Edward Dmytryk

Edward Dmytryk

Edward Dmytryk was born in British Columbia, Canada, on 4th September, 1908. After an education at the California Institute of Technology, he became a messenger boy at Paramount Pictures.

Dmytryk became a film editor in 1929 and directed his first film, The Hawk, in 1935. Over the next eight years he directed 23 films. This included Mystery Sea Raider (1940), Her First Romance (1940), Golden Gloves (1940) Secrets of the Lone Wolf (1941), The Blonde from Singapore (1941), Sweetheart of the Campus (1941), Under Age (1941), The Devil Commands (1941), Counter-Espionage (1942), Confessions of Boston Blackie (1941) and Seven Miles from Alcatraz (1942).

Dmytryk joined the American Communist Party in 1944. He later claimed that the main reason he joined was that he wanted to end world poverty. During this period he was involved in making several politically oriented films such as the anti-fascist Hitler's Children (1943). Murder, My Sweet (1944) was a film where he helped to create the genre later known as "film noir". Crossfire (1947) was one of the first Hollywood movies to tackle anti-Semitism, won four Academy Awards.

After the Second World War the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began an investigation into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry. In 1947 19 members of the film industry were called to appear before the HUAC. This included Dmytryk, Herbert Biberman, Alvah Bessie, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner Jr., Samuel Ornitz, John Howard Lawson, Larry Parks, Waldo Salt, Bertolt Brecht, Richard Collins, Gordon Kahn, Robert Rossen, Lewis Milestone and Irving Pichel.

Dmytryk appeared before the HUAC on 29th October, 1947, but like Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Dalton Trumbo, Lester Cole, Ring Lardner Jr., Samuel Ornitz and John Howard Lawson, refused to answer questions about his membership of the Screen Directors Guild or the American Communist Party. Known as the Hollywood Ten, they claimed that the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution gave them the right to do this.

The chairman of the HUAC, J. Parnell Thomas, refused permission for Dmytryk to make a statement about his political views. This was later published in Hollywood on Trail (1948): "It is my firm belief that democracy lives and thrives only on freedom. This country has always fulfilled its destiny most completely when its people, through their representatives, have allowed themselves the greatest exercise of freedom with the law. The dark period in our history have been those in which our freedoms have been suppressed, to however small a degree. Some of that darkness exists into the present day in the continued suppression of certain minorities."

Dmytryk then went on to argue that he believed that the main reason he was before the HUAC was because he made Crossfire (1947), an attack on anti-Semitism. "In my last few years in Hollywood, I have devoted myself, through pictures such as Crossfire, to a fight against these racial suppressions and prejudices. My work speaks for itself. I believe that it speaks clearly enough so that the people of the country and this Committee, which has no right to inquire into my politics or my thinking, can still judge my thoughts and my beliefs by my work, and by my work alone."

Dmytryk, Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Dalton Trumbo, Lester Cole, Ring Lardner Jr., Samuel Ornitz and John Howard Lawson, were all found guilty of contempt of Congress and given the maximum sentence of a year in prison. The case went before the Supreme Court in April 1950, but with only Justices Hugo Black and William Douglas dissenting, the sentence was confirmed and Dmytryk spent twelve months in Mill Point Federal Prison, West Virginia.

Blacklisted by the Hollywood studios, he moved to England where he directed two films, Obsession (1949) and Give Us This Day (1949). However, Dmytryk had financial problems as a result of divorcing his first wife. Faced with having to sell his plane and encouraged by his new wife, Dmytryk decided to try to get his name removed from the blacklist. Dmytryk's first move was to meet with a journalist, Richard English, who specialized in writing anti-communist articles for the American press. With English's help, Dmytryk wrote What Makes a Hollywood Communist? for the Saturday Evening Post (17th May, 1951). This explained how he now completely rejected his communist past.

On 17th April, 1951, Dmytryk appeared before the House of Un-American Activities Committee again. This time he answered all their questions including the naming of twenty-six former members of left-wing groups. This included Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Lester Cole, John Howard Lawson, Gordon Kahn, Richard Collins, Jules Dassin, Jack Berry, John Wexley, Michael Gordon, Michael Uris and Bernard Vorhaus. Dmytryk also revealed how Lawson, Scott and Maltz had put him under pressure to make sure his films expressed the views of the American Communist Party. This was particularly damaging as several members of the original Hollywood Ten were at that time involved in court cases with their previous employers.

Dmytryk later recalled: "Not a single person I named hadn't already been named at least a half-dozen times and wasn't already on the blacklist. Because I didn't know that many. I only knew a few people, literally a handful of people, all of whom had been in the Party long before I was, all of whom were known by the FBI and were known to the Committee. There was no question about that. With me it was that defending the Communist Party was something worse than naming the names. I did not want to remain a martyr to something that I absolutely believed was immoral and wrong. It's as simple as that."

Dmytryk then resumed his Hollywood career and after making The Sniper (1952) he directed The Caine Mutiny (1954). Lary May, the author of The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way (2000) has pointed out: "Edward Dmytryk directed, The Caine Mutiny (1954) to atone for his own communist activities. Significantly the story evoked memories of the Depression-era classic, Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). Where the earlier film justified the revolt of oppressed sailors against injustice, The Caine Mutiny portrayed rebels as an irrational mob of 'immature men'. No doubt this was the reason, explained the producers, that the Navy cooperated in producing a war film that would justify their system."

Other films made by Dmytryk included The Young Lions (1958), Walk on the Wild Side (1962), The Carpetbaggers (1963), Mirage (1965) and The Battle for Anzio (1968). His autobiography, It's a Hell of a Life, was published in 1978. He is also the author of Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Hollywood Ten.

Edward Dmytryk died in Encino, California, on 1st July, 1999.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Edward Dmytryk, statement (October, 1947)

It is my firm belief that democracy lives and thrives only on freedom. This country has always fulfilled its destiny most completely when its people, through their representatives, have allowed themselves the greatest exercise of freedom with the law. The dark period in our history have been those in which our freedoms have been suppressed, to however small a degree. Some of that darkness exists into the present day in the continued suppression of certain minorities. In my last few years in Hollywood, I have devoted myself, through pictures such as Crossfire, to a fight against these racial suppressions and prejudices. My work speaks for itself. I believe that it speaks clearly enough so that the people of the country and this Committee, which has no right to inquire into my politics or my thinking, can still judge my thoughts and my beliefs by my work, and by my work alone.

The freedom which is so necessary for the fullest development of a democratic nation is also indispensable for the fullest development of any institution within that nation which deals with ideas and ideals. For without the free expression of ideas, both favorable and critical, no nation can long hope to remain free. This principle has been stated many times before, in far better words than mine. It is a shame that it should have to be repeated here before this Committee.

But the intent is clear, this Committee has demanded that the producers "clean their own house," tinder the supervision of the Committee's members. They will name the names and the producers must make out the blacklist. But where will it end? History is all too clear on procedures of this kind. There is no end. Is a Committee member anti-Semitic? He will force the producers to blacklist men who deplore anti-Semitism. Is a Committee member anti-labor? He will force the producers to blacklist men who are pro-labor. Is a Committee member against low-cost housing? He will force the producers to blacklist men who advocate low-cost housing. And thus, even without special legislation, he will succeed in throttling, both artistically and financially, one of the greatest industries in the United States. For he will have succeeded, through threats and intimidation, in effectively censoring a screen which has just within the last few years begun to emerge from a never-never land into a dim realization of its responsibilities to the people of this nation and of the world. As an added touch of grim humor, this attempt at censorship is being made just at the time when, as has been remarked by every responsible critic in the country, foreign motion pictures are successfully challenging ours largely because of their free, open and honest approach to the problems that beset modern man.

The men who have here been attacked, and countless others in Hollywood who have stood up in their behalf, have behind them a body of work, completely open to inspection, which expresses their point of view. They have always begged for understanding and enlightment. They have also preached the elimination of certain institutions, yes! They have preached the elimination of the institution of poverty, of slums, of disease, of racial intolerance, and of all that bigotry which prevents men from living in peace and understanding, one with another.

If the Committee succeeds in forcing the producers to blacklist these men it can only result in the destruction of the industry in which they are now employed. For the loss of these men will inevitably lead to the squelching of the ideas they represent, and which they have freely exhibited to the people in such pictures as The Best Years of Our Lives, Pride of the Marines, Crossfire, The Farmer's Daughter, yes, and even Margie! The resulting deterioration in the quality of American pictures cannot fail to result in the eventual extinction of our industry, both as an artistic expression and, just as important, as a successful business enterprise.

I cannot join in this wholesale liquidation of the principle of free expression but, in company with my fellow-workers, must stand against it in the interest of the entire industry.

(2) Edward Dmytryk, interviewed by the House of Un-American Activities Committee (25th April, 1951)

John Howard Lawson settled all questions. If there was a switch in the Party line, he explained it. If there were any decisions to be made, they went to John Howard Lawson. If there was any conflict within the Communist Party, he was the one who settled it. We had a third meeting at which Adrian Scott brought Albert Maltz, who was a more liberal Communist, to defend us. These meetings ended in a stalemate.

Albert Maltz had been concerned about the lack of freedom of thought in the Communist Party for some time, and this was the trigger for the article he wrote for the New Masses on freedom of thought which was so widely discussed. So he wrote the article which he later had to repudiate or get out of the Party, and he chose to repudiate it.

(3) Edward Dmytryk wrote about his decision to testify before the House of Un-American Activities Committee in his autobiography, It's a Hell of a Life (1978)

I had long been convinced that the fight of the Ten was political; that the battle for freedom of thought, in which I believed that I was being forced to sacrifice my family and my career in defense of the Communist Party, from which I had long been separated and which I had grown to dislike and distrust. I knew that if it ever got down to a choice between the Party and our traditional democratic structure I would fight the Party and our traditional democratic structure I would fight the Party to the bitter end.

(4) Lary May, The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way (2000)

Edward Dmytryk directed, The Caine Mutiny (1954) to atone for his own communist activities. Significantly the story evoked memories of the Depression-era classic, Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). Where the earlier film justified the revolt of oppressed sailors against injustice, The Caine Mutiny portrayed rebels as an irrational mob of "immature men". No doubt this was the reason, explained the producers, that the Navy cooperated in producing a war film that would "justify their system".

(5) Edward Dmytryk, interview on television (1973)

Not a single person I named hadn't already been named at least a half-dozen times and wasn't already on the blacklist. Because I didn't know that many. I only knew a few people, literally a handful of people, all of whom had been in the Party long before I was, all of whom were known by the FBI and were known to the Committee. There was no question about that. With me it was that defending the Communist Party was something worse than naming the names. I did not want to remain a martyr to something that I absolutely believed was immoral and wrong. It's as simple as that.

(6) The Daily Telegraph (10th July, 1999)

His (Edward Dmytryk) prospects began to improve when he arrived at RKO in 1942. His first success came the next year with Hitler's Children, one of the earliest Hollywood films to tackle conditions in Nazi Germany. The plot concerned a German girl educated in America who returns to visit her native country and is caught up in the new ideology; it made a star of Bonita Granville and became a "sleeper" (a small picture that performs much better than expected). It pulled in $7.5 million at the box office and earned Dmytryk a seven-year contract.

Dmytryk's first 'A' picture was Tender Comrade (1944), behind which many later detected Communist propaganda. About war widows who set up a commune along socialist lines, it was written by Dalton Trumbo (another member of the Hollywood 10). In fact, the film was in line with contemporary thinking on Soviet Russia, which was then America's wartime ally.

More sinister was Cornered (1945), made the next year, an apparently innocuous picture about a Canadian pilot who travels to Argentina in search of the Nazi who killed his wife during the war. It was written by the "radical" John Wexley and, according to Dmytryk, the original script was full of anti-Fascist speeches that "went to extremes" in following the Communist Party line. Dmytryk found them undramatic and advised the producer, Adrian Scott, to bring in a second writer, whereupon Wexley requested a meeting at Dmytryk's house.

As Dmytryk told it, "I was surprised to see the meeting was of Communists and the whole meeting was along Communist lines. The attack on us was that by removing Wexley's lines, we were making a pro-Nazi picture instead of an anti-Nazi picture. We refused to admit any of the charges."

In the same year, 1945, also with Adrian Scott as producer, Dmytryk had his first critical success. Called Murder, My Sweet, it was an adaptation of the Raymond Chandler novel Farewell, My Lovely, under which title it played in Britain. It was one of the first of what came to be known as films noirs and revitalised the fading career of its star, Dick Powell, a song-and-dance man of the 1930s, who was transformed as Chandler's tough private eye, Philip Marlowe.

Working with Scott again, Dmytryk achieved even greater acclaim in 1947 with Crossfire, which was nominated for five Oscars, including best picture and best director, losing out to Elia Kazan's Gentleman's Agreement on a similar theme. Based on The Brick Foxhole, a novel by Richard Brooks, the film was a study of anti-Semitism in the US Army.

The original novel was about homophobia and the victim a homosexual rather than a Jew. Under prevailing censorship, this could not be discussed in 1947, but it is one of the film's strengths that in "betraying" its source, it substituted an alternative theme of equal, if not greater resonance.