Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Plot to Kill Stalin (CBS-TV “Playhouse 90,” 9/25/58)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Plot to Kill Stalin, actually a live TV show from CBS’s artistically hailed Playhouse 90 anthology series, aired on September 25, 1958 and directed by Delbert Mann from a script by David Karp that was proclaimed to be the most accurate account of Stalin’s last days (actually about his last four months) possible from the sources available in the West. The film offered an all-star cast — Melvyn Douglas as Stalin (turning in the sort of performance you give when you know you’ve been hopelessly miscast but are determined to be as professional as possible and make the best of it), Oscar Homolka as Khrushchev (surprisingly effective — he looked more like his real-life counterpart than anyone else in the film and he had the famous rambunctious mannerisms down pat as well), Luther Adler as Molotov, Thomas Gomez as Malenkov and E. G. Marshall as Poskrebyshev, Stalin’s personal secretary and apparently the only member of his inner circle to remain loyal to him.

At first the characters (except for Stalin, whom Douglas brings to life mainly by bellowing and puffing on a Sherlock Holmes pipe he seems to have bought at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate sale) blur into an indistinguishable mish-mosh of manfully attempted if not quite credible accents, but as the events go on the central personalities begin to take shape. The Plot to Kill Stalin has its roots in Stalin’s paranoid nature and how it got worse over the years, from the heavy-duty crackdown on an increasingly fractious and independent artistic community that was hoping for a renaissance after World War II and got jackboots instead to the so-called “Doctors’ Plot,” which snowballed from a report (manufactured by one faction in the Kremlin to use as a weapon against another) that Jewish doctors at the veterans’ hospital were using “improper medical procedures” on high-ranking Soviet army officers to Stalin’s becoming convinced that his doctors were deliberately maltreating him as part of a plot to kill him.

Stalin (at least according to this film; I’m not sure how accurate the script is but it certainly sounds in character) started ordering another mass purge, arresting up to 30,000 and working his way up the chain of command — and the people immediately under him, many of whom had barely escaped the great purges of the 1930’s and were fearful they might not be so lucky this time around, began laying plans for a real plot to kill Stalin. The movie has a rather claustrophobic air — as did a lot of live TV, burdened as it was by the cumbersome nature of the medium, which pretty much restricted you to indoor sets; here there are more filmed inserts than usual (mostly stock footage of the actual Soviet leaders and the military parades in Moscow) which just underscore how the new action is basically restricted to two or three room sets representing various parts of the Kremlin — but Karp’s script and Mann’s direction legitimately build suspense and pace until the final confrontation when Stalin has his stroke, one of the other commissars gets a glass of water to revive him — and Khrushchev kicks it away and lets the old man die on the floor. (Apparently either someone in the Kremlin leadership or David Karp had seen The Little Foxes.)

The Plot to Kill Stalin is well-made and surprisingly powerfully acted (even Douglas, wrong for his role, manages to make Stalin believable as a paranoiac psychopath) but it suffers from the fact that Hollywood knew only one way to depict evil: yes, this is another movie in which Communist thugs act exactly the way Nazi and Japanese thugs had in the films of the war years, which in turn was exactly the way gangster thugs had acted in the classic crime films of the 1930’s. The Plot to Kill Stalin actually combines two of Hollywood’s favorite tropes: the gangster movie (the one about all the underlings anxious to take over from the ailing boss, even — or especially — if that means knocking him off before nature intends to) and the one about the greedy relatives gathered around the dying rich man and scheming for a piece of his fortune while simultaneously fearful that he’ll disinherit them.

It’s powerful drama but it also betrays a clear anti-Soviet propaganda intent — enough so that, according to, the Soviet government responded by closing CBS News’ Moscow bureau and ordering its correspondents out of the country — mainly by portraying all the Soviet leaders as unscrupulous thugs (a characterization repeated when Mad magazine did their parody of West Side Story as East Side Story, a star-crossed love affair set against the backdrop of the United Nations building and the U.S. vs. Soviet confrontations therein; Mad’s Communists sang “The Red Song,” a parody of “The Jet Song” that went, “When you’re a Red/You’re a Red all the way/From your first party purge/To your last power play”), and while ordinarily I get impatient with a film that gives me no one to like or root for, it’s explicable given the propagandistic intent of this one, encapsulated in a scene in which Stalin, just before his death, points to a board on which he’s got pictures of all the top party leaders and points out how, one by one, once they’ve eliminated him they’ll turn on each other and he predicts (courtesy of David Karp’s 20/20 hindsight — he was writing the events that actually took place between 1953 and 1958) that first Beria will fall, then Malenkov, and finally the “brute” Khrushchev will take over — and the film ends on a closeup of Khrushchev’s photo and the clear implication (Karp’s one genuine — and fulfilled — prediction) that someday he too will be pushed out by his fellow party leaders.