So near and yet so noir: Two films by blacklisted directors a study in contrast

The verdict is in on the blacklist: It was a bad thing. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s pursuit of Hollywood’s left-leaning writers, actors and directors served less to fight communism than it did pervert American ideals. Though the witch-hunt ruined careers, it ultimately bequeathed to its victims a moral victory.

But being blacklisted should not automatically confer artistic merit. An upcoming screening of two films by blacklisted filmmakers, presented by the S.F. Jewish Film Festival, offers a contrast between those who had mojo and those who didn’t.

“Romance of a Horse Thief,” a 1971 film from the late director Abraham Polonsky, and “This Gun For Hire,” a 1942 film noir classic by blacklisted screenwriter Albert Maltz, will run back-to-back Wednesday, Oct. 26 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

First the bad news. Polonsky’s “Romance of a Horse Thief” is a nearly unwatchable mess that wastes the talents of actors Eli Wallach, Yul Brynner and Lainie Kazan. Set in a Polish shtetl circa 1904, “Romance” is the tale of a village and its idiots: the Russian guard led by Captain Stoltoff (Brynner), and the Jews, most notably horse thieves Kifke (Wallach), his protégé Zanvill (Oliver Tobias) and Estusha, the sexy madam (Kazan).

The wafer-thin plot centers on Brynner’s Cossacks confiscating the town’s horses, ostensibly for the czar’s war with Japan, and the horse thieves’ plot to steal ’em back. A subplot involves the arrival from Paris of the bewitching Jewish ingénue Naomi (Jane Birkin) and her prissy keeper Sigmund (Serge Gainsbourg). Naomi and Zanvill fall in love, but her socialist ideals begin to cause trouble for the peasants.

Poorly drawn characters along with shockingly inept editing make “Romance” more like a Benny Hill farce then the Altmanesque patchwork Polonsky may have had in mind.

More egregious, Polonsky tends to place polemics ahead of poetics. The rich are bad, bad, bad; the poor are good, good, good. Despite artful shots of the Yugoslav countryside where Polonsky filmed, “Romance” is a pot of very weak tea.

The contrast with Maltz’s “This Gun for Hire” couldn’t be more striking. Filmed in gorgeous black and white, “Gun” typifies the taut cinema of the era. Moreover, the gritty cop-and-killer tale communicates its social message far more effectively than “Romance” simply by following the first rule of storytelling: Show, don’t tell.

Starting with sensational lead performances from the ravishing Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd (making his film debut), “This Gun For Hire” clocks in at a compact 86 minutes. Not a frame is wasted.

Lake portrays a showgirl who has the bad luck of running into a pitiless hitman named Raven (Ladd) on a train to Los Angeles. She’s on her way to a gig. He’s tracking down Gates (Laird Cregar), the no-good double-crosser who paid for a hit with marked bills. Gates works for an evil capitalist who would give Mr. Burns of “The Simpsons” a run for his money.

Turns out the cop-hunting Raven is Lake’s beau (played by a young Robert Preston). Sound too coincidental? It

doesn’t matter. Maltz masterfully weaves plot and characters to an exciting, if predictable, conclusion.

No less a socialist than Polonsky, Maltz throws in the same class types: lumpen proletariat, ruling class and everyone in between. But Maltz (and director Frank Tuttle) make story, not politics, paramount.

At one point early in the film, when Lake finds herself in Ladd’s thrall, she tries to get him to open up about himself. The mug says to her, “Talk takes time.”

It’s a good line that says much about Maltz’s approach to screenwriting. If only Polonsky had tried a similar approach, this might have been a double bill worth catching.

“Romance of a Horse Thief” and “This Gun for Hire” play 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts screening room, 701 Mission St., S.F. Tickets: $6-$7. Information: (415) 978-2787.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.