Red Feds & Undercover Commies: A Look at I Was a Communist for the FBI & I Led Three LivesTravis LeBlanc
Today, we will be looking at some anti-communist propaganda from deep in the heart of the McCarthy era when the second Red Scare was at its zenith. This is some hardcore time capsule stuff, folks.
I grew up during the last years of the Cold War which means that I essentially grew up on anti-communist propaganda. I remember cheering on Rocky Balboa as he beat the crap out of the soulless Russian communist Ivan Drago. And then there was Red Dawn about a Russian invasion of America and how American high schoolers not much older than my friends and I took up arms and fought a heroic resistance campaign again the dastardly communist invaders. I remember my friends and me talking about how if the Ruskies ever came knocking, we would be like The Wolverines in Red Dawn and wage our own guerilla war against those commie bastards. And you can’t forget all those Cold War-era James Bond movies which had Bond either fighting communists or someone working for the communists or someone trained by the communists. There was always a commie in the woodpile somewhere. And Rambo! After killing a bunch of Americans in Part 1, Rambo spent Parts 2 and 3 fighting communists in Vietnam and Afghanistan respectively.
But that was the end of the Cold War. If you look at the anti-communist propaganda from the beginning of the Cold War, a lot of it was not as much concerned about the communists over there but the communists over here. The communist next door. The enemy within. So today, we will be looking at some of that: a movie, a radio program, and a TV show.
First, we will be looking at I Was a Communist for the FBI which was made a 1951 movie and then later made into a weekly radio show which ran from 1952 to 1953. Then, we’ll take a look at Lee Harvey Oswald’s favorite TV show, I Led 3 Lives, which aired for three seasons and 117 episodes between 1953 and 1956.
They both have the exact same premise which is why I figure I might as well talk about them together. The premise of both is that of an FBI informant working undercover within the American communist movement. Both claim to be based on the exploits of two real-life FBI informants. For I Was a Communist for the FBI, it is Matt Cvetic and for I Led 3 Lives, it was Herbert Philbrick.
When you think of an FBI informant, you usually get one of two images. One is of a real pro who is intelligent, maybe comes off as a little too square, a little too slick, or maybe a little too perfect with the only giveaway being the occasional use of outdated slang, like the obvious undercover cop at the club who asks you if you can get him some “pot.” The other image you get is someone like Chris Cantwell, a real “rat” and a perpetual screw-up. Here we have one of each.
I Was a Communist for the FBI
I Was a Communist for the FBI is supposedly based on the exploits of Pittsburgh native Matt Cvetic. While the adaptations of his story make him out to be something of a cool-headed super-sleuth, Cvetic was in fact what is known as “a real piece of work.” He a drunk, a liar, a wife-beater, and a high school dropout from Pittsburgh. He seemed to have trouble holding down a job for any length of time and in 1939 was arrested for beating up his sister-in-law.
Cvetic volunteered for military service during WWII but was rejected for being too short. Accord to him, shortly after being rejected for military service he was approached by FBI in 1941 to infiltrate the Communist Party. Cvetic claims that being a child of Slovenian immigrants, his knowledge of Slavic languages made him an attractive candidate for communist infiltration.
Between 1941 and 1950, Cvetic attended over 3,000 communist meetings. While he did provide a lot of valuable information to the bureau, he also had serious problems with alcohol, was constantly demanding more money from the bureau, and became increasingly erratic and unreliable over the course of nine years.
Worse than that, he was not very good at keeping his cover. He told his priest, the hotel manager where he lived, random journalists he met at bars, and various women he was trying to seduce that he was working for the FBI. In 1947, he was trying to woo a woman named Helen Newman, but her father disapproved of Cvetic on the grounds that he was a communist. He tried to tell them that he was actually working for the FBI, and when they didn’t believe him, Cvetic asked the FBI to contact the Newsman family and confirm his story. The FBI was appalled at Cvetic’s lack of discretion and wanted to drop him right there and then, but J. Edgar Hoover personally made the call to keep him on nonetheless.
Cvetic’s status as an FBI informant became public knowledge in 1950 when he testified at the House Un-American Activities Committee. Cvetic traveled to the HUAC meeting with other members of the CPUSA who were oblivious to the fact that he was a fed until they got there and Cvetic started testifying against them.
Cvetic performed well in early hearings, but he would wither tongue-tied under aggressive cross-examination. After being caught in too many lies and contradictions, the FBI began losing faith in Cvetic as a reliable witness and would only use him if his statements could be corroborated by other witnesses. By 1955, they stopped using Cvetic as a witness altogether. As the Red Scare died down, Cvetic’s celebrity star began to fade. He made an attempt to enter into politics running for the Pennsylvania state house but did not make it past the Republican primaries. He died of a heart attack in 1962 at the age of 53.
I first learned of Matt Cvetic from the radio show I Was a Communist for the FBI starring b-list film noir star Dana Andrews.
I found the show delightfully retro. The premise of the show is that the character Matt Cvetic is a member of a communist cell that is constantly trying to subvert the American way of life through poisonous communist propaganda and indoctrination of the youth. In each episode, the commies have some scheme, and Cvetic has to not only sabotage the group’s evil plan, but he has to do it in such a way as to not arouse suspicion of his fellow communists. That last twist is what separates I Was a Communist for the FBI from other conventional detective shows. So he either has to make his sabotage look like an accident or maybe frame one of the other communists as the saboteur or whatever. Sometimes one of the other communists will catch Cvetic in the act but will then die or get arrested before he has a chance to tell the others.
In the show, the only person who knows Matt Cvetic’s status as a fed is his FBI handler. Matt’s poor mother is absolutely heartbroken that her sweet little baby boy has grown up to be a no-good dirty communist. His brother hates his guts not only for being a communist but also for disgracing the family and for causing their mother so much pain.
The catchphrase and the line which closes out each episode is “I walk alone.” See, Cvetic despises all of the commie scum that his job requires him to pal around with, and yet any right-thinking red-blooded American thinks he’s a big steaming pile of human garbage for being a communist. As a result, he is forced to go through life with no real companionship. Thus, he “walks alone.”
The communism angle of the show is largely a McGuffin. The show could be about Cvetic infiltrating the Klan or the Illuminati, and they could have used the same scripts with just a few minor tweaks here are there. If you are into old-time radio, I give the show a big thumbs up. You can hear all the episodes here.
It wouldn’t be until a few years later that I would find out that there was actually a movie version of I Was a Communist for the FBI, and I didn’t get around to watching it until a few months ago, and woah, brother.
You would think that anti-communist propaganda would be like pizza: that even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good. The movie version of I Was a Communist for the FBI will disabuse you of that notion. The main issue is that the movie criticizes communism for all the wrong reasons. Some of the claims about communism are not true. Some of them are the opposite of the truth.
There are a lot of things not to like about communists, but I Was a Communist for the FBI basically boils down to “communists are the real racists.” I wish I could say that was a joke. I am not joking. Does this look like the face of a man who is joking? OK, I realize that you can’t see me as I am typing this right now, so you’re just going to have to visualize a man with a very serious look on his face.
Imagine if Charlie Kirk wrote a screenplay for an anti-communist movie. The end result would probably look a lot like I Was a Communist for the FBI. You can watch it here.
The movie stars a bunch of no-name C-listers. Frank Lovejoy plays Matt Cvetic. He is best known for starring in the Ida Lupino-directed noir The Hitch-Hiker. His love interest, communist schoolteacher Eve Merrick, is played by Dorothy Hart who, despite being very nice to look at, was not much of an actress. Hart originally aspired to be a singer and got into acting and modeling after winning a national beauty contest. Her movie career only lasted five years playing mostly small roles as best friends, gun molls, and the occasional femme fatale.
In the movie version of I Was a Communist for the FBI, the Matt Cvetic character works as the hiring manager at a steel mill. This is a big difference from the radio show which never really specifies what Cvetic does when he’s not being an undercover commie.
The fact that Matt Cvetic is a hiring manager makes him a huge asset for the communists as he is able to hook his fellow commies up at work. Once on the job, communists will try to “accidentally” injure their non-communist co-workers so that Cvetic can replace them with a communist. In one scene, a communist “accidentally” causes his patriotic co-worker to lose his arm.
The movie begins with communist bigwig Gerhardt Eisler getting out of prison and travelling around America visiting various communist cells around the America. I’ll give the movie credit for giving America’s top commie a Jewish name.
Eisler comes to Pittsburgh, Matt Cvetic’s town and Matt is summoned to meet the big man at a local hotel. Cvetic walks into the hotel room where Eisler, Jim Blandon, and another commie are waiting. Jim Blandon, the head commie for the Pittsburgh branch, is the main baddie throughout most of the movie. Blandon is played by James Millican who gives arguably the most memorable performance in the movie. What makes the Blandon character stand out is that he isn’t played as dark and sinister but rather more as an Eddie Haskell type. To paraphrase the meme, he wants to enslave America under a communist regime, and he thinks it’s funny.
One of the reoccurring themes in the movie is that the commies are not only hypocritical but utterly insincere. You see this from the scene in the hotel room. Cvetic walks into the hotel room and they have this lavish dinner set out with fine dinnerware, candles, caviar, and wine. The works.
Matt looks at the set up and says “Well, well, well. Quite a spread.”
One of the other communist tells him “Better try to get used to it, Cvetic. That’s the way we’re all going to live once we take the country over.”
“The workers too?” Cvetic ask.
“The workers . . . will still be the workers.” Blandon says to him. Blandon then smiles at Cvetic and says, “The trouble with you is that you’re too much of a fanatic.”
Cvetic meets Eisler who informs him that he is being promoted to chief communist party organizer for Pittsburgh. After that, the commies then go to a Freedom Hall and give a speech to a room full of blacks. Jim Blandon tells them that all their problems are white people’s fault, and they should hate white people. Cvetic’s narration tells us this is part of the communists’ “divide and conquer strategy.” This is the one other part of the movie that has a shred of accuracy. Anti-white racism is a communist conspiracy.
After Blandon’s speech, the communists go backstage. Eisler congratulates Jim Blandon on his speech. Blandon says, “Those niggers ate it up, didn’t they?”
Cvetic corrects him “You mean negroes, don’t you, Jim?”
Jim shrugs this off. “Only when I’m trying to sell them the party line.”
Cvetic is worried that Jim’s speech will stir up racial violence. “There’s going to be trouble in the streets tonight.”
Jim replies “Well, if there isn’t, I’ve been wasting the party’s time.”
Cvetic seems upset by this reply and sits down and so Jim sits down with him. “You see, Matt, if one of that crowds goes out tonight and picks a fight with a white man and, well, kills him maybe, then he gets convicted by a white jury, we can go to bat and raise a defense fund. Am I correct, Mr. Eisler?”
“Mhmm.” agrees Eisler, “Just like in the Scottsboro case.”
“Exactly. Do you know the party raised nearly two million? Yes, nearly two million dollars just to defend those six niggers, and all it cost was $65,000.”
“To lose the case” adds Eisler.
Those dirty racist communists! They go out and preach equality but in secret, they are just as racist as any Klansman!
I don’t doubt that the scenario presented here is close to the truth. Blacks are certainly weaponized by Marxists, and their misfortunes are cynically used for fundraising purposes. What I do doubt is that communists are all secretly racist. Or at least, not racist in the way that is shown here where they are haphazardly dropping N-bombs left and right.
The scene mentions the Scottsboro boys which was a high-profile criminal trial in the 1930s where a couple of white prostitutes accused a group of black men of rape. It was one of maybe three or four times in human history when a black person was accused of something that he probably didn’t do (well, at least not on that particular occasion). The CPUSA rallied some support for the lads, and that probably earned them some goodwill with some blacks and white bleeding heart negrophiles. So I imagine this scene was inserted in here to take away that win. Yes, the commies supported the Scottsboro boys, but they had ulterior motives and their assistances was futile anyway.
Shortly afterwards, Cvetic gets a call from his son Dick’s school asking him to come. When he gets there, he finds out his kid has been getting in fights. Apparently, kids at school have been bullying him for having a communist father. Dick asks his dad point blank if he is a communist. Cvetic tells him that he is, and so Dick tells his father that he never wants to see him again.
On the way out, Matt meets his son’s teacher Eve Merrick played by Dorothy Hart. She is friendly with him, but after just having been disowned by his son, he’s not in the mood to be friendly back.
Cvetic goes home and writes a letter to his son to be given to him in case he ever dies before his assignment ends. In the letter, he tells his son that he is actually working for the FBI but that he is proud his son did the right thing by disowning him for being a dirty rotten stinking communist. He gives this letter to his priest, Father Novac, who is the only person who knows Matt’s secret.
Just as he finishes writing the letter, Dick’s teacher Eve Merrick shows up at his apartment. It turns out that she too is a member of the communist party! She is flirtatious with Cvetic and tells him how she has seen him at meetings and just loves his passionate speeches. Cvetic is guarded and wonders why this hot commie bothered to show up at his place. Eve tells him that she thought he looked lonely and that she was lonely too.
Because the FBI has the communist party headquarters bugged, they are able to find out that Eve has actually been sent from the communists to keep an eye on Cvetic. Because of this, the feds tell Cvetic to cultivate a friendship with Eve as it would help him maintain his cover to let them think they are spying on him.
Cvetic’s mother dies still believing that her son is a communist. Cvetic goes to her funeral with Eve and a couple other commies. After the funeral, Jim Blandon mocks the religious attendees Eddie Haskell-style for kneeling and praying, calling them “sheep.”
Father Novac then comes and hands Matt the letter to his son saying that the Vatican has called him to the Rome, and he wouldn’t be able to give it to his son. Just then Matt’s brother Joe comes up and he is really super-pissed that Matt brought him commie pals to their mother’s funeral. Joe punches Matt and this causes the letter to fall out of his jacket, and Eve picks it up and hides it in her purse.
Eve takes the letter home and reads it, but by then, she has developed feelings for Matt so she does not tell her communist bosses. Matt is initially worried that Eve got the letter but when learns from the FBI that she didn’t report him, he assumes that she didn’t, and this sets his mind at ease.
Here’s where we get to the most absurd part of the movie. The commies use their influence within the steel workers union to get the union to go on strike, and it’s all over the newspapers that communist influence is suspected. The commies devise a plan that if the bosses try to bring in scabs to break the strike, that they will some thugs beat them with metal pipes wrapped inside newspapers.
However, Eve notices some peculiar about the newspapers. “But those are Jewish newspapers.” She says “But then won’t people think–” Cvetic cuts her off before she can finish. Cvetic knows that questioning the party leadership can get her in trouble.
That’s right. The communists are planning to frame the Jews for their misdeeds. The communists want you to think that they are controlled by Jews. The Judeo-Bolshevism conspiracy is itself a communist conspiracy. If you think that Jews are behind communism then you are falling for communist tricks. The movie explains this as being part of their “divide and conquer” strategy. They want blacks fight whites, Catholics fighting Jews and etcetera, and this somehow helping a communist takeover.
After Eve witnesses the communist thugs beating up people on the picket line and framing Jews for it in the process, she expresses her disproval of what she has just witnessed, which a serious party offense. When they go back to the headquarters, Eve is informed that she is being kicked out of the party.
Jim Blandon asks Eve why she became a communist in the first place. Eve answers “Because I thought communism was an intellectual movement, a movement towards true freedom.“
“And so it is.” Jim replies.
“Ha.” Eve laughs, “Look, Mr. Blandon, since you put me on the spot, you may as well know I’ve been completely disillusioned. I found out that its only object is to gain complete control over every human mind and body in the world. Communism is a mockery of freedom.”
More than that, Eve declares her intention to go to the school board and start naming names of all the other communist teachers. Cvetic realizes that by saying this, Eve has just signed her own death warrant. So Cvetic has to take Eve to the train station to get her out of town and he ends up having to kill two commie assassins who were sent to snuff her out.
There’s one more utterly ridiculous scene in this movie. There is a meeting at the communist headquarters where they are discussing the HUAC hearings. Eleven communist leaders are on trial, and they are brainstorming ways to raise money for their defense.
Jim says to a German member of the group “You, Rader. Don’t you still live out in that German section?”
“True.” Rader says.
“Well, let’s just suppose that for a while you forget your communism and start another Nazi Bund.”
“Me a fascist? No comrade.”
“No, a phony fascist, I mean. Feed your neighbors. Feed them the Fritz Kuhn line.”
“They wouldn’t believe me.” Rader protests.
“They believed you ten years ago,” Cvetic interjects.
“Look, Comrade,” Jim continues “Sometimes a communist must turn his coat for the good of the cause. Now, didn’t Comrade Stalin join with Hitler in ’39? Organize your neighbors. Call them black shirts, grey shirts, anything you want. Hold parades. Make speeches. Yeah, makes speeches against the church, all churches, all minorities. You get what I mean?”
OK, so in addition to political antisemitism being a communist conspiracy, American fascism is also a communist conspiracy and has been all along. If you believe Jews are behind communism, you are falling for communist tricks. If you get involved in fascist politics, you are also falling for communist tricks. The movie started well by giving the head commie a Jewish name and blaming anti-whiteness on communism. But at this point, the movie is now an ideological net loss.
It almost makes you wonder if this movie is itself a communist conspiracy seeing that is spends so much time attacking the most bitter enemies of communism: fascists and anti-Semites. And before you ask, no, the screenwriter is not Jewish. I checked.
The climax of the movie is where they go to testify at the HUAC, and much like the real-life Matt Cvetic, his commie friends are shocked when Cvetic declares himself an FBI informant and starts testifying against them.
One of the communists asks Cvetic what he learned during his time amongst the communists. “I learned chiefly that its political activities are nothing more than a front. It is actually a vast spy system founded in our country by the Soviets. It’s composed of American traitors whose only purpose is to deliver the people of the United States to the hands of Russia as a slave colony.”
Matt’s brother and son who are in the audience are shocked and delighted to find out that Matt is not a low-down good-for-nothing filthy communist after all.
After the hearing, Matt’s son asks his dad to forgive him. Matt lets him know that an apology is unnecessary. “I was proud to know that my boy was all the things I wanted him to be. That you had the brains to see this slimy thing for what it is. That you had the guts to stand up to me and fight against it. Even when you hated me, I loved you for it.”
I’m not sure I feel about this message. I’m not a fan of communism, but I am also not a fan of disowning your family members except under extremely rare and severe circumstances. I’m not sure being a communist would rise to that level. NAMBLA, sure but a commie? I dunno. But for propaganda, that would be the kind of message you would want to send: be a commie and your family will disown you. I’m just not sure I personally agree.
I Led 3 Lives
If Matt Cvetic was the rat, Herbert Philbrick was the pro and a true believer in the anti-communist cause.
The Bostonian Herbert Philbrick was an advertising executive for Paramount Theaters. As a young man, he was a pacifist and joined the Massachusetts Youth Council in 1940 because he was attracted to the group’s anti-war message. Initially, he was quite enthusiastic about the group and even helped them set up a chapter in Cambridge.
But not long after joining the group, Philbrick became suspicious of the leadership structure as well as some of the group’s curious messaging. Eventually, Philbrick put two and two together and realized that the organization he joined was actually a communist front. At the time, the Molotov-Ribbentrop was in effect, and communists around the world were still pushing an anti-war line.
Philbrick went to the FBI and told them about what he learned about the group but seeing that he already had his foot in the door, the bureau encouraged him to continue with the group as a federal informant. This began Philbrick’s 9-year career as an undercover commie fed.
Matt Cvetic, being a dunce, was never more than a simple errand boy for the communists. But Philbrick was an intelligent college-educated professional and was able to rise to high positions in communist circles. The communists found his skills as an ad exec useful for devising strategy and his status as a youth minister an excellent cover for a secret commie. He was apparently very convincing at his job. Like most feds, he presented himself as a purist and a hardliner and would argue against more pragmatic reformist commies.
In 1948, Philbrick was sent to work on the presidential campaign of Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace. Wallace was always constantly besieged by accusations that he was working for the Soviets, and it didn’t help that he was endorsed by (and accepted the endorsement of) the American Communist Party. “I’m not following their line,” Wallace said. “If they want to follow my line, I say God bless ’em.”
Philbrick’s career as a communist spy ended in 1949 when he was called in to testify against 11 communist leaders for being in violation of the Smith Act. The Smith Act was a 1940 law that made it a federal crime to advocate for the overthrow of the United States government. The Smith Act was used to persecute communists as well as anarchists and fascist sympathizers.
Philbrick would write a book about his experiences undercover called I Led 3 Lives: Citizen, ‘Communist’, and Counterspy and would serve as a technical adviser on the TV show inspired by and named after his book.
In the show, Philbrick is played by Richard Carlson who, like most early TV stars, was a former C-list Hollywood also-ran. That seems to be a reoccurring theme in entertainment. The first movie stars were people who couldn’t break into theater. The first TV stars were people who couldn’t break into movies. A lot of the e-celebs are people who couldn’t break into acting or stand up. Someday, something else will come along and be dominated by failed e-celebs.
An important distinction between Matt Cvetic and Herbert Philbrick is that Philbrick never asked for any money from the FBI. He volunteered to work as an undercover commie as a patriotic service to his country. Now, in Cvetic’s defense, Cvetic presented himself as an open communist and had to suffer all the social consequences that went along with that. Philbrick, on the other hand, performed his duties as an informant (as the blacks would say) “on the down-low.” Philbrick was a mild-mannered ad exec and Baptist youth pastor by day and a secret commie by night. Seeing that part of his job as an informant involved being a social pariah, it is not unreasonable for Cvetic to ask for some monetary compensation.
This distinction is also important when analyzing the differences between I Was a Communist for the FBI and I led 3 Lives as each has different dramatic implications. In I Was a Communist for the FBI, because Cvetic was an open communist, it caused him all sorts of problems in his personal life with his family and neighbors. But in I Led 3 Lives, Philbrick does his communist activities in secret, and this adds an extra layer of paranoia.
“Paranoid” is the one word I would use to describe I Led 3 Lives. I mean that in a good way. The paranoid atmosphere is a lot of its appeal. Philbrick not only has to worry about the communists finding out that he is a fed (which would be a death sentence), he also has to worry about his normie associates from finding out that he is a communist (which would be a social death sentence). So there are two different ways that his life could come crashing down on him. He walks through life on a tightrope.
For example, in the pilot episode, Philbrick is walking to a communist meeting when one of his bosses from his ad agency drives up and offers him a lift. Philbrick accepts but once he is at the meeting, he realizes that he left his hat in his boss’ car. There’s a knock on the door. One of the commies answers, and it is his boss. For a moment, thinks he’s totally busted. His boss has caught him in a room with a bunch of shady-looking commies. But then it turns out that his boss is also a communist who was on his way to the same meeting!
The format of I Led 3 Lives is nearly identical to the radio version of I Was a Communist for the FBI. Philbrick is given a mission by the communists, and he has to foil it without blowing his cover or arousing any suspicion. In fact, both shows were produced by the same company, Ziv, which was founded by Frederick Ziv, the son of Eastern European Jews.
Television evolved more out of radio than the movies. The sitcom and the soap opera came from radio. Early television shows were more like visual radio programs than short movies. I Led 3 Lives has certainly has some radio-esque elements, particularly a lot of narration describing the action. This may have been to avoid audience confusion. When Philbrick is out pretending to be a communist, he’ll add some narration to let you know he’s not really a communist.
An interesting feature of this early Cold War propaganda which was not present in the late Cold War propaganda I grew up with, is that communists are presented as being normal people. Well, they are normal people who subscribe to an evil ideology and are hellbent on destroying America but in I Led 3 Lives, they are shown as living normal lives. Philbrick will frequently meet with his fellow communists at their day jobs, be it at a dress shop or a pet store, to pick up his orders from the party. The regional communist headquarters is run out of a typewriter shop and where the head commie works the front register.
Another difference is that all the communists in the Reagan-era propaganda of my youth had conspicuously menacing presences. Ivan Drago was obviously evil, but you also got an evil vibe from his wife too. It’s like believing in communism caused one to give off a sort of unholy aura. But in I Led 3 Lives, a lot of the tension comes from the fact that Philbrick can’t tell who is and who is not a communist just by looking at them. In an early episode, Philbrick gets a new sweet and friendly secretary, and he can’t be sure if she is not actually a communist that the party has sent over to keep an eye on him (it turns out that she is).
Adding to the sense of paranoia that Philbrick can be out and about and be approached at any time by either a communist or one of his FBI contacts. He could be leaving work when suddenly a car full of commies pulls up and says “Get it. The boss wants to see you.” Or he could be leaving a communist meeting when an FBI agent starts speaking to him from the shadows.
The catchphrase for the I Was a Communist for the FBI radio show was “I walk alone.” In I Led 3 Lives, it’s the opposite. He’s never alone. Philbrick is always being watched by one side or the other. This frequently becomes a problem. When he needs to call his FBI contact about an ongoing commie plot, he often can’t, because he always has some commie following and keeping an eye on him.
Left-wingers like to describe the McCarthy era as paranoid, and Right-wingers respond with “But there were communists!” But watching I Led 3 Lives makes me feel like maybe there was merit to the Leftist description. I Led 3 Lives does encourage you to look at everyone, literally everyone, as a potential communist. Not just screenwriters, teachers, union leaders, and government officials but literally everyone. That nice lady who works at the flower shop? You better watch out. She might be a communist. Your refrigerator repairman? He might be one too. You never know. Can’t be too careful.
That’s not to minimize the threat that communists posed to society in the 1950s or that vigilance was not necessary. But there is something about the level of paranoia in I Led 3 Lives that strikes me as unhealthy. In a way, society has reached that level of paranoia again but in the opposite direction. We now live in a world where Leftists imagine Nazis and domestic terrorists hiding under every rock.
I Led 3 Lives came out when television was in its infancy, so the production values are primitive even compared to TV shows that came out just a few years later. The film quality in I Led 3 Lives makes The Twilight Zone look like Inception. And the caliber of acting and actors is, well . . . Again, the cast is composed entirely of people who couldn’t make it in movies. All that aside, the writing is engaging, the pacing swift, and the tone is constantly tense. Overall, I grade I Led 3 Lives four Roman salutes out of five.
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I must put in a good word for Richard Carlson. He may not have been Marlon Brando, but he was always the sign of an interesting scfi flick. Around the same time as “I Lived 3 Lives” on TV he starred in the little known but quite unique The Magnetic Monster, the first in Ivan Tors’ “Office of Scientific Investigation” (OSI) trilogy, a kind of template for The X-Files (its incorporation of footage from the 1934 UFA film Gold is quite clever) as well as It Came from Outer Space and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. In 1960 he starred in Tormented, where William “Tingler” Castle tried to combine his cheap special effects gimmicks into a film noir (also featuring a blackmailing beatnik sailor played by Joe Turkel, from Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and The Shining, as well as Blade Runner). A film with Richard Carlson in the credits is always worth checking out on late night TV.
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