Dalton Trumbo and films of the Blacklist at Criterion

The Criterion Channel is currently doing something unusual; they’re running a series set around – not a director or a star – but a screenwriter. Dalton Trumbo was a top MGM screenwriter in the 1940s, when he was blacklisted for his leftwing politics. He did time in federal prison, then he spent the 1950s writing movies that didn’t have his name on them, for a fraction of what he used to get.

One of Trumbo’s earliest films without his name on it, He Ran All the Way, starred the blacklisted John Garfield. And unlike screenwriters, actors had to show their faces. This would be Garfield’s last film. [Note: I corrected this paragraph.]

A violent robbery goes wrong, and a guard is dead. The killer (Garfield) finds himself in the apartment of a very nice family, including a young adult daughter (Shelley Winters) who’s sweet on this new guy in her life – even when he’s brandishing a gun and keeping the family hostage. Garfield gives one of his best performances as the thick-headed thug who wants to be liked by his victims. Very suspenseful from the beginning to the end. I give it an A.

Many Hollywood films of the 1950s had the Trumbo touch, but not the name Trumbo in the credits. That changed with Spartacus (1960), which is also one of his best. Executive Producer (and star) Kirk Douglas gave Trumbo a well-deserved screen credit, which helped end the blacklist.

This very fictionalized version of the famous Roman slave revolt is simply the most powerful, intelligent, and coherent toga epic from the golden age of toga epics. And yes, I know that sounds like weak praise, but it isn’t. Stanley Kubrick’s only work as a director-for-hire doesn’t give us the glory of Rome, concentrating instead on the horror, cruelty, and exploitation of empire. I give it an A.

But seven years before that, Trumbo had helped make Audrey Hepburn a star by writing a great part in Roman Holiday (1953).

Gregory Peck and “introducing” Audrey Hepburn fall in love through an extremely contrived plot in this entertaining romantic comedy. She’s a runaway princess, and he’s a reporter hoping for a scoop. But the real star is Rome; shooting Hollywood films in overseas locations was a new thing in the early 1950s. Directed by William Wyler. I give it a B.

Unfortunately, some of Trumbo’s best movies aren’t in the series. Consider Gun Crazy (1950). No, this movie isn’t about Fox News or the NRA. But it’s one of Trumbo’s first screenplays written while he was blacklisted.

Peggy Cummins and John Dall play lovers as excited by firearms as they are by each other. Naturally, their proclivities do not keep them within the law. Both are crack shots, but Dall’s character can’t bring himself to shoot a living creature. Suspense and sexual tension burn through this low-budget masterpiece. Bad timing: Gun Crazy left the Criterion Channel Monday. I give this one an A.

I haven’t seen all the films in this series. Here are some films that I haven’t seen yet, and I hope I have the chance to catch all of them:

Even though I haven’t seen it, I think it’s time to discuss The Brave One (1956).

Why is this film so important? The movie won an Oscar for its screenplay, and no one came up to take the statue. By that time, Trumbo’s pseudonym, Robert Rich, was an open secret, and he stayed at home. Now the DVD’s package puts Trumbo’s name above the title – as if he was a star director.

But this series has a happy ending. All of these films now have Trumbo’s name in the credits – even if he didn’t live to see them.

Check out the series at Criterion.

2 thoughts on “Dalton Trumbo and films of the Blacklist at Criterion

  1. Lincoln,

    What is the name of the first film you discuss – With Shelly Winters? No title is on the page. Thank you.


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