Enemy Agent

Black Sunset by Clancy Sigal, with its catchpenny subtitle Hollywood Sex, Life, Glamour, Betrayal & Raging Egos, was a chance discovery – they had a copy at St Columba’s Bookshop, which is the destination of my favourite long walks (my new low-carb diet requires exercise to accompany it, also apparently random blood-sugar crash collapses). They had the book in the movie section, which is correct, even though it looks like and reads like a thriller, or almost.

Sigal was, it seems, a genuine Hollywood agent working for Sam Jaffe (not the High Llama guy) at the time of the blacklist. His memoir seems trustworthy, since although he fills it with celebrity cameos and broiling tension, he doesn’t concoct anything resembling a plot. He writes propulsively, which is impressive since he was apparently 90 when this was published. He died a year later.

It’s hard to know for sure how factual it all is, but asides from consistently spelling Joseph Cotten’s surname incorrectly, it all seems to be in keeping with the known facts. Numerous names are changed to protect the guilty by association — the only writer I could ID from Sigal’s description (a woman working on the script of the first Hollywood film to feature Nazi murder camp footage is a pretty specific description) is Decla Dunning, the film being Welles’ THE STRANGER.

Among those cameos are Joan Crawford, discovered throwing up on the Universal lot, Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre, both Jaffe clients. Lorre’s chapter is terrific —

On learning of Sigal’s rep as a killer agent who even resorts to violence: “What’s that I hear? You beating up people for Mister Jaffe? THEN WHY DON’T YOU DO IT FOR ME, FAULER SACK? [lazy shit]”

On learning that, as a soldier, Sigal had gone awol to attend the Nuremberg Trials with the intention of assassinating Goering, but had muffed it: “You were there and did nozzing! Schwachkopf! […] Idiot! No wonder you get me only these crazy parts. […] You noodle, why didn’t you shoot?”

On HUAC members anti-semitic tendency to call unfriendly witnesses by their foreign, rather than their Americanized names: “Wait until they get to Ladislav Lowenstein.”

There are also a memorable walk-on by Martin Berkeley, a psychotic case who named more names that anyone alive, compulsively, like a ratfink tic. He named names he didn’t even know. His brief scene here suggests a psychological explanation: he felt guilty after naming names, so he named more names to convince himself it was nothing to be ashamed of. And felt MORE guilty, so named MORE names… And there’s a guest appearance by William Alland, Thompson and News on the March from CITIZEN KANE, by now a B-movie scifi producer at Universal, who seems equally demented.

With images like movie stars and agents gathering for a rooftop party on the Jaffe offices to watch a nearby atom bomb test, this could make a great movie, but you’d have to invent a plot. Sigal’s life was too disorderly to provide one, it seems (he later partnered in R.D. Laing’s experimental mental asylum, had a relationship with Doris Lessing, and co-wrote Julie Taymor’s FRIDA.)

12 Responses to “Enemy Agent”

  1. Sigal had a long and very varied life. Among other things, he worked with R.D. Laing and lived with Doris Lessing (there’s a novel, Zone of the Interior based on that time) and a memoir of his early days in London, The London Lover.
    Peter Lorre’s only film as director, Der Verlorene, is very nearly a masterpiece. The only problem is that Lorre has to be a convincing repentant war-criminal and a lady-killer. He does the first well, but isn’t very good as a lothario, unfortunately. Karl John is a genuinely loathsome Nazi, though.

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Lorre’s “Der Vrlorene” is truly marvelous, and as with Laughton it’s a shame he never got a chance to direct again.

    Alland is a markedly strange figure. Welles uses shots from the Alland-produced “Earth vs. The Flying Saucers” in “F For Fake”

  3. Alland was apparently in the habit of ratting on his own writers.

    But Earth vs The Flying Saucers is Charles Schneer and Sam Katzman, one of the few sf epics Alland DIDN’T produce.

    Der Verlorene is very fine. For Sigal, Lorre was angling to make a western partnering him with Dale Robertson, of all people.

  4. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    The Trump administration — specifically, the liberal response to it — guts the McCarthy era of all ethical meaning, since liberals reacted to Trump by demonizing leftists. If McCarthyism on repeat is an option, who cares about the past — what has it taught us? The reason liberals fixate on Hollywood’s blacklist is because of the glamor involved (Crawford PUKES??!!). Besides, the Democratic Party has always colluded in deporting leftists in purges that (coincidentally?) exploit ethnic and religious bigotry. Liberals are happy to see Assange “getting what he deserves”, Chelsea Manning got zero support from the LGBTQ community, etc.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

  6. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    That’s the inevitable liberal take, yup.

  7. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Really? And what’s YOUR take?


  8. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    I enjoyed Prince of Tides, but not as much as Pauline did.

  9. Clancy Sigal was a communist, not a liberal.

    The Dems don’t seem to mind having a left wing, so long as they can keep it from attaining any real power. That’s going to get harder as the new generation grows up (unless they pivot to the right, as ageing generations often do) and then we might see more of a split… which might fit right in with the Republicans ageing out and dying off and getting too crazy to matter democratically.

    But by then we’re probably all extinct. Sigh. I’m glad I don’t have kids.

  10. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    I was speaking to his audience. And, now that you mention it, the luxury of pessimism that audience invests in: a supposedly foreclosed future for the rest of us.

  11. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    Oh, I bought a film print of “Public Stenographer”.

  12. Daniel Riccuito Says:

    One last word about the Dems’ “left wing”, as you call it: Bernie signed away Single Payer, his signature issue, quite voluntarily. He bought his way into the Party by sheepdogging and has become a millionaire in the process. Ocasio-Cortez’s shenanigans are too numerous to name. And let’s remember that they represent capitalism in stated ideological fashion. Omar is real.

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