Thursday, February 18, 2010

Kiss the Blood Off My Hands - Notes

Ken Fox is a former writer for TV Guide and is currently enrolled in the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, preparing for a career as a film archivist. I was fortunate to have him fill in for me on the film noir program, creating notes for the wonderfully titled KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS:

The world of film noir is a shadowy, paranoid place where, as the defeated protagonist of Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945) learns, "fate can put the finger on you and me for no good reason at all." For the three screenwriters of Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, that world became all too real in the years following the film's release. All three were targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee's anti-Communist crusade and had their lives derailed by the notorious Hollywood blacklist.

Unlike most writers who flocked to Hollywood during the Depression, Leonardo Bercovici was already a success when he arrived. He had written and produced a number of well-received plays in New York. In 1935, he created the popular radio show "Billy and Betty." Nevertheless, in 1937, he followed his writing partner (and a future HUAC friendly witness) Robert Rossen to California. Their first screenplay together--a vehicle for the Dead End Kids--was never produced. However, a second script, Racket Busters, was snapped up by Warner Brothers. This tough, pro-union B-movie was a hit. However, on the night of its July 1938 premiere, Bercovici returned to New York where he became increasingly involved in left-wing politics. In 1944, Bercovici joined the Communist Political Association.

While working for the Office of War Information, Bercovici found himself back in Hollywood where he would receive screen credit on four notable films: The Bishop's Wife, The Lost Moment (both 1947), Portrait of Jennie and Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (both 1949). For a second time, Bercovici had "arrived" in Hollywood and this time he intended to stay. Or so he thought. Two weeks before he was to start pre-production on his directorial debut, he was subpoenaed to appear before HUAC. Refusing to name names or even confirm whether he was involved in the Party, Bercovici was blacklisted by an industry that vowed to fight the Red Menace by refusing to employ any one with Communist ties.

Coincidentally, Walter Bernstein had also come to Hollywood at the behest of Robert Rossen. Upon his arrival in 1947, Bernstein, an Army veteran and staff writer at The New Yorker, was put to work at Columbia by Rossen, now an up-and-coming writer-producer-director. According to Bernstein, what Rossen really wanted was a fellow Communist "to help him make his political ideas palatable to the studio executives" (Bernstein 6-7). Ten weeks later, Bernstein went to work for his own agent, Harold Hecht, who had just formed a production company with client Burt Lancaster. Their first project was an adaptation of Gerald Butler's 1946 bestseller The Unafraid. Bernstein was teamed with the leftist poet and documentarian, Ben Maddow, to adapt the novel into the spectacularly titled film Kiss the Blood Off My Hands. Lancaster was slated to star opposite a pregnant Joan Fontaine and Citizen Kane's Gregg Toland was initially hired as director of photography. "Then true to hallowed custom," Bernstein later wrote, "another writer was hired to rewrite the script that had made all this possible" (Bernstein 9). That other writer was Bercovici. Bernstein was disappointed, but much bigger headaches--and heartaches--were awaited him back in New York. In 1950, he discovered that he had been blacklisted. Two years later, Maddow learned that he too had been branded unemployable by the industry (McGilligan 178).

Bercovici would eventually move to Italy while Bernstein worked behind a series of pseudonyms and "fronts." Maddow's fate, however, was the most tragic and film noir-esque of the film’s three screenwriters. Writing in the shadows for so many years led him to a psychological breakdown (McGilligan 184). In the late 1950s, he arranged to meet secretly with a HUAC congressman (Bernstein 244). Maddow signed a statement that cleared himself while betraying old friends. He finally broke, just as the nightmare of the Hollywood blacklist had begun to subside.

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