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The Iron Curtain

The Iron Curtain(1948)

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The Iron Curtain (1948)

"The most amazing plot in 3300 years of espionage!"
Tagline for The Iron Curtain

As Hollywood fell under suspicion of Communist infiltration in the late '40s, some of the studios sought to clean up their images with a series of Cold War films depicting the Communist menace to American life and liberty. This 1948 drama was the first of those, and thanks to low-key directing by William A. Wellman, sensitive performances by stars Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney and the leavening influence of studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, the picture is one of the most level-headed and intelligent depictions of post-war politics. It's certainly a far cry from such later, more hysterical films as The Red Menace and The Woman on Pier 13 (both 1949).

It helped greatly that The Iron Curtain was based on a true story. In 1945, Igor Gouzenko, a decoder at the Russian Embassy in Ottawa, defected, handing over 109 pages of documents that revealed a network of Soviet spies out to steal information about the U.S.' development of the atomic bomb. The result was a series of highly publicized trials leading to ten convictions. Among those implicated were a Member of Parliament and one of the scientists working on the Manhattan Project. Historians have also linked the investigation following Gouzenko's defection to the Rosenbergs in the U.S. and the Cambridge Five in England. The incident is often credited as the official start of the Cold War because of its revelations that former World War II ally the Soviet Union was secretly spying on the U.S.

Twentieth Century-Fox picked up the rights to Gouzenko's articles about his experiences along with two historical books on Soviet espionage, George Moorad's Behind the Iron Curtain and Richard Hirsch's The Soviet Spies: The Story of Russian Espionage in North America, though no material from the two books was actually used in the film. Gouzenko would compile his articles for the book The Iron Curtain: Inside Stalin's Spy Ring, published in conjunction with the film's release.

As a sign of the film's importance, Zanuck turned the direction over to Wellman, one of the studio's top directors, and cast Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney as the Gouzenkos. Lee J. Cobb was the first choice to play John Grubb, the Embassy's link to the Soviet spy cells, but the role ended up going to Berry Kroeger, in his first credited feature role. The popular radio and stage actor would go on to a long career of playing villains on TV and in the movies.

Wellman had always had a talent for demonstrating the impact of world-shattering events on the individual, particularly in the more intimate scenes in Wings (1927), the World War I aviation drama that won the first Oscar® for Best Picture, Wild Boys of the Road (1933), an amazing portrait of the effects of the Depression on American youth, and Heroes for Sale (1933), which chronicles one veteran's odyssey through post-war problems and the depths of the Depression. His look at Cold War politics in The Iron Curtain focuses primarily on Gouzenko's family life, detailing how being stationed in Canada during World War II, a reunion with his wife and the arrival of his first child led him to realize that the Soviet Union under Stalin lacks the liberties he's come to appreciate in the West. As a result, The Iron Curtain is more low-key and credible than most of the later Cold War movies. In place of hysterical ranting against "the red menace," Wellman draws a series of personal portraits. The film moves beyond its depiction of Gouzenko's family to capture the torment of a friend (Eduard Franz) whose disenchantment with Soviet life has driven him to alcoholism and the plight of one of the embassy's female employees (June Havoc), forced to seduce new workers to test their loyalty.

According to news reports at the time, Soviet sympathizers attempted unsuccessfully to disrupt location shooting in Ottawa, where Fox captured exteriors during a cold Canadian winter. Pickets also turned up at the Roxy Theatre in New York to protest the film's preview. Soviet sympathizers, liberals, conservatives and members of the Catholic War Veterans mobbed the streets until dispersed by the police. In truth, there was no preview for them to protest. The Roxy had canceled it six weeks earlier, but word had not reached any of the concerned parties.

Oddly, one of the most controversial aspects of the film was its score. At one point, an official at the embassy explains that loud music is played in the decoding room to prevent people from eavesdropping on their work. Composer Alfred Newman, the head of the 20th Century-Fox music department, pulled that music from the works of Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, Aram Khachaturyan and Dominik Miskovsky, all of whom had been censured by the Soviet government for "formalism," the charge leveled at artists whose work was not seen as supporting the Soviet state. Although they could not have seen the film, the four signed a letter complaining that their music had been stolen for what they called an "outrageous picture." Historians have theorized that the Stalinist government forced them to sign the letter.

The Iron Curtain was not universally acclaimed by critics at the time. Although he praised the picture for alerting the pubic to the dangers of Communism, Bosley Crowther of The New York Times gave it a largely negative review, calling it "blunt" and prejudiced against Russians. He also derided the fact that Andrews' character did not have a Russian accent, although his superiors at the Embassy did. In response to the review, Zanuck wrote the Times to defend the picture, pointing out that the paper's front-page coverage of Gouzenko's defection years earlier validated the subject's importance.

The Gouzenko case inspired a second film in 1954, Operation Manhunt. The United Artists release followed the family's later life and the Soviet government's attempts to hunt Gouzenko down and assassinate him. Harry Townes played the lead, and the real Gouzenko appeared briefly at the film's end. For that appearance, he wore a hood to conceal his features, a practice he used for the rest of his life whenever his work as a writer (and complaints that the Canadian government was not supporting him as well as promised) forced him to appear in public.

By Frank Miller

Producer: Sol C. Siegel
Director: William A. Wellman
Screenplay: Milton Krims
Adapted from the personal story of Igor Gouzenko
Cinematography: Charles G. Clarke
Score: Alfred Newman
Cast: Dana Andrews (Igor Gouzenko), Gene Tierney (Anna Gouzenko), June Havoc (Nina Karanova), Berry Kroeger (John Grubb), Edna Best (Mrs. Albert Foster), Stefan Schnabel (Col. Ilya Ranov), Eduard Franz (Maj. Semyon Kulin), Reed Hadley (Narrator)

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