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Propaganda masquerading as popular entertainment has rarely fooled the ticket-buying public. And American audiences in particular have rarely turned out in large numbers for politically themed movies with the rare exception of a surprise hit such as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. Yet despite the dismal box office potential of most movies with a political agenda, that didn't stop some studios or filmmakers from taking an ideological stand in the guise of a genre film. Take Howard Hughes for instance. When he assumed control of RKO studios in 1948, he was already a well-known eccentric with a paranoid fear of communist infiltrators in the industry. He immediately fired almost three-fourths of the RKO work force and had the remaining staff members investigated for their political affiliations. Some of the films produced under his reign also reflected his obsession with the "Red Menace" such as The Whip Hand (1951) and Jet Pilot (1957). The most notorious Hughes concoction, however, was The Woman on Pier 13 (1949) which was originally released as I Married a Communist, prior to Senator McCarthy's investigation of communist activity within the U.S. army, and later, the entertainment industry.
In form and style, The Woman on Pier 13 looked like a standard B-movie thriller with the shadowy texture and atmospheric lighting synonymous with the film noir visual aesthetics that RKO is known for. The storyline was a different matter, however, with dangerous Mafia-type villains replaced by life-threatening Soviet agents who were willing to blackmail, torture and kill for their cause. Their target is Brad Collins (Robert Ryan), a vice president for a San Francisco shipping company who has pulled himself up from the lowly rank of a longshoreman to become an influential executive. When the film opens, Brad has just returned from his whirlwind wedding to Nan (Laraine Day), who knows little of Brad's past life. Almost immediately a sense of paranoia sets in as Christine (Janis Carter), a former girlfriend of Brad's, mysteriously shows up on the scene. Her motives soon become clear as she tries to blackmail Ryan into returning to the Communist Party he had once been actively involved in as a disillusioned dock worker. When her tactics with Brad prove fruitless she goes after Nan's naive brother-in-law Don (John Agar) and begins influencing his political views. Meanwhile, Vanning (Thomas Gomez), the local Party boss, resorts to intimidation tactics and finally death threats to force Ryan to rejoin the Party and initiate a strike among the San Francisco dock workers, paralyzing the shipping companies.
Howard Hughes took a special interest in The Woman on Pier 13. Allegedly he used the film as a loyalty test for his employees. If any writer, director or actor who was assigned to work on it refused, they would be fired. The actual facts, however, indicate it was mainly frustration and creative differences that drove people off the project. At first John Cromwell was assigned to direct, working from a script by Herman Mankiewicz.
"After Hughes vetoed several script rewrites and various writers had departed," according to Franklin Jarlett (in his book Robert Ryan: A Biography and Critical Filmography), "Cromwell backed out of the film, calling the screenplay, "without a doubt the worst I have ever read in my life." Next, Nicholas Ray agreed to direct the film, but he also dropped out at the last minute. Finally, Robert Stevenson (Jane Eyre, 1944) took the helm, and I Married a Communist [as it was then called] went into production in April 1949. Principal shooting lasted one month, but two days of retakes were necessary after Hughes carefully examined and found fault with many aspects of the film. In one scene, Hughes ordered Laraine Day's profile to be reshot from a different angle when he noticed a blemish on her face. He criticized the kiss sequences between Janis Carter and John Agar, and wanted them to be made sexier. He also felt "very definitely" that "Bob Ryan and Bill Talman should be helped in their pistol shooting."
RKO executives had already polled audiences about their interest in a film titled I Married a Communist and the results were NOT promising. Hughes, however, was adamant at first about changing the name, stating, "This is ridiculous - I have always liked the title. In fact, the title is one of the most valuable parts of the picture." In time, he finally yielded to RKO executives and after considering titles like San Francisco Melodrama, Waterfront at Midnight and Where Danger Lives (which was later used for RKO's 1950 film noir starring Faith Domergue, a Hughes discovery), he settled on The Woman on Pier 13.
When the film was finally released in its re-edited, bowdlerized form, it still failed to generate any interest among moviegoers and was a certified box office bomb, ending up with a deficit of $650,000 in relation to its costs. Today, The Woman on Pier 13 is a fascinating and highly entertaining example of anti-communist agitprop, but audiences at the time didn't want to think about the communist menace. That's the main reason it was a commercial failure just as similar efforts such as My Son John (1952) - with Robert Walker as a secret commie agent - and Big Jim McLain (1952) starring John Wayne, were largely overlooked by the public.
In many ways, The Woman on Pier 13 is a true noir, however, with a protagonist who is destroyed by his reckless past, bringing scandal or death to those closest to him. The "Better Dead Than Red" sentiment was never expressed more explicitly than in this film and the hamfisted dialogue is message-mongering at its most extreme: "It's a pity that some of our members don't understand...they can never leave the Party...until the Party's ready to let them go."
Surprisingly enough, reviewers at the time were not as vocal about the film's rabidly anti-communist slant and in most cases singled out Robert Ryan's performance for praise. The New York Times review stated that "The Woman on Pier 13 is a right smart sampling of melodrama, fast paced and attractively padded with action and violence...Robert Ryan carries the story on his sturdy shoulders.." and Time magazine noted that "Robert Ryan's appearance in a film (Crossfire , The Set-Up ) has almost come to mean a low-budget picture with a future. He gives this movie some unexpected authenticity because he is capable of crossing black and white traits in a role, without showing his hands."
One final bit of trivia: The Woman on Pier 13 marked the film debut of character actor William Talman, who makes a memorable impression as Bailey, a sleazy carnival worker and hit man for the Party. He would later play the sociopath killer in Ida Lupino's thriller, The Hitch-Hiker (1953) but is best known for his TV appearances on Perry Mason as the title character's courtroom rival, Hamilton Burger.
Producer: Jack J. Gross, Sid Rogell
Director: Robert Stevenson
Screenplay: Robert Hardy Andrews, George W. George, Charles Grayson, George F. Slavin
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Film Editing: Roland Gross
Art Direction: Albert S. D’Agostino, Walter E. Keller
Music: Leigh Harline
Cast: Laraine Day (Nan Lowry Collins), Robert Ryan (Brad Collins), John Agar (Don Lowry), Thomas Gomez (Vanning), Janis Carter (Christine Norman), Richard Rober (Jim Travers).