Abraham Polonsky Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."