WOMAN ON PIER 13 (I Married a Communist)

(director: Robert Stevenson; screenwriters: Charles Grayson/Robert Hardy Andrews/from a story by George W George & George Slavin; cinematographer: Nick Musuraca; editor Roland Gross; cast: Laraine Day (Nan Collins), Robert Ryan (Brad Collins), Thomas Gomez (Vanning), John Agar (Don Lowry), Janis Carter (Christine Norman), Paul E. Burns (Mr. Arnold), William Talman (Bailey), Richard Rober (Jim Travis), Paul Guilfoyle (Ralston, stoolie), Harry V. Cheshire (Mr. Cornwall, shipping owner); Runtime: 73; RKO film; 1949)

“If you can somehow get by the polemics and the cheesy script and view this melodrama as typical Hollywood, the film is quite entertaining.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This Howard Hughes RKO film first previewed with the title “I Married A Communist,” but this title did not strike a chord with the audience so the title was changed and the story reworked so as to make it more of a palatable melodrama than just a vituperative attack on the communists. But it still remains mostly a propaganda movie.

The film opens with Brad Collins (Ryan) just married to the perfect wife, Nan (Day), after a whirlwind romance where she had little time to learn much about him. He stole her away from her former boyfriend, the union leader, Jim Travis (Rober). Brad was a stevedore who worked his way up in the San Francisco waterfront to become a vice president for a large shipping company. What he didn’t tell his wife or anyone else, was that as a young man named Frank Johnson he had joined the Communist party.

When Brad was a commie because he was an embittered young man, he was romancing the sexy and treacherous blonde, Christine Norman (Janis). She is upset that he dumped her to marry Nan and plans to get even by exposing his communist past. But her boss, the Commie party cell head, Vanning (Gomez), has better uses for Brad. He brings Brad to the party headquarters and forces him to go along with the party’s political agenda, and he also confiscates a big chunk of his salary. He tells Brad that if he doesn’t go along, he will expose him as a commie and implicate him as the murderer of a shop steward.

To spite Brad, Christine tracks down the non-thinking Don (Agar), the handsome brother of Nan, who has just been given a stevedore’s job by Brad to curtail his aimless life; and, she begins to romance him. Don seems to have turned over a new leaf with this work experience — as the film makes a concerted effort to show that work is good for you, that the bosses are benign, that the union can only succeed if it roots out the few commie operators in it who are trying to subvert its legitimate aims, that the Communist party is the Devil, and that you can’t hide from your past mistakes — so you better think about what you are doing before you sign up for a communist membership because you can never get out of it once you join.

Christine works as a high paid photographer as a cover for her party activities. She indoctrinates the weak-minded Don into siding with the party’s positions and voicing the dogmatic Marxist opinions against the labor bosses. Meanwhile, Brad and Jim are locked in negotiations to prevent a strike that will shut down the waterfront, and Vanning sees this as an opportunity to get a foothold in the union by forcing a waterfront shutdown. He orders Brad to stall negotiations and sabotage any attempt for the two sides to get together.

Warning: spoilers to follow throughout.

Christine is tailed when she doesn’t listen to Vanning and refuses to dump Don after she got all the use out of him that she could. When Don goes to her apartment, she couldn’t resist telling him about Brad’s communist past and how he is still working for the party. Don storms out of her place. But Vanning figures correctly that he is going to Brad’s to confront him with the accusations, and has him followed.

Vanning hires a contract killer, Bailey (Talman), to kill Don. When Christine calls to warn Nan that Don is in danger — it is too late, as Don is killed by a hit and run driver. When Nan confronts her husband about what he knows, he clams up. Nan is finally fed up with his strange behavior and goes to Christine. While there she accidentally learns that Bailey did the hit, and she obtains the address where he runs a shooting gallery.

Vanning has Christine killed for not following orders, but makes it look like a suicide. Brad realizing his wife is now also in danger tracks her down and finds her caught in Vanning’s hideout. There is a shootout; Brad gives up his life to save his wife, but not before he apologizes for the mistake he made as a young man. He is able to tell her about the evil organization he joined, one where they don’t let you leave. She tells him that she loves him, as Brad tells her she should now marry Jim.

The story was filled with misinformation: it distorted the communist influence in the country and how big business and unions act. It attempted to make a propaganda film that reaffirms the American way of life and familial love, but at the expense of reality. What the film fails to say, since it was made during a period of the shameful American witch hunts, is that you can leave the party but the government still wants you to confess that you joined and makes you rat out all other party members. This is in violation of Fifth Amendment rights.

If you can somehow get by the polemics and the cheesy script and view this melodrama as typical Hollywood, the film is quite entertaining. It is shot in a dramatic noir style by Musuraca and the leads all give able performances, swallowing some tasteless lines with a great deal of bravado. Its moral tone is reaffirmed by Ryan’s death, who must repent from his past guilt by defending his wife.

The Woman on Pier 13 Poster

REVIEWED ON 5/26/2000 GRADE: C   https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/