 7, 2012 at 8:11 pm

      Well, I think I’ve been fair to the film on an artistic level. As I said, I believe it functions fine as both a thriller and as a political statement. I also feel that I’ve been even-handed in pointing out that it’s a much more subtle and thoughtful piece of work than a lot of the lesser efforts that followed.

      Reviewing any movie with such subject matter inevitably requires one to pass comment both on its content and the context in which it was produced. In doing so, my own feelings on the circumstances that led this production are bound to surface. I guess my own take could be boiled down to this: adopting even some of the methods of a system to which one is morally opposed (blacklisting individuals, driving free expression underground, creating an atmosphere of fear and distrust) has the effect of weakening one’s own position and moral authority.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        May 7, 2012 at 9:33 pm

        I think you have been more than fair to this film Colin and the period that produced it – probably much more level-headed than I would have been. Thanks again for the intelligent and reasoned arguments, greatly appreciated.

         
        • Colin

          May 7, 2012 at 9:38 pm

          Cheers for that.

           
  4. Barry Lane

    May 7, 2012 at 11:52 pm

    I hope if one substutued Nazi Germany for Stalinist Russia you would be on side with denying these good people a forum. Yes…?

     
    • Colin

      May 8, 2012 at 7:38 am

      Barry, I feel my reply to your previous comment made my position abundantly clear and doesn’t require any further clarification.
      This is movie blog, not a forum for the kind of discussion you’re keen to pursue, so the issue of permitting or denying such doesn’t come into it in my opinion.
      I think that’s all that needs to be said on the matter.
      Thank you.

       
  5. Jeff Flugel

    May 8, 2012 at 11:08 am

    Very thoughtful and interesting post, Colin! I haven’t seen this film but am familiar with many of the others of its kind to which you referred indirectly in your post (the most egregious example being BIG JIM MCLAIN, which Sergio already mentioned). I recently watched the Jimmy Stewart film THE F.B.I. STORY, which has a similarly earnest, authoritative “Dragnet-esque” tone, softened somewhat by the ever-likeable Stewart doing the narration. Some parts of the film are quite interesting, but you can feel the hand of J. Edgar pulling the strings in others, especially the “Communist spy ring” final reel. The film remains a fitfully entertaining piece of work by and large (again almost single-handedly thanks to Stewart’s presence), but perhaps it’s more notable today as a period piece encapsulating a certain mood prevalent at that time.

    I found your comments re: Dana Andrews interesting. I hadn’t really thought of him as a buttoned-down, interior sort of actor before but upon reflection he does have that sort of quality in a number of his films. My main mental image of Andrews as a performer was cemented from numerous viewings of THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, where he gets a chance to be angry, emotive, and even have a sort of brief PTSD breakdown near the end. I think you nailed it though when you describe his usual intense, contained persona as “simply another, and no less effective, style of performing.” Anyone who would claim Andrews was “wooden” just isn’t paying enough attention to what he’s really doing.

     
    • Colin

      May 8, 2012 at 11:31 am

      Hi Jeff.
      I’ve seen Andrews in so many movies over the years that I’ve grown to think of him as mostly an internalized performer, although there are exceptions as you say, where there’s so much happening just below the surface.
      Someone once commented that Glenn Ford gave the impression of a man not quite comfortable in his own skin, and I get some of that vibe from Andrews too. That may be part of the reason both men seemed at home in film noir and complex westerns, where conveying a vague unease was a definite plus for a performer.

       
  6. Barry Lane

    May 8, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    Colin:

    Had you not introduced fifties pseudo-liberal politics into the first several sentences in a review of a forties based on fact film, I would not have responded, and I mean at all. These are my final words.

     
  7. Judy

    May 9, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    I’m very interested to read your review of this one, Colin, which is a Wellman I haven’t seen as yet – I’ve been rather hoping it will turn up on TV, but if not I may cave in and buy the Spanish DVD. It sounds from your excellent write-up as if this film is better than another Cold War film Wellman made a few years later, ‘Blood Alley’, which I find rather a mess, though it has its moments. I’m also keen to see more of Dana Andrews’ work after admiring him so much in ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’.

     
    • Colin

      May 9, 2012 at 8:11 pm

      Hi Judy. The Iron Curtain is a much more accomplished piece of work than Blood Alley, which I agree is an unsatisfactory picture. The Spanish DVD is reasonably priced at Amazon.es at the moment and I have no regrets about getting it.

      Dana Andrews was always a favourite of mine – I think I first saw him in Laura – and he’s generally very reliable. I haven’t seen many movies where he disappointed.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        May 9, 2012 at 8:36 pm

        LAURA is such a special kid of film that, for me, I sort of tend to think of the performances in a kind of amber, a sort of perfect isolation, but in fact Andrews is just as good in the totally different, yet equally slippery, BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT and in a host of other movies (even comic villains as in BALL OF FIRE). BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES is a tremendously powerful film as Jeff points out and the big emotional sequence in the bomber is really impressive, and tends to highlight the fact that Andrews could, if one were being a wee bit critical, sometimes be a bit too dour and inexpressive in some roles.

         
        • Colin

          May 9, 2012 at 8:55 pm

          I’ve seen some criticism of Andrews’ playing in Laura too – critics have cited his lack of emotional involvement, but I’ve never bought into that myself. His gruff performance suits the role of a blue collar guy drawn into a world that’s basically alien to him.

          Aside from the roles you mention, I’ve great admiration for his work in Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends and Fallen Angel.

           
          • Cavershamragu

            May 9, 2012 at 9:10 pm

            He’s just perfect casting in LAURA and did work incredibly well in those Preminger movies (and DAISY KENYON too) – I would also add, apart from the Wellmann and Wyler pictures mentioned, the fantastic NIGHT OF THE DEMON, just one of the best tales of the supernatural ever committed to film. His urbane and down to earth sensibility is crucial to its success,

             
            • Colin

              May 9, 2012 at 9:37 pm

              Quite. Andrews was excellent at grounding movies and ensures a fantastic tale like Tourneur’s Night of the Demon remains eerily believable.

              I don’t know if you’ve ever had the chance to catch Lewis Milestone’s The Purple Heart, but again I feel Andrews has a lot to do with making this film stand out and rise above the mere propaganda piece it’s meant to be.

               
              • Cavershamragu

                May 9, 2012 at 10:43 pm

                I haven’t seen that one in ages but I again remember being impressed by its grim power. I’ve got to pull out the DVD and watch it again really though – thanks for the prod!

                 
  8. Laura

    May 16, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    I saw this film about five years ago and enjoyed revisiting it via your post. As a big fan of Wellman, Andrews, and the Fox docu-noir style (it’s even got Reed Hadley narrating, as he did so often for Fox), I really enjoyed it. I think your assessment of Andrews’ performance in this is right on; it was perfect for him and he really conveyed a lot with his eyes and facial expressions. It’s a shame this has yet to have a DVD release in the U.S.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

     
    • Colin

      May 16, 2012 at 9:55 pm

      Thanks Laura. This movie seems to have fallen by the wayside somewhat and it does deserve to be seen. It’s good to see some more support for Andrews – I reckon he’s due a bit more respect.

      I agree it’s odd the film never got a DVD release in the US; it’s a professional piece of work and a home video release might help raise its profile a little.

       
  9. Mike

    May 23, 2012 at 9:11 pm

    Caught up with it at last! Sorry for the late comment, but the film was well worth it and surprisingly gripping for something that seemed clear where it was heading. On an artistic level, the use of light was masterly – I love the conversations taking place in the shadows between two silhouetted heads. It’s an obvious image but a powerful one.

    As for Dana Andrews, I’m afraid I have seen him too often as wooden in the past. Whether I was just plain wrong or this film is the exception is I guess not for me to say, but I thought he was terrific in a role that demanded stillness. I really enjoyed the sense of conflict in him (after Gene Tierney’s speech about Canada not being bad and then the radio speech) and the panic held deep within later as the Soviets were entering his flat. Mostly, he had me on his side – especially in the scene at the newspaper office – as the desperation mounted, which is all that really counts.

    Favourite image – the sinister vault behind the curtain within Russia’s embassy, and that face glaring out before letting anyone enter.

    Terrific score also. Great review – thanks for introducing me to a fine film.

     
    • Colin

      May 23, 2012 at 9:38 pm

      That’s great Mike. I’m very pleased that you liked the movie so much, and that my recommendation spurred you on to seek it out. The imagery that’s kind of casually thrown around throughout the film is, as you say, very effective.

      And more good words about Dana Andrews! With all the praise for his work from so many people, I think we could almost get a fan club going in his honour. Marvellous stuff!

       
  10. Rockfish

    December 27, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    I’m much late to this Andrews appreciation party, but must say your review has me itching to locate this title. That it incorporates my homeland and one of my personal favourite stars (who I agree fields a similar denouement as Glenn Ford) makes it an automatic view. The issue of foreign intrigue and spies is an element on its own that doesn’t have to feel dated; however much that emerged during the unseemly Red Scare era (or error) has the habit of bearing a sermon tone. Sounds like Wellman balanced the topic skilfully against the winds of popular and then-developing opinions. I’ve also just acquired the Andrews biography and am eager to see how the author paints this film in Andrews’ catalogue… And the discussion amongst yourself and blog readers is, as always, interesting. I am in complete agreement with your final statement on the actual Red Scare paranoia of the days, and unfortunately still see similar tactics from that period used effectively by members of today’s far right here in Canada and south … Again, thanks for an interesting read!

     
    • Colin

      December 27, 2012 at 4:24 pm

      Thanks for the comment. I reckon this is a movie that’s worth getting your hands on if possible. It’s interesting both as a story and a snapshot of the times.
      I still haven’t picked up that new Andrews bio – I have a very long shopping list!

       

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