Abraham Polonsky Essay - Critical Essays

Polonsky, Abraham


Abraham Polonsky 1910–

(Full name Abraham Lincoln Polonsky; also wrote under the joint pseudonym Emmett Hogarth with Mitchell A. Wilson) American filmmaker, screenwriter, and novelist.

The following entry provides an overview of Polonsky's career through 1988.

Polonsky is best known for three films: Body and Soul (1947), Force of Evil (1949), and Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969). These works, like his novels and other screen- and teleplays, concern individuals who, though they are embroiled in social and political corruption, struggle, ultimately, against their circumstances for a measure of redemption. A former member of the American Communist Party and a lifelong socialist, Polonsky was "blacklisted," not allowed to work, in Hollywood for twenty years after he refused to cooperate with Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee. Many critics, citing the thematic and aesthetic richness of Polonsky's first major works in film, count the two decades in which he was prevented from developing his craft among the most unfortunate effects of McCarthyism.

Biographical Information

Polonsky was born in New York City to Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. He studied literature and philosophy at the City College of New York, receiving his B.A. in 1932. He then attended Columbia Law School, from which he received his LL.B. in 1935, and soon began working for a law firm in New York. It was also during this time that Polonsky's social and political ideals led him to join the American Communist Party. Pursuing his interest in writing, Polonsky worked briefly on the radio series The Goldbergs. Soon after, he gave up practicing law and devoted his energies to teaching at City College and writing for radio shows, including Orson Welles's Mercury Theater of the Air. After publishing his first major novel, The Enemy Sea, in 1943, Polonsky was offered a job at Paramount Pictures as a screenwriter. Before accepting the offer, however, Polonsky volunteered to serve in World War II. After returning from Europe in 1945, he worked for Paramount on a number of screenplays. He eventually became disenchanted with the frivolous nature of the work, however, and left to work at Enterprise Productions, an independent film company started by his friend, actor John Garfield. Hired initially to "tweak" a few scenes in a problematic screenplay about a boxer, Polonsky rewrote the entire film, which was released in 1947 as Body and Soul. Following the great success of this film, he was hired by Garfield and producer Bob Roberts to write and direct a second film for Garfield. Having learned the rudiments of directing by watching and con-sulting with Robert Rossen during the filming of Body and Soul, Polonsky began his new project with a spirit of experimentation. The resulting film, Force of Evil, was well received critically, particularly in Great Britain, but failed to attract large audiences. Having never hidden his political affiliations, Polonsky was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in April 1951. After invoking the Fifth Amendment and refusing to cooperate with the committee's demand that he divulge the names of other communists, Polonsky was banned from working in Hollywood for seventeen years. During this time, however, he wrote fiction and criticism, and worked on various screen- and teleplays under assumed names. In deference to those who lent their names and to passively promote the half-truth that many of the most successful movies of the era were actually written by blacklisted writers—a cynical joke of the blacklistees—Polonsky has never revealed the extent of his work during this time. The blacklisting effectively ended in 1968 when he received co-screenwriting credit for Madigan, and Polonsky soon returned to directing. After the commercial failures Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here and Romance of a Horse Thief (1971), Polonsky returned to fiction. Although he has written several screenplays since then, he has not directed another film.

Major Works

The proposition that capitalism necessarily entails greed and corruption informs all of Polonsky's work. His first original screenplay, Body and Soul, presents the story of Charlie Davis (played by Garfield), a poor, young boxer who gets mixed up with corrupt fight promoters. Polonsky's script uses the boxing world to illustrate the nonstop drive for profit in contemporary, capitalist society. A study of capitalism as the mirror image of the criminal underworld, Force of Evil is the story of two brothers: Joe Morse, a lawyer who works for the Mob; and Leo, who runs a small-time, illegal lottery operation. Leo is killed after refusing to work for the syndicate Joe represents; in the end Joe comes to accept the fact that he played a part in Leo's death and that within a corrupt system, everyone is corrupt to some degree. Force of Evil is particularly noted for its lyrical dialogue, which many critics describe as blank verse. Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here centers on a chase: when a Paiute American Indian, Willie Boy (played by Robert Blake), accidentally kills his girlfriend's father, he and the woman (played by Katherine Ross) are pursued by the local sheriff, a sympathetic character (played by Robert Redford) whose understanding of the situation makes him ambivalent about carrying out his official duty. The film ends with a climactic confrontation between Willie Boy, the sheriff, and an angry mob bent on revenge. Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here is noted for its sensitive depiction of Native Americans and their treatment by the United States government, its cinematography, and Polonsky's direction of the actors, notable especially in Redford's performance as what many critics consider the film's main character.

Critical Reception

Polonsky's films have garnered predominantly favorable critical responses. Body and Soul was one of the most popular films of 1947 and earned both Polonsky and Garfield Academy Award nominations. Force of Evil is widely regarded as one of the best films of the immediate postwar period, gaining in popularity over time, despite being seen by some as too demanding for mass audiences. His films are known for thematic complexity, focusing on the ramifications of capitalist politics. Polonsky is praised for the technical skill of his filmmaking and his accomplished dialogue. William Pechter argues that Force of Evil deserves to be included "in any mention of the handful of most remarkable directorial debuts in American movies."

∗Principal Works

The Goose Is Cooked [with Mitchell A. Wilson, under joint pseudonym Emmett Hogarth] (novel) 1940
The Enemy Sea (novel) 1943
Body and Soul (screenplay) 1947
Golden Earrings [with Frank Butler and Helen Deutsch; based on the novel by Yolanda Foldes] (screenplay) 1947
Force of Evil [with Ira Wolfert; based on Wolfert's novel Tucker's People] (film) 1949
I Can Get It for You Wholesale (screenplay) 1951
The World Above (novel) 1951
A Season of Fear (novel) 1956
Madigan [with Howard Rodman and Harry Kleiner; based on the novel The Commissioner by Robert Dougherty] (screenplay) 1968
Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (film) 1969
Romance of a Horse Thief [with David Opatoshu and Joseph Opatoshu] (film) 1971
Avalanche Express (screenplay) 1979
Zenia's Way (novel) 1980
Monsignor [with Wendell Mayes] (screenplay) 1982

∗In addition to the works listed here, Polonsky wrote numerous screen- and teleplays under the names of other authors while he was blacklisted. Neither Polonsky nor the authors who lent their names have disclosed the titles of these works. Note that in this list bracketed information next to film titles refers to screenwriting credit only.

†These films were directed by Polonsky.


Evelyn Sager (review date 13 June 1943)

SOURCE: "Aboard an Oil Tanker," in The New York Times Book Review, June 13, 1943, pp. 12, 14.

[In the following mixed review, Sager praises Polonsky's vivid descriptions and dramatic sensibilities, but finds The Enemy Sea anticlimactic at key moments.]

The merchant seaman has been rescued from his role of obscurity within the past year by several first-hand reports of terror, endurance and courage at sea. The stark facts of the hunt—the submarine stalking the slow, lumbering merchant fleet—need none of the artistry of fiction to supply color and climax.

Fiction, on the other hand, can deal with these same grim facts—as Abraham Polonsky...

(The entire section is 571 words.)

Bosley Crowther (review date 27 December 1948)

SOURCE: "At Loew's State," in The New York Times, December 27, 1948, p. 16.

[Crowther was an American film critic and journalist long associated with the New York Times. In the following positive review, he argues that Force of Evil reveals Polonsky as a director of "imagination and unquestioned craftsmanship."]

It may be that Force of Evil, which opened … on Christmas Day, is not the sort of picture that one would choose for Yuletide cheer. It's a cold, hard, relentless dissection of a bitter, aggressive young man who lets himself get in too deep as the lawyer for a "policy racket" gang. And as such it is full of vicious people with whom the...

(The entire section is 587 words.)

Frederic Morton (review date 3 June 1951)

SOURCE: "Modern Mind," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, June 3, 1951, p. 11.

[Morton is an Austrian-born American novelist, historian, biographer, critic, and educator. In the following mixed review, he finds that while The World Above is rich in evocative details and acute observations, Polonsky's characters become conduits for a dogmatic political philosophy that he feels overshadows the literary merits of the novel.]

[The World Above] is a huge, restless book attempting to give scope to the spiritual bafflement which has overtaken Western civilization today. Mr. Polonsky has charged—and partially smothered—his second novel with much of the...

(The entire section is 518 words.)

John Envers (review date August 1951)

SOURCE: A review of The World Above, in The Canadian Forum, Vol. XXXI, No. 367, August, 1951, pp. 115-16.

[In the following mixed review of The World Above, Envers lauds Polonsky's descriptive capabilities but finds the novel stylistically inconsistent.]

If Mr. Polonsky has not written a best seller this time, it can hardly be ascribed to want of talent but rather to lack of economy and care. The World Above struck this reviewer like a badly edited manuscript, not quite ready for typesetting. The book has divergencies of style ("he didn't" and "he did not," both within the short space of a few lines; the exclamation "Agh!", so frequent during early...

(The entire section is 316 words.)

Abraham Polonsky with William Pechter (interview date Spring 1962)

SOURCE: "Abraham Polonsky and Force of Evil," in Film Quarterly, Vol. XV, No. 3, Spring, 1962, pp. 47-54.

[In the following interview, which was conducted entirely through correspondence, Polonsky discusses the filming of Body and Soul, his adaptation and direction of Force of Evil, and his thoughts on the Blacklist and Hollywood's fear of Communists in the 1950s. In the essay that frames the interview, Pechter discusses Polonsky's career, focusing on Body and Soul and Force of Evil.]

In 1949, a writer, whose experience, with the exception of two previous screenplays and two unmemorable novels, had been primarily in radio, made an adaptation...

(The entire section is 5137 words.)

Abraham Polonsky with Eric Sherman and Martin Rubin (interview date November 1968)

SOURCE: An interview in The Director's Event: Interviews with Five American Film-Makers, Atheneum, 1970, pp. 3-37.

[Sherman is an American educator and screenwriter. In the following interview, conducted in November 1968, Polonsky discusses Force of Evil and Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here and reflects on being blacklisted by producers in Hollywood. In the introduction to the interview, Rubin compares the main themes and techniques of the two films.]

In 1948, a 39-year-old screenwriter and novelist named Abraham Polonsky directed his first film, Force of Evil. Soon after, he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee and...

(The entire section is 9752 words.)

Abraham Polonsky with James D. Pasternak and F. William Howton (interview date 1971)

SOURCE: An interview in The Image Maker, edited by Ron Henderson, John Knox Press, 1971, pp. 17-27.

[Pasternak is an American film director, screenwriter, and educator. Howton is an American sociologist and film critic. In the following interview, Polonsky discusses the impetus for making Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here and describes his career as a filmmaker before and after the blacklist.]

[Pasternak and Howton]: Tell us about your new project.

[Polonsky]: I have three. One of them is Childhood's End by Arthur Clarke, which Universal bought for my company to make into film. Another is an original screenplay by me called Sweet...

(The entire section is 7059 words.)

Jack Shadoian (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "The Genre's 'Enlightenment', the Stress and Strain for Affirmation: Force of Evil (1948)," in Dreams and Dead Ends: The American Gangster/Crime Film, The MIT Press, 1977, pp. 134-48.

[Shadoian is an American critic and educator who has written extensively on various aspects of the cinema. In the following excerpt, he analyzes Force of Evil as an example of the gangster film, arguing that the conventions of the genre provide an apt framework for the main thematic focus of Polonsky's work, namely a critique of capitalism.]

After making this film [Force of Evil], his first, director Abraham Polonsky became a casualty of the blacklist, and he...

(The entire section is 5222 words.)

Larry Ceplair (review date 14 June 1980)

SOURCE: "Creative Forgetting," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 230, No. 23, June 14, 1980, pp. 730-31.

[In the following excerpt, which offers a mixed review of Zenia's Way, Ceplair argues that while the novel's narrator is intelligent and observant, the title character remains flat and one-dimensional.]

In his fourth novel, Zenia's Way (his first in thirty years), Polonsky explores the effects on two people, Ram and Zenia, of participation in six decades of political history. He juxtaposes two political events widely separated in time and place—a Palmer raid episode in New York City and a Palestine Liberation Organization raid in Israel—as a means of...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Terry Curtis Fox (review date 8-14 October 1980)

SOURCE: "Faith on the Left," in The Village Voice, Vol. XXV, No. 41, October 8-14, 1980, p. 49.

[Fox is an American playwright and screenwriter. In the following positive review of Zenia's Way, he describes the novel as "a true political tragedy."]

Abraham Polonsky is one of the most curious and compelling figures in the history of American film, a man who refuses to fit into any simple, definable mold. When he was blacklisted in the '50s, he had directed only a single film (Force of Evil) and was credited with only three scripts (Body and Soul among them). Perhaps for this reason, Polonsky did not—like Joseph Losey or Jules Dassin—go to Europe...

(The entire section is 643 words.)

Christine Noll Brinckmann (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "The Politics of Force of Evil: An Analysis of Abraham Polonsky's Preblacklist Film," in Prospects: The Annual of American Cultural Studies, Vol. 6, 1981, pp. 357-86.

[In the following excerpt, Brinckmann discusses the ways in which Force of Evil deviates from the traditional gangster film, manipulating the genre's conventions to emphasize its political theme, namely the critique of capitalist society. She argues that while the film balances politics with emotional and spiritual intensity, its thematic and formal complexity accounts for its lack of popularity with mass audiences. She also suggests that the film's most serious flaw is its inconsistent depiction of the...

(The entire section is 11959 words.)

Terence Butler (essay date Autumn 1988)

SOURCE: "Polonsky and Kazan: HUAC and the Violation of Personality," in Sight and Sound, Vol. 57, No. 4, Autumn, 1988, pp. 262-67.

[In the following excerpt from an essay in which he compares the works of Polonsky and Elia Kazan—who cooperated with Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), though he shared many of Polonsky's political ideals—Butler examines the main themes of Polonsky's works, focusing on Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here and Romance of a Horse Thief.]

Abraham Lincoln Polonsky was one of the many casualties of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Hollywood, Elia Kazan a self-justifying collaborator with the same...

(The entire section is 3199 words.)

Further Reading


Canham, Kingsley. "Polonsky: Back Into the Light." Film, No. 58 (Spring 1970): 12-15.

Overview of Polonsky's life and career, focusing on Force of Evil and Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here.

Cannon, Lee E. Review of The World Above, by Abraham Polonsky. The Christian Century 68 (2 May 1951): 561-62.

Favorable discussion of The World Above, in which the critic finds the novel written with insight, emotion, and honesty.

Crowther, Bosley. Review of Body and Soul, by Abraham Polonsky. The New York...

(The entire section is 203 words.)