The Iron Curtain (1948)

The Iron Curtain (1948) is an early Cold War espionage and infiltration thriller based on the breaking up of a real Canadian spy ring in the immediate aftermath of World War 2. 

It didn't take long, but shortly after World War 2 ended it became apparent that the liberators of Berlin and the nation which defeated the Nazis in Germany became the main enemy of the United States, and by association here, and everywhere, Canada.

It is in fact by all accounts the first feature film to dramatize and propagandise the new-fangled Cold War of the period, which could really be said to have run from 1947 until 1991, and seen the rise and development of film noir as one of its key cultural expressors.

During that time the CIA did duly and in the secret course of true American versus Global history rise to power, a process visible beneath the dread surface of film noir, more than in any other art style or form.

Coming to America Dana Andrews in The Iron Curtain (1948)

One way and another too, Russia and what was previously The Soviet Union, are still the arch enemies of the USA and by association, Canada. 

Cinema during the Cold War era served to reinforce the tensions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, influencing the perceptions of audiences and policymakers alike. It was parcelled with the death of modernity. Noir was where this expression arose and cinema evolved to inform of new global threats and villainies, expressed before long in the James Bond films of the 1960s. A reminder:

  • Dr. No (1962)
  • From Russia with Love (1963)
  • Goldfinger (1964)
  • Thunderball (1965)
  • You Only Live Twice (1967)
  • On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

These fines do not so much as straddle a fine line between artistic expression and propaganda, but flat out portray a free and fun and prosperous America, and a blocky, horrid and miserabilist Russia.

Communists fill the smoke-filled  rooms of film noir with smoke
Stefan Schnabel in The Iron Curtain (1948)

Mikhail Romm, known for his staunchly anti-American works like The Russian Question (1948) and The Secret Mission (1950), also released one of the most intricate and challenging films in Soviet history with Nine Days in One Year (1962).

Between 1945 and the mid-1950s, both Soviet and American filmmakers used the medium to vilify their Cold War adversaries. Soviet movies like The Russian Question, Meeting on the Elbe (1949), and The Secret Mission portrayed American leaders as warmongers with imperialistic ambitions, linking them to the vanquished Nazi regime. 

The watchful eye of Stalin with Dana Andrews in The Iron Curtain (1948)

Yet, these films drew a clear line between American citizens and their rulers, pointing the finger at the latter. Conversely, American movies such as The Iron Curtain and The Hoaxters highlighted the internal threat of communism and equated Soviet governance with that of the Nazis, suggesting a similarity in their authoritarian methods.

Male gaze body pan of June Havoc in red-scare film noir The Iron Curtain (1948)

What was true and what was false is now buried in the inscrutability of Dana Andrews worried face as he pretends to be a moral Russian, awakening to the joys of Canadian freedom, or as it appears more depressed by the evil plans of his spylord betters, who move like pillars of stone, stone faced from smoke-filled room to smoke-filled room, always with the picture of Comrade Stalin watching. 

The 1960s saw a shift in cinematic themes, reflecting the mounting anxiety over nuclear technology and its apocalyptic potential. This sentiment was captured in the Soviet film Nine Days in One Year and was more explicitly addressed in American movies like Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, both released in 1964.

Berry Kroeger in The Iron Curtain (1948)

The pastoral cuts a slice of life into this noir in several manners, being the vision of a beautiful rural and peaceful Canada, idealised on the screen to the point of fantasy, suggesting small towns and local churches, fertile landscapes and happy citizens.

In contrast the movie presents Soviet officials as monstrous bureaucrats who threaten the families of their two targets, played by Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, and it does also address the possibility of Communist infiltration into the local government, in this case Bonnie Canadie.

Western idylls of Canada with Gene Tierney in The Iron Curtain (1948)

Igor Sergeyevich Gouzenko, a cipher clerk at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, emerged as a pivotal figure in the onset of the Cold War. Born on January 26, 1919, in Rogachev near Dmitrov, Moscow Governorate, Gouzenko’s life was marked by hardship and survival in a tumultuous Russia. His father, a Bolshevik soldier, died early, leaving his mother, a mathematics teacher, to fend for their family. Gouzenko’s resilience led him to the Moscow Architectural Institute and eventually to the Soviet Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU) as a lieutenant.

On September 5, 1945, Gouzenko defected with 109 documents revealing the USSR’s espionage in the West. This act prompted Canada’s Prime Minister Mackenzie King to initiate a royal commission on espionage. Gouzenko’s revelations exposed Soviet attempts to steal nuclear secrets and the deployment of sleeper agents, igniting the Cold War’s public consciousness. Historians and journalists have since recognized the “Gouzenko Affair” as a catalyst for the era’s geopolitical tensions.

Gouzenko’s journey to defection began in June 1943 when he arrived in Ottawa for his first overseas mission. By September 1944, he learned of his impending recall to the Soviet Union. Dissatisfied with Soviet life and inspired by Canadian democracy, he chose to defect, taking with him a trove of sensitive information. His actions set off a chain of events that led to a frantic search by Soviet agents and his eventual protection by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

The Gouzenko Affair awakened North America to the threat of Soviet espionage and marked a turning point in international relations. Gouzenko’s courage to stand against the might of the Soviet Union not only reshaped his destiny but also altered the course of history, laying the groundwork for the decades-long Cold War that followed. His legacy is a testament to the power of individual action in shaping global events.

Another film version of the Gouzenko Affair was made as Operation Manhunt in 1954, directed by Jack Alexander, with screenplay by Paul Monash, and starring Harry Townes and Irja Jensen, released by United Artists.

Gouzenko and his family were given another identity by the Canadian government out of fear of Soviet reprisals. Gouzenko, as assigned by the Canadian government, lived the rest of his life under the assumed name of George Brown.

Cold War Canada in The Iron Curtain (1948)

Little is known about his life afterwards, but it is understood that he and his wife settled down to a middle-class existence in the Mississauga suburb of Port Credit. They raised eight children together. His children thought the language their parents spoke at home was Czech and supported Czechoslovakia in hockey games. They eventually learned the truth about their family's history from their parents at the age of 16–18.

Soviet cell in North America in The Iron Curtain (1948)

He was, however, involved in a defamation case against Maclean's for a libellous article written about him. The case was heard by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Gouzenko remained in the public eye, writing two books, This Was My Choice, a non-fiction account of his defection, and the novel The Fall of a Titan, which won a Governor General's Award in 1954. In 1955 professor Eugene Hudson Long and writer Gerald Warner Brace nominated the novel for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Gouzenko also painted and sold paintings. Gouzenko also appeared on television to promote his books and air grievances with the RCMP, always with a pillow case or similar hood over his head.

Eduard Franz in The Iron Curtain (1948)

Frederick Tozere in The Iron Curtain (1948)

Behind the Iron Curtain, also known as The Iron Curtain, is a film that delves into the intense atmosphere of post-war espionage and the personal struggle of Igor Gouzenko, who defected from the Soviet Union. 

Dana Andrews’ portrayal of Gouzenko offers a window into the life of a man torn between duty to his country and the pursuit of personal freedom. The film’s semi-documentary style lends it an air of authenticity, distinguishing it from the more sensationalized narratives of the era.

The movie captures the tension of the Cold War period, reflecting the real-life events that were unfolding at the time. It’s a narrative that resonates with the themes of liberty and oppression, highlighting the individual’s role in the larger geopolitical chess game. 

The Canadian government’s eventual recognition of Gouzenko’s information and the subsequent dismantling of the spy ring underscore the high stakes involved in such defections. In terms of home front warring, a large part of The Iron Curtain does take place during World War 2, and is supposed to tell of how Soviets are sneaking atomic secrets out of Canada, proving that the enemy of my enemy is in it for themselves and not my friend at all.

June Havoc in The Iron Curtain (1948)

The Iron Curtain stands out for its more measured approach to the subject matter, avoiding the direct hysteria that characterized many films during the Red scare and instead focusing on the factual basis of the story, while muting the hysteria and packing it into the solid bulk of many unsmiling, static and looming monstrous Russian figures, who carry out their evils with grim faces and much malign thuggery and plotting.

This approach not only makes the film a historical piece after a fashion but also a commentary on the era it represents. The film’s impact is further underscored by its reflection of the fear and suspicion that permeated the early years of the Cold War, making it a significant entry in the canon of 20th-century historical dramas.

The Iron Curtain was also a film that emerged from Twentieth Century-Fox’s initiative to address the growing concerns about Communist infiltration during the late 1940s. The studio acquired the rights to Igor Gouzenko’s articles detailing his defection and experiences, as well as rights to historical books on Soviet espionage, though the latter were not used in the film. Produced by Daryl F. Zanuck, the film was a direct response to the criticism from Rep. J. Parnell Thomas, who claimed Hollywood was not producing anti-communist films.

The production faced challenges, including attempts by Soviet sympathizers to disrupt the shooting in Ottawa, which was chosen for its authentic winter setting. Upon release, the film received mixed reactions. 

The New York Times noted that it had been under attack by various groups, including the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship. Critic Bosley Crowther, in his review, acknowledged Gene Tierney’s performance but criticized the film for its sensational portrayal of Russians, suggesting it lacked authenticity and contributed to the era’s paranoia. Crowther further discussed the film’s impact on public perception and the potential harm in demonizing any group of people.

The portrayals of the Russians indeed remain cardboard, looming and gloomy evil figures, loyal to the state, but through American eyes, loyal more to the manipulations and scheming of their hierarchical and rigid systems, whereby unlike in a capitalist rat race, everyone appears in it for themselves and simply miserably tied to a regime that has crushed them and everyone else.

Despite the controversy, The Iron Curtain achieved commercial success, opening in twenty key cities in the United States and grossing over $500,000 in its first week, securing the number one spot at the box office for two consecutive weeks. The film’s reception and performance reflect the complex interplay between cinema, politics, and public sentiment during the early Cold War period.

The Iron Curtain (1948)

Directed by William A. Wellman

Genres - Action, Adventure, Drama, Romance, Spy Film, War  |   Release Date - May 12, 1948 (USA - Unknown)  |   Run Time - 87

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