I Was a Communist for the FBI is a 1951 American film noir crime film directed by Gordon Douglas starring Frank Lovejoy, Dorothy Hart, Philip Carey and James Millican.
It was also a radio show starring Dana Andrews with 78 episodes that ran from Apr 23, 1952 until Oct 14, 1953.
The film was based on a series of stories written by Matt Cvetic that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. The stories were later turned into a best-selling book and radio series.
The story follows Cvetic, who infiltrated a local Communist Party cell for nine years and reported back to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on their activities.
The film and radio show are, in part, artifacts of the McCarthy era, as well as a time capsule of American society during the Second Red Scare. The purpose of both is partly to warn people about the threat of Communist subversion of American society. The tone of the show is ultra-patriotic, with Communists portrayed as racist, vindictive, and tools of a totalitarian foreign power, the Soviet Union.
Matt Cvetic (Frank Lovejoy), who works in a Pittsburgh steel mill, has been infiltrating the Communist Party for the FBI in Pittsburgh for nine years. During this time he has been unable to tell his family about his dual role, so they believe he is a Communist and despise him.
He becomes emotionally involved with a Communist school teacher (Dorothy Hart), who is becoming disenchanted with the party. She breaks with the party when it foments a violent strike. Cvetic helps her escape the Communists in violent sequences in which two Communists and an FBI agent are killed.
Communists are portrayed in the film as cynical opportunists, racists who are interested only in seizing power on behalf of the Soviets and not in improving social and labor conditions in the U.S. They are shown exploiting ethnic tensions to get their way, such as by wrapping copies of a Jewish newspaper around lead pipes used to beat up people during a strike. They also are shown fomenting discontent among blacks. They are shown as cynical racists, calling blacks "niggers" and Jews "kikes".
The Communists in the film are also shown to be violent thugs who kill informers.
Cvetic ultimately testifies against the Communists before the House Un-American Activities Committee and reconciles with his brother and son.
The radio version of I Was a Communist for the FBI consisted of 78 episodes syndicated by the Frederick W. Ziv Company to more than 600 stations, including KNX in Los Angeles, California, with original episodes running from March 30, 1952 to September 20, 1953. The program was made without the cooperation of the FBI. Real-life undercover agent Matt Cvetic was portrayed by Dana Andrews. The show had a budget of $12,000 a week, a very high cost to produce a radio show at the time.
The program frequently dealt with the great stress that Cvetic was under, as he covertly infiltrated a local Communist Party cell. There were many personal and family problems caused by his being a Communist, as well as a certain amount of mental torment. He saw the party as being hypocritical and a great danger to society.
In 1953, Ziv created a separate television follow-up, I Led Three Lives, based on the life of Herbert Philbrick, a Boston advertising executive who also infiltrated the U.S. Communist Party on behalf of the FBI in the 1940s. This time, the FBI approved all of the show's scripts.
When the film was released, The New York Times film critic, Bosley Crowther, was critical of the message in the film. He wrote, "In many respects, this heated item bears comparison to the hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee—which, incidentally, it extols. ... For instance, in glibly detailing how the Communists foment racial hate and labor unrest in this country ... [it] hint[s] that most Negroes and most laborers are 'pinks'. It raises suspicion of school teachers ... [and] that people who embrace liberal causes, such as the Scottsboro trial defense, are Communist dupes ... and the film itself glows with patriotism. But it plays a bit recklessly with fire".
The staff at Variety magazine wrote a positive review, "From the real life experiences of Matt Cvetic [published in the Saturday Evening Post as "I Posed as a Communist for the F.B.I"], scripter Crane Wilbur has fashioned an exciting film. Direction of Gordon Douglas plays up suspense and pace strongly, and the cast, headed by Frank Lovejoy in the title role, punches over the expose of the Communist menace."
This dramatic film was nominated for an Academy Award as the Best Documentary of the year.