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Abraham Polonsky (1910-1999)


American director and screenwriter who wrote essays, radio scripts and several novels before starting his career in Hollywood. Polonsky was blacklisted by the House on Un-American Activities Committee for refusal to cooperate during the anti-Communist witch hunt of the 1950s. His most famous works as a screenwriter include the classic boxing film Body and Soul (1947), directed by Robert Rossen. Its influence can be seen in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull (1980) and also in Sylvester Stallone's Rocky movies.

"First of all, directing is an idea that you have of a total flow of images that are going on, which are incidentally actors, words, and objects in space. It's an idea you have of yourself, like the idea you have of your own personality which finds its best representation in the world in terms of specific flows of imaginary images. That's what directing is." (Polonsky in Directing the Film by Ed Sherman, 1976)

Abraham Polonsky was born in New York City, the oldest son of a Russian-Jewish immigrants. His father, who spoke and wrote several languages, was a pharmacist, and a graduate from the University of Columbia. His socialist ideals influenced deeply Polonsky, who read voraciously books from their home collections. At an early age, Polonsky decided to become a writer. Later in the novel Zenia's Way (1980) Polonsky portrayed his father, who dreamed of returning to school and being a doctor : "Mostly, though, he seemed to be wanting to have a different profession entirely and often spoke of it as if it were still possible. Anyway he was clever and witty about it."

In 1928, Polonsky entered the New York City College. After graduating, he studied at Columbia Law School, receiving his B.A. (1935). He practiced law for a few years and taught at the New York City College. In 1937, he left his work as a lawyer and decided to devote himself to writing, beginning from radio plays. "Writing good sentences is a gift," Polonsky has said in an interview. "And writing good dialogue is a special gift." Probably in the late 1930s, Polonsky also joined the American Communist Party. He participated in the union politics and established and edited a local newspaper, The Home Front. In 1940, Polonsky published his first novel, a mystery story The Goose Is Cooked, which he wrote with Mitchell A. Wilson, using co-pseudonym Emmert Hogarth.

Before signing a screenwriter's contract with Paramount, Polonsky published another novel, The Enemy Sea (1943), which was dedicated to National Maritime Union. During World War II, Polonsky served with the OSS in Europe, and moved to Hollywood after the war.

Charley: "When I lose the championship, they'll have to carry me out."
Lloyd Goff: "This gym is full of guys who were carried out."

(from Body and Soul)

In Paramount Polonsky's script for Mitchell Leisen's Golden Earrings was thoroughly revised. His intended film about the Gypsy holocaust was turned into a romantic spy story, starring Marlene Dietrich. The film failed badly both with the critics and the public, but its haunting song, sung by Murvyn Vye, became a hit recording in 1947-48 by Peggy Lee. With this experience still fresh in his mind, Polonsky joined the new independent company Enterprise Studios and made the screenplay for Robert Rossen´s Body and Soul, about money, fame and selling one's soul. John Garfield played Charlie, who has left his poor neighborhood, friends and family, and gained fame as a boxer. He is obsessed with money and fame, and prefers the company of those who flatter him. After signing a contract with a gangster, he ordered to take a dive and lose his title. The crucial scene in the ring was intensely shot by James Wong Howe. Rossen himself had been a former prizefighter. Polonsky juxtaposed the world of money with friendship and love, and the boxing arena becomes a metaphor for survival under the rules of capitalism. The film was nominated for an Academy Award.

"Body and Soul made money. It was a hit. When it was a hit, I was a hit. I had never directed anything. But I figured I could do it. And I could. I knew that was where the fun was. The director spends the money. And it's harder to replace him. You can get rid of him, but it's a very expensive hobby. Getting rid of the writer is cheaper." (Abraham Polonsky in 'If You Don't Get Kiled It's a Lucky Day' by Lee Server, published in The Big Book of Noir, ed. by Lee Server, Ed Gorman, Martin H. Greenberg, 1988)

Polonsky's debut as a director, Force of Evil (1948), is considered most overtly political of all the crime films of the 1940s. After completing his first directorial effort, Polonsky went to Europe to write a novel and acquire the screen rights for Thomas Mann´s short story Mario and the Magician, an allegorical tale of the power of fascism.

Force of Evil did not gain success in the United States, but it was hailed as a masterpiece in England, and enjoys nowadays a cult status. The film was based on Ira Wolfert's underworld novel Tucker's People. In the story a lawyer, Joe Morse (John Garfield), has sold his expertise to Tucker (Roy Roberts), a gangster, who considers himself a businessman. "I wasn't strong enough to resist corruption, but I was strong enough to grab a piece of it," says Garfield's character to Beatrice Pearson, an idealistic young woman. Tucker runs an illegal lottery known as the "numbers racket". Joe finds that his boss has killed his brother Leo, who had his own lottery. "The analogy between the numbers racket and capitalism itself, with the reduction of human life to money and numbers, and the irresistible urge to monopoly, are there for all to see, reinforced by several location sequences in which the skyscrapers and steel bridges of New York dwarf the human dramas enacted below." (from The BFI Companion to Crime, ed. by Phil Hardy, 1997). Polonsky's "autopsy on capitalism" presented a merciless view of society, where rich get richer by exploiting the poor. After this work Polonsky did not direct again for twenty years. The influence of the film is seen among others in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973), in which Harvey Keitel's character struggles with a similar moral choice as Garfield.

Polonsky's third and most celebrated novel, The World Above, came out in 1951. The work follows psychologist Carl Myers as he learns, that outside the walls of the objective scientific research there are real people and their problems. Polonsky´s film projects were stopped, when he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The Illinois congressman Harold Velde called the director a "very dangerous citizen". "It was around by the time I did Force of Evil," said Polonsky later. "It was in the air. It was part of the cold war. The blacklist was already happening to people. It was inevitable that it was going to happen to me too unless I changed my position, which I wasn't about to do. So..." (in 'If You Don't Get Kiled It's a Lucky Day' by Lee Server)

Although blacklisted, Polonsky continued in film industry, writing TV scripts and doctoring screenplays. In the 1950s, he returned with his family to New York, where he wrote for CBS, among others episodes for Danger series, in which directors included Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer and Yul Brynner, and for You Are There, a dramatized documentary of such historical events as the trial of Joan of Arc, the death of John Dillinger, etc. With Harry Belafonte and Robert Wise he made Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), based on William P. McGivern's novel. Polonsky wrote the script, having the author and civil-rights activist John Oliver Killens ( (1916–1987) as a front, but it was not until forty years later, when Polonsky was given public credit. In the brutal crime story a plan to rob a bank fails due to racial hatred between the three robbers. Robert Ryan played a racist ex-con, Belafonte was a gambler, and David Burke a former policeman. The jazz score was composed by John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

In the 1960s, Polonsky was story editor of the Canadian series Seaway (1964-65). Frank Rosenberg from Universal-International employed him first to write for Kraft Suspense Theatre, and then to co-write Madigan (1968) with Howard Rodman. This unpretentious police thriller, starring Henry Fonda and Richard Widmark, was directed by Don Siegel, who had been regarded as a B-movie director in the 1950s and 1960s, and who went on to make Dirty Harry in 1971. Because the blacklist had relaxed, Polonsky again used his own name in the credits. Also the cast included an ex-blacklistee, the actor Lloyd Gough. Howard Rodman, using the pseudonym Henri Simoun, had been blacklisted in the 1950s.

In 1970, Polonsky returned to Hollywood to make Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1970), nearly a quarter of a century after his directorial debut. The film was based on Harry Lawton's novel about Indian turned cowboy, who is pursued into desert after an accidental death. Polansky's third and last directional work, Romance of a Horsethief  (1971), was set in Poland at the turn of the century. Shot in Yugoslavia, most of its technical staff did not speak English. According to Polonsky, David Opatoshu who wrote the script - it was his first - was shocked, when learned that the director used accidents as a method of filmmaking. The nostalgic Jewish drama ended up rather like Fiddler on the Roof, without the music. Polonsky himself enjoyed shooting abroad. Although the film got mostly good reviews, people did not want to see it. "I was very surprised that they didn't," the Polonsky said.

The following films, among them old projects like Mario and the Magician and Childhood's End, based on Arthur C. Clarke's novel, did not materialize. In the 1970s Polonsky worked with Avalanche Express, adapted from Colin Forbes's thriller. In the early 1980s, he helped in Mommie Dearest, based on Christina Crawford's memoirs, and The Man Who Lived at the Ritz (1981), based on A.E. Hotchner's novel. Monsignor, from Jack Alain Léger's novel, is among Polonsky's last feature films as a co-screenwriter. Zenia's Way partly drews from his childhood memories.  Polonsky received the Career Achievement Award of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association in 1999. Polonsky died on October 26, 1999, in Beverly Hills.

For further reading: A Very Dangerous Citizen: Abraham Lincoln Polonsky and the Hollywood Left by Paul Buhle, Dave Wagner (2001); Literature Film Quarterly Vol. XXIV (1996); Musta käytävä by Matti Salo foreword by Abraham Polonsky (1991); Radical Innocence by Bernard F. Dick (1989); The Director's Event: Interviews With Five American Film-Makers by Eric Sherman & Martin Rubin (1970); Creative Differences by Barbara Zheutin and David Talbot (1978); Directing the Film by Ed Sherman (1976) - See also: Hollywood blacklist - Other blacklisted screenwriters: Paul Jarrico, Michael Wilson, Hugo Butler, Dalton Trumbo.

Selected films as screenwriter:

  • Golden Earrings, 1947 (co-sc., novel Yolanda Foldes, dir. Mitchell Leiden, starring Ray Milland, Marlene Dietrich, Murvyn Vye, Bruce Lester)
  • Body and Soul, 1947 (dir. Robert Rossen, starring John Garfield, Lilli Palmer, Hazel Brooks; remade in 1981 and for TV in 1998)
  • I Can Get It to You Wholesale, 1951 (novel Jerome Weidman, dir. Michael Gordon, starring Susan Hayward, Dan Dailey, George Sanders)
  • Odds Against Tomorrow, 1959 (uncredited, novel by William P. McGivern, dir. Robert Wise, starring Harry Belafonte, Robert Ryan, Ed Begley)
  • Madigan, 1968 (co-sc., based on Richard Dougherty's novel The Comissioner, dir. Don Siegel, starring Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Inger Stevens, Michael Dunn)
  • Avalanche Express, 1979 (based on the novel by Colin Forbes, dir. Mark Robson, starring Robert Shaw, Lee Marvin, Linda Evans, Maximilian Achell, Mike Connors)
  • Monsignor, 1982 (co-sc., novel Jack Alain Leger, dir. Frank Perry, starring Chrisopher Reeve, Genevieve Bujold, Fernando Rey, Jason Miller)
  • Mommie Dearest, 1981 (uncredited, dir. Frank Perry, starring Faye Dunaway, Diana Scarwid, Steve Forest)
  • Body and Soul, 1981 (from Polonsky's original screenplay, dir. George Bowers, starring Leon Isaac Kennedy, Jayne Kennedy, Muhammad Ali)

As director-screenwriter:

  • Force of Evil, 1948 (based on Ira Wolfert's novel Tucker's People, starring John Garfield, Thomas Gomez, Beatrice Pearson, Marie Windsor)
  • Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, 1970 (based on Harry Lawton's novel, starring Robert Redford, Robert Blake, Katharine Ross, Susan Clark)
  • Romance of a Horsethief, 1971 (screenplay by David Opatoshu, based on his father's novel, starring Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Jane Birkin, Oliver Tobias)

Novels, essays, and plays:

  • The Goose Is Cooked , 1940 (with Mitchell A Wilson - pseudonym Emmett Hogarth)
  • The Enemy Sea, 1943 (novel)
  • The Case of David Smith, 1946 (radio play)
  • Piéce de Résistance, 1945, 1947-50, 1981 (play)
  • A Little Fire, 1946 (short story)
  • The Marvelous Boy, 1946 (short story)
  • The World Above, 1951 (novel)
  • Hemingway and Chaplin, 1953 (essay)
  • A Season of Fear, 1956 (novel)
  • Une expérience utopique, 1962 (essay)
  • How the Blacklist Worked in Hollywood, 1970 (essay)
  • Making Movies, 1971 (essay)
  • Zenia's Way, 1980 (novel)
  • Children of Eden, 1982 (unfinished novel)
  • To Illuminate Our Time: The Blacklisted Teleplays of Abraham Polonsky, 1993

Unproduced screenplays:

  • The Paris Story, 1945-45
  • The Wayfarers, 1946
  • Mario and the Magician, 1950-58 (based on Thomas Mann's novel)
  • Revival (in the 1950s with Walter Bernstein)
  • The Gladiators, 1958-60 (based on Arthur Koestler's novel from 1938)
  • Mad King Paul, 1959
  • The Brothers, 1959-71
  • The Jamaica Story (in the 1960s)
  • King Fisher's Road, 1966-67
  • Childhood's End, 1967-75 (based on Arthur C. Clarke's novel from 1953)
  • Wasaja, 1960/1970
  • O Jerusalem, 1976 (based on Larry Collins's and Dominique Lapierre's book from 1972)
  • The Man Who Lived at the Ritz, 1982 (produced in England in 1988, not based on Polonsky's script)
  • Assassinatuon of Embassy Row, 1982
  • Season of Fear, 1985-89 (produced in 1991 under the title Guilty By Suspicion, dir. Irwin Winkler, starring Robert De Niro, Annette Bening, George Wendt; Polonsky withdrew from the project)

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