Although the propagadnda is blunt, it’s easy to overlook how enormously popular I Was a Communist for the FBI was in its day. That day was 1951 and I Was a Communist for the FBI spoon fed the anti-Communist prejudice of its era so hard and fast that you'd be forgiven now for thinking that it was a parody — but it’s not.
The slimy backstabbing Communists in Gordon Douglas’ film may not be real, but the fear of them was real, as was the hero — Matt Cvetic — although this isn’t a true portrayal of him. Cvetic wasn’t of entire use to the Feds, but really came into his own as a media personality, and one who could be relied upon to play it nice for the crowds. What a heel.
Before the guffaws get out of control, I Was a Communist for the FBI needs to be slammed back into some perspective. First, the film was released only 5 or 6 yeasr after World War II had finished. As if that hadn’t involved enough unnecessary death, the 45-year-long Cold War had began a year earlier in June 1950 when Communist North Korean soldiers backed by Communist Russian allies drove south into US-military occupied South Korea — and although it’s not mentioned, this is the world into which I Was a Communist for the FBI was launched. That aggression started the Korean War, which was raging with high US military casualties when this film was being shown.
Both Communist China under Mao and Soviet Russia under Stalin, along with the ominously growing Warsaw Pact military alliance, represented real threats to the United States and Western Europe — so while it’s true that the movie is a bit over the top by today's standards, it did have a vital contemporary context that was essential to its makers. A real climate of fear had been established in the United States, and one of the key places this fear was being propped up was in the media, which was happy to work with whatever messages were topical to the progress of American interest. 'Interest' may rest uneasily in inverted commas.
Matt Cvetic (1909 –1962) was a Pittsburgh native who was asked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to join the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) as an informant in the 1940s. He became something of a popular figure later in the 1940s and in the early 1950s when he told his story in a series in the Saturday Evening Post, and his experiences were then fictionalised in a radio show called I Was a Communist for the FBI, which was adapted for this Warner Brothers motion picture in 1951. Here he’s played rather plainly by Frank Lovejoy, who you can also see in Ida Lupino’s The Hitchhiker
It isn’t easy to be a narc for the FBI, and it takes a special type of person. Not that there are any shortage of the insecure types required in the USA, but it won’t automatically be you and I. The Feds are first off looking for someone who doesn’t fit in, as narcking on a grand scale gives you worth in two camps — that of those you’re spying on and that of your handlers. Then there are the intelligence levels to consider — which in Cvetic’s case seem to have been pretty low. Erratic, violent and drunken behaviour seemed to be Cvetic’s MO at the time, and although he may not have been that useful as a narc, Cvetic’s fame as a public figure was more useful than any spying could have been.
This shows more than just a passing link between the hunt for imaginary Communists that swept America at the outbreak of the Cold War and the powers that Hollywood has over the population. Watching I Was a Communist for the FBI you would be amazed that people could swallow any of this stuff — but they did — and enough that I Was a Communist for the FBI earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary, a nomination that is enough to discredit everything the Academy has done since then. It odes include a couple of documentary clips in it, like the one above, but the fabrication levels on the whole were interstellar.
First, I Was a Communist for the FBI is not and it never has been a documentary. It’s a straight up gangster thriller in which the gangsters are replaced by what the producers style as ‘Communists’ — none of it ever happened. Worse, Matt Cvetic is played by Frank Lovejoy as gentle, caring kinda guy whose conscience is bothered by his double agency — which from all accounts is not what Cvetic was like. Cvetic who was known to be unpleasant, violent and with alcoholic tendencies, was also thought to have blown his cover on many occasions, confessing to women that he was working for the FBI. Frank Lovejoy is tortured by the fact that his friends and family don't know his secret, that he is taking a big one for the team in pretending to be a communist. the job makes him sick, but it has to be done.
In his career as well as losing friends and distressing his family, Cvetic did well as a Communist, and he organised Communist cells in Western Pennsylvania, attended more than 2,000 party meetings and joined some 75 Communist groups, an impressive sounding counterspy resumé.
Cvetic testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s and continued to appear at various hearings until 1955, slowly fading from public view as anti-Communist passions waned in the states.
In all honesty I don’t know why this film is called a film noir — it is simply too stupid to join the canon, too peurile and daft to join any canon other than that of evil turkeys. I Was a Communist for the FBI is in essence a normal Warner Brothers crime thriller, in which the gangsters are replaced by Communists. Everythying that the Communists do however, is complete fantasy, and is fabricated on such a large scale that it must have been impossible to know where to begin to defend this attack. They are worse than junkies, child molesters and Blofeld all thrown into one; they are craven and often spotted indluging in peculiar luxuries, in short, the worst of people, maddened and hysterical at the thought of the world's end.
The first time we see the Communists in the movie, they are gathered at a massive banquet, dining on champagne, caviar and a roasted boar’s head — some basic culinary signs indicating that power is being abused, as well as a suggestion that this is obviously how high level Soviets live. At the banquet the Communists laugh at the idea of equality for the workers — and announce that they merely wish to take over all of America, before going on to take over all of the world.
Next the Communists are seen inciting race riots by setting African Americans against whites in the hope of causing mass civil disturbance. Even more foul is that the Communists hope to raise money from these insurrections. They explain that they are 'setting the niggers up for a fall' — they collect $2 million dollars for the legal defence of those arrested, but don’t use it for that purpose. Instead they just let the suckers take the drop. Later the Communists have an even better idea, which is to attempt to revive Nazism in America, in a further effort to have the shit hit the fan.
The Communists have plenty more whacky bad-ass evil schemes up their sleeves. They wrap iron bars in Jewish newspapers for assaulting non-party workers, in order to frame the Jewish population — they murder those who attempt to leave the party — and they sabotage factory workers who don’t carry cards, injuring or maiming them. Most of the rackets the commies are involved in are plainly gangster, and it’s hard to see what they want, other than to simply destroy the world and/or America. I don’t think Matt Cvetic was ever involved in any shoot outs but one thing I Was a Communist does get right is that the House Committee is a group of fat-headed politicians whose only aim is to crash the headlines.
What is ironic about the production I Was a Communist for the FBI is that the techniques that the supposed Communists use — false flag, propganada and otherwise — are all tactics used by the military industrial establishment to get their way to this day. The Communist aim is to spread doubt, fear and defeatism — ‘to soften up the people’ as one of them says at one stage. At the end of the picture, Cvetic is hailed as a hero, which to some and on some base level, he was an actually still is.
Dalton Trumbo, speaking in 1976, estimated that there must have been about 9,000 Communists in America at the time. There were many more Elks he said, and they were probably more of a threat to the nation; they had more guns, too.
Dana Andrews, another iron-clad mystery from the rusty age of the silver screen, got involved too. You can hear Dana Andrews as Cvetic in these radio broadcasts,which came excellently billed as follows:
The lefties hate him! But America owes him PLENTY!
Matt Cvetic, UNDERCOVER COMMUNIST for the FBI!
Those Dirty Rotten Commies!