Sunday, 13 September 2015

The William Wellman Blogathon: "The Iron Curtain" (1948)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by William A. Wellman, The Iron Curtain (1948) tells the true story of Igor Gouzenko (Dana Andrews), a Russian code specialist assigned to a secret wing of the Soviet Embassy in Canada in 1943, to aid them in their espionage efforts. Before Igor begins his work, Colonel Ranov (Stefan Schnabel), the head of the embassy's secret police, assigns agent Nina Karanova (June Havoc) to test his obedience through seduction, but he dutifully resists her charms. Soon, Igor is exposed to the cold and suspicious nature of his government's regime and discovers that the embassy is linked to the network of Communist agents who supply the information from Moscow. Their leader is the sinister John Grubb (Berry Kroeger), who is plotting to infiltrate branches of the Canadian government.

After Igor decodes a message about an uranium plant being built, Grubb meets with Dr. Harold Norman (Nicholas Joy), a former Soviet ally working on an atomic energy project, and demands that he give him detailed notes on his work as well and samples of the uranium. Shortly after this top secret information is hand-carried to Moscow by military attaché Colonel Trigorin (Frederic Tozere), the atomic bomb puts an end to the war and Igor's wife, Anna (Gene Tierney), begins to fear for the future of their newborn son, Andrezj. When one of his colleagues, Major Kulin (Eduard Franz), suffers a breakdown and is reassigned back to Russia, Igor starts to have his own doubts and decides to take matters into his own hands by stealing secret information from the embassy with the intention of handing it over to the Canadian Ministry of Justice. Unable to reach government officials, Igor returns home and is confronted by Ranov, who threatens to kill his family unless he returns the papers. Two Canadian policemen, summoned by neighbors over the ruckus, arrive in the meantime and Igor hands the documents over to them. The Gouzenkos are then put in protective custody, before newspaper headlines announce the true nature of the stolen information. After Dr. Norman, Grubb and the other agents are put on trial and found guilty, the Gouzenkos are granted permanent residency in Canada, but must live under constant protection of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Igor Gouzenko: I mustn't do that to Andrezj. I must think now for him too. I must tell him what kind of world I want him to live in, what kind of man I want him to be. Someday, I'll have to answer to him and I want to be able to face him without being ashamed or afraid. Maybe I'm wrong, but from what I've seen and learned, I've decided there's only one thing for us to do. Anna, we'll not go back to Russia.

When World War II ended in 1945, the reality of the Cold War soon shattered any hopes for an extended period of much-needed peace and tranquility. The United States and the Soviet Union, two former Allies, now found themselves as fierce adversaries, clashing over politics, military power and the general conduct of affairs in post-war Europe. This tension between the two countries manifested itself in a number of ways, especially the fear that Communism might gain a foothold in the Western hemisphere. With FBI reports of Russian spies actively operating in North America and the spectre of an "Iron Curtain" threatening freedom in Eastern Europe, many felt the times called for a stronger opposition to anything remotely suggesting sympathy for the Communist ideology.

Convinced that the Communist Party of the United States had successfully infiltrated not only organized labor and the federal government, but also the film industry, chairman J. Parnell Thomas ordered the House Un-American Activites Committee (HUAC) to examine the content of Hollywood movies. After a series of hearings in 1947, several so-called "unfriendly witnesses" were blacklisted by the studios and some, like the Hollywood Ten, held in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about their political leanings, were fined and even served time in jail. To counter accusations that Hollywood was not doing enough to hold back the "Red Threat," studio bosses rushed into production several films warning against the dangers of Communism home and abroad. The first in this wave of anti-Communist films was The Iron Curtain, written by Milton Krims, who helped pen the model for all Cold War pictures with Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), a thriller focused on a Nazi spy ring in the United States.

Dana Andrews and Eduard Franz
In a 1947 memo to producer Sol Siegel, Darryl F. Zanuck, head of production at 20th Century Fox, revealed the kind of film he wanted to make: "The Iron Curtain is a story to be written in the technique of The House on 92nd Street [1945], dealing with the activities of secret foreign agents in the United States and Canada and the subversive activities of the Communists." Additionally, he asked for "the lowdown on three of four cases which the government, or the FBI, has already solved in America, or a lowdown on a case now existent which they are ready to break. From this we can design one major case from which the body of our story will evolve."

The story of The Iron Curtain was based on the true account of Igor Gouzenko, a Russian cipher clerk stationed in Ottawa who defected to Canada in September 1945, taking with him a briefcase containing 109 documents on Soviet espionage activities and the participation of Canadians in efforts to uncover the secret of the atomic bomb. A triggering event of the Cold War, Gouzenko's defection caused an international media sensation and resulted in twenty Canadian espionage trials and a dozen convictions, ultimately motivating J. Edgar Hoover's attack on American leftists. Little is known about the real-life Gouzenko and his wife after they were given new identities by the Canadian government, but it is understood that they lived a middle-class existence in a small suburb in Toronto, where they raised eight children. During his lifetime, Gouzenko penned two books, including an account of his defection, This Is My Choice, and made occasional appearances on television, always with a hood covering his head. In 2003, the Canadian government put up memorial plaques in Dundonald Park in Ottawa commemorating the courage shown by Gouzenko, who had died of a heart attack in 1982.

June Havoc, Frederic Tozere and Stefan Schnabel
As a sign of the film's importance, Zanuck turned the direction over to the legendary William A. William, one of the studio's top directors. Wellman always maintained that his pictures were more about action that politics, once informing an interviewer, "Hell, I don't make political films. After The Ox-Bow Incident [1943] and Wild Boys of the Road [1933], I was accused of being a liberal. After The Iron Curtain, I was a leftist. I mean, I'm republican, but I loathe all politicians." Perhaps because of his lack of political ambitions, Wellman's look at Cold War affairs in The Iron Curtain focuses primarily on Gouzenko's family life, while also drawing a series of other personal portraits, such as the torment of Major Kulin, whose disenchantment with the Soviet government has driven him to alcoholism. As a result, the film comes across as much more credible than most of the later Cold War pictures, which were essentially histerical rants against the so-called "Red Threat."

The film's protagonist, Dana Andrews, was no stranger to Wellman's directing style; the two had successfully collaborated in the aforementioned western classic The Ox-Bow Incident, in which Andrews gave one of the best performances of his career. Known for his minimalistic acting style, Andrews was in familiar territory playing a victim with strong values. He had previously played a more youthful Russian of similar character in Lewis Milestone's war film The North Star (1943), although on that occasion the Nazis were the villains. The "Red Menace" would resurface twice in Andrews' career, first in the syndicated radio series I Was a Communist for the FBI (1952-1953) and then in Jacques Tourneur's thriller The Fearmakers (1958). 

Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews
The Iron Curtain also reunited Andrews with his popular co-star Gene Tierney, in her first film project since giving birth to her second daughter, Christina. Having already co-starred in Belle Star (1941), Tobacco Road (1941) and the iconic noir Laura (1944), Andrews and Tierney were by now well acquainted with each other and their chemistry on-screen shines through. To enhance credibility and convey the effect of fear and suspicion in the Gouzenkos' frugal existence, both of them skillfully underplayed their parts and were lucky enough not to have to accent their dialogue, which would have possibly undermined the film's sense of realism.

Oddly enough, one of the most controversial aspects of the film was its soundtrack. Arranged and conducted by Alfred Newman, head of Fox's music department, the score consisted largely of music written by four of the Soviet Union's most internationally renowned composers: Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, Aram Khachaturian and Nikolai Myaskovsky, all of whom had been denounced by the Stalinist government as followers of the alleged "formalism," the charge leveled at artists whose work was not seen as supporting the Soviet state. Keen to show their Soviet allegiance, the four composers tried to sue Fox for using their music without their permission, but their actions failed since their work was not protected by U.S. copyright law. Zanuck was completely perplexed as to why anyone would support what he saw as an authoritarian regime, where film scripts had to be approved by the government and checked as to its political content. In a 1948 memo to Siegel, Zanuck wrote, "Can you imagine our not being able to make pictures that were critical of America such as Grapes of Wrath [1940], The Best Years of Our Lives [1946], Gentleman's Agreement [1947] and hundreds of others?"

Lobby card for The Iron Curtain
To reinforce the serious message that Soviet spies were operating in North America, The Iron Curtain was shot in a quasi-documentary style in the actual Ottawa locations where the spy network operated. Newsreel clips and voiceover narration were added in post-production to further enhance realism. For maximun effect, The Iron Curtain was released simultaneously in 500 American theaters with the Fox publicity department advertising it as "the most amazing plot in 3300 years of recorded espionage." However, in some places where it played, pro-Soviet protestors clashed with anti-Communist groups and many of those involved in the film, including Andrews, received abusive letters. When The Iron Curtain was released internationally, many governments considered its subject matter too controversial and banned it. The inflammatory nature of the picture was accentuated by the fact that during filming, visitors were barred from the set and those involved in its production were almost quarantined.

Like most of the anti-Communist films released in the late 1940s, The Iron Curtain failed at the box-office and received generally poor reviews from critics. The acidic Bosley Crowther from The New York Times, for instance, called the film "blunt" and prejudiced against Russians, but he did praise it for alerting the public to the dangers of Communism. In response to Crowther's review, Zanuck wrote the paper to defend the picture, pointing out that their front-page coverage of Gouzenko's defection years earlier validated the subject's importance. Looking beyond politics, Variety noted, "William A. Wellman's direction carries out documentary technique, pointing up factual material and the dramatic values by never permitting a scene to be overplayed [...] Dana Andrews does one of his best jobs as Gouzenko, making the character as real on the screen as it is in real life. Gene Tierney is fine as his wife."

This post is my contribution to The William Wellman Blogathon hosted by Now Voyaging. To view all contributions to the blogathon click HERE. 

Dana Andrews: The Face of Noir by James McKay (2010) | Fom Box Office to Ballot Box: The American Political Film by M. Keith Book (2007) | Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentieth Century-Fox by Darryl Francis Zanuck; selected, edited and anottated by Rudy Behlmer (1993) | World War II and the Postwar Years in America: A Historical and Cultural Encyclopedia by William H. Young and Nancy K. Young (2010) | Writing the Stalin Era: Sheila Fitzpatrick and Soviet Historiography edited by Golfo Alexopoulos (2010) | TCMDb (Articles) | Variety review


  1. Thank you so much for this truly wonderful post! I enjoyed reading it very much! Thank you for joining the blogathon!

    1. Aw, thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed it.
      Thank YOU for hosting a blogathon dedicated to such a brilliant director.

  2. I've never seen this one, but would be very interested to do so, especially since it stars Dana Andrews who worked so well with Wellman in The Ox-Bow Incident. Great contribution to the blogathon - I was very interested in the background material you included about the amosphere and the reaction to films with this type of Cold War theme.

    1. You should definitely check "The Iron Curtain" out some time. Dana Andrews is quite good in it.
      Thanks for reading.