Life and Death in L.A.: March 2022

Friday, March 11, 2022

Red Scare Noir: Communists on the Waterfront

Janis Carter, John Agar and Thomas Gomez in ‘The Woman on Pier 13’ (1949).

‘The Woman on Pier 13’ (1949)

When the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, my first-grade teacher, Miss Berzetz, marched into the classroom and scared the bejesus out of us. To hear her tell it, this was the end of life as we knew it.

Soviet tanks would, no doubt, soon visit our small community to steamroll over our humble homes. Communists would appear and force us to leave school, perform menial labor and force us to speak Russian. At least, that’s what I got out of her overheated rant. 

I weighed the pluses and minuses of a communist dictatorship’s takeover versus life as a pupil in Miss Berzetz’s class. Which would be worse? It was a close call.

I was reminded of this tidbit of Cold War history while viewing “The Woman on Pier 13,” a film noir whose world view makes Miss Berzetz seem almost reasonable in comparison.

The story begins after World War II, when anti-communist sentiment rose to a fevered pitch in America, and Reds became the designated boogiemen du jour. The Korean War was on the horizon, Red-baiter Sen. Joe McCarthy was warming up in the bullpen, and in this charged, somewhat surreal atmosphere we find “The Woman on Pier 13,” an overheated, hyperventilating example of America’s burgeoning terror of an enemy within. 

The film previewed in 1949 with the straightforward but unintentionally silly title, “I Married a Communist.” RKO Pictures changed it after test audiences gave the thumbs down. Even with its new title, “Pier 13” is every bit the melodramatic tabloidesque B-picture that the original title suggests. But it reveals a lot about the country’s mood in that most unsettling era.

Its over-the-top depiction of American communists as a highly organized force of scheming, ruthless conspirators who infiltrated our institutions is a time capsule of American hysteria in the shadow of the H-bomb.  

While the Soviet Union conducted its first successful atomic test in 1949, the film came together a bit too early to press the nuclear annihilation panic button. Instead, it envisions a conspiracy of homegrown communists driving a wedge between labor and shipping industry management. 

“Pier 13” uses the communist threat in place of more typical forces of evil we see in noir — organized crime, corrupt politicians, police on the take and the like. Vast, ruthless and operating in a shadowy netherworld, these dark forces honor a rigid code of conduct, and disregarding it can have fatal consequences. Once you’re in, there’s no turning back. Like other noir heavies, the communist threat neatly checks off all of these boxes.

Richard Rober, Thomas Gomez and Robert Ryan.
As the film opens we meet San Francisco shipping executive Brad Collins (Robert Ryan), once, a card-carrying commie who labored as a stevedore in New York during the Depression. Later, he changed his name — he used to be Frank Johnson — and fled to the West Coast. A communist no more, he fits comfortably within capitalist society. But, his apparent serenity belies a dark stain on his past that won’t wash off.

Brad’s ex-flame, Christine Norman (Janis Carter), who’s secretly working for communist cell leader Vanning (Thomas Gomez), shows up unexpectedly and causes tense moments with Brad and his new bride, Nan (Laraine Day). Their whirlwind romance and quick, impulsive marriage hints at a darker core beneath an apparently shiny veneer.

Christine’s arrival isn’t a coincidence, she’s helping to put the squeeze on Brad. The local communists hold evidence that could send him to the gas chamber, and they want Brad’s cooperation. Brad labored under the misconception that he’d made a clean break with his past, but Vanning reminds him that this is folly. To underline the point, sadistic henchman Bailey (William Talman), who cackles madly as he kills (as homicidal maniacs do), disposes of an FBI informant in a particularly gruesome manner as Brad is forced to watch.

The scheme is to pressure Brad to reject dock workers’ contract demands, a move that will sabotage labor negotiations and send the industry into a tail-spin. Communists lurking within the union will arise, take power and trample loyal American workers with jackbooted feet. 

Meanwhile, femme fatale Christine, shunned by Brad, seduces Brad’s brother-in-law, Don Lowry (John Agar), while spoon-feeding him poisonous communist doctrine. Trouble is, Christine actually falls for Don. Commie boss Vanning, disgusted with her lack of resolve, chides her for being so “emotional.” Soon, pressures from within and outside of Don and Christine’s tortured relationship have grave repercussions. 

Nan gets wind of Bailey’s involvement in this web of treachery, and in an effort to collect intelligence against the killer, befriends him at the fairground where he operates a shooting gallery concession. When he’s not committing mayhem and murder, the leeringly randy communist hitman teaches attractive young ladies to shoot, all the while pawing them like a grabby uncle at Thanksgiving. 

Nan is later kidnapped, and Brad faces off against Vanning and Bailey, a duel that results in a familiar noir trope, a chase through a darkened warehouse. 

While westerns stage cowboy shootouts in the mountains, prairies or the sun-bleached dirt streets of a cow town, noir protagonists and villains, typically city dwellers, often have their last stand in steel mills, warehouses, atop train trestles or on rain-drenched asphalt — standard locations in the unforgiving heart of an industrial wasteland, where a man with a gun stands alone and overcomes unsurmountable odds — or doesn’t.

Howard Hughes, who owned RKO at the time, probably had little to do with “Pier 13” development, but we can safely assume that the film’s not-so-subtle suggestion that trade unions are peppered with communists and anarchist would appeal to the business tycoon who would have no doubt preferred that organized labor be relegated to Siberia. 

Despite, or perhaps because of, its fairly hysterical tone, “The Woman on Pier 13” may have helped nudge 1940s America toward a dimmer view of trade unions, signaling the start of their long, slow decline. 

In hindsight, organized crime, corrupt politicians and trade union officials, as well as industrialists’ propaganda probably played a more significant role in undermining their effectiveness than did the exaggerated threat of the relatively small, rather ineffectual Communist Party of the United States of America. 

These days, “Pier 13” may seem like low comedy or self-parody — the current situation in the Ukraine aside — but it neatly maps out the hot-button issues still before us, including home-grown and foreign conspirators, infiltration of government institutions, shadow governments seeking to undermine our way of life, while dishing out hefty portions of paranoia-inducing melodrama. 

The film ends on an optimistic note while serving as a cautionary tale of what might befall us if we aren’t more vigilant. That probably soothed frayed nerves back in 1949, however I’m reasonably certain that, for its reassuring sentiments and contention that justice ultimately prevails, Miss Berzetz would be loathe to take solace in it.