February 10, 2021

The Descent Into Hell: Darkness at Noon (1955)




Producers' Showcase was one of the prestige anthologies that aired on NBC in the mid-1950s. It was a monthly, rather than weekly, series, which added to the gravitas it projected, the idea that its stories were distinctive, high quality, special. Over the course of three years and 37 episodes (all broadcast live and in color), Producers' Showcase won seven Emmys and presented acclaimed stories such as Peter Pan (with Mary Martin), The Petrified Forest (Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Henry Fonda), Our Town (Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint), and Mayerling (Raymond Massey and Audrey Hepburn).

On May 2, 1955, as its tenth production, Producers' Showcase aired Darkness at Noon, an adaptation of Arthur Koestler's chilling 1940 novel about persecution in the Soviet Union during Stalin's Great Purge. Darkness at Noon was directed by Delbert Mann from a script by Robert Alan Aurthur (based in turn on the stage play by Sidney Kingsley), and starred Lee J. Cobb as Rubashov, a former high-ranking Party official now in prison, charged with treason for betraying the cause.

   Claude Rains (left) in the 1950 stage production
In the Gulag, where prisoners communicate via tapping in code on the walls of their cells, Rubashov recalls through flashbacks his early involvement in the party as one of the so-called "Old Bolsheviks," those who were part of the movement prior to the revolution. "The party cannot be wrong," he tells his secretary Luba (Ruth Roman). "You and I can make mistakes—but not the party." Over the years, Rubashov commits many acts in the name of the party, acts which now cause him to doubt himself— particularly how he betrayed Luba (with whom he is in love) into taking the blame for the low productivity of the factories, rather than using his influence on her behalf. Because of this, Luba is imprisoned and eventually executed. 

Next, Rubashov is visited by his old friend Ivanof (Oscar Homolka), who urges him to confess to the trumped-up charges in return for a reduced sentence. By doing so, Rubashov will save his own life, and the two of them may yet be able to achieve the goals for which they originally worked. Rubashov admits the doubts that have overtaken him since Luba's execution, and how they have caused him to view the party differently.

Rubashov is interogated by Gletkin (David Wayne) a guard who epitomizes the next generation of party leadership. He tells Rubashov that Ivanof has been executed, and reads him the transcript of Luba's interrogation, in which she pleads for those being persecuted. Hearing this, Rubashov finally comes face to face with the consequences of his actions and what they have meant to his country. Accepting his fate, he is taken to his execution as the story ends.

The production boasted an impressive cast in addition to the leads, with Joseph Wiseman, Nehemiah Persoff and Henry Silva. Writing in The New York Times, Jack Gould praised Darkness at Noon's "provocative power" and Lee J. Cobb's "most impressive performance as the dedicated Red who is devoured by communism." Koestler's book remains one of the most praised political novels ever written; the Modern Library would rank it #8 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th Century 

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That Darkness at Noon was intended to be a Cold War message piece could not be doubted. Immediately following the broadcast, Vice President Richard Nixon appeared in a brief film, commending the network for having aired the program. "NBC, the television industry and Producers' Showcase are to be congratulated for presenting this program to the American people, because in these times it is essential that we know our potential enemies, and the great moral of this play which you have had the opportunity to see is that we in the free nations must be eternally vigilant against the enemies from abroad and those from within," Koestler, Nixon said, had helped provide the answer to "one of the most intriguing questions which confronts the free world today": what makes a Communist tick?

For Arthur Koestler, himself a former Communist, one of the fundamental questions at the heart of Darkness at Noon was why so many victims of the Great Purge, like Rubashov, had refused to defend themselves against these fabricated charges. Had they simply been worn down by the constant interrogation and torture they faced in the Gulag? Were they worried about the safety of family members who faced retribution at the hands of Stalin? Or was there something more to it, something dark and sinister, as Adam Kirsh described in a 2019 New Yorker article. "[D]id they feel that, in some obscure way, they deserved punishment for crimes they hadn’t committed?"

Central to the understanding of communist philosophy is what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels saw as the "historical imperative," socialism’s inevitable triumph. Any action which served to bring about this inevitability, no matter how ruthless, could be excused on such grounds. As Koestler put it, the member of such a movement "is forever damned to do what he loathes the most: become a butcher in order to stamp out butchery, sacrifice lambs so lambs will no longer be sacrificed." Indeed, as Rubashov says at one point, "Whoever proves right in the end must first be and do wrong."

Koestler believed, in Kirsh's words, that "every political creed must eventually face the question of whether noble ends can justify evil means." Communism's stated goal was "the permanent abolition of social injustince throughout the world." Would any price be too high for such a goal? "Maybe a million or ten million people would die today," Kirsh writes, "but if billions would be happy tomorrow wasn’t that worth it?" 

This is the language of what the philosopher Eric Hoffer called the "True Believer," one for whom core beliefs have become “dogma and absolutism” replacing everything else in life. Hoffer was fascinated by the propensity of mass movements to promote such single-mindedness, which served to foster, perfect and perpetuate a facility for united action and self-sacrifice”. For such a true believer, there is no such thing as the individual, only the overall good of the whole. As Rubashov tells Luba, the very concept of the individual was a way of thinking "that had to be overcome in order to achieve justice for the many." The very terms “I” and “me” were, he said, were nothing more than a “grammatical fiction.”

Mass movements often begin with what Hoffer termed “men of words” who identify a need to reform the social order. As such movements grow, however, the men of words are crowded out by fanatics, those who, initially attracted by "doctrines and slogans of the new faith", eventually evolve “an extremism against the social order.” Hoffer distinguished the fanatic by “his viciousness and urge to destroy. The fanatic feels fulfilled only in a perpetual struggle for power and change.” Such stridency typifies a philosophy known as "currentism," a philosophy whose leaders "arrogantly believe they have the keys to the perfect society; they regard as evil only those thoughts or things which impede their will." As one professor astutely noted, "Such leaders are, they think, gods; but they are, in fact, mountebanks who, directly or indirectly, mutilate and murder, paying homage to the ubiquitous idols of the day." 

Eventually, says Hoffer, as the movement becomes institutionalized, “the focus shifts from immediate demands for revolution to establishing the mass movement as a social institution where the ambitious can find influence and fame.” The movement develops a hierarchy of classes, a bureaucracy, a structure of leaders and followers, and the consolidation of power in the hands of a select few at the top—in other words, it becomes the very thing it sought to overthrow. And when they themselves fall victim to a party purge, the true believers accept their unjust punishment as a necessary act, believing to the end that it somehow confirms the authority of the movement, and the advancement of the cause. They die because of a lie, which ultimately means they die for a lie.

And then there are those, like Rubashov, who realize how the movement has crushed the humanity of the people, and come to view their punishment as a form of atonement for their crimes. The fact that the charges against them are lies is not just ironic but appropriate. Everything about it is a lie.

At first glance, you might be tempted to see Darkness at Noon as an archival story of the Cold War, but it really isn’t so different from our own time, is it? You read about it every day: silencing dissent, censoring content, monitoring opponents, talking about reeducation, spreading fear, all in the name of the cause. It sounds so, so familiar, doesn't it? As is so often the case, the present is simply the past, dressed in slightly different costumes, spouting slightly different rhetoric, using slightly different terms. To those who point out such similarities, the response may be that today’s ideas have never really been tried before, that what one thinks they saw in the past was in fact something else, something that people weren’t quite ready for back then. This time things will be different. This time the purity of the cause will not be diluted; ideas will be fully formed, plans will be fully implemented. 

This time things will be different. This time. This time.

In fact, no matter what time it is, it’s always “this time.” Same as the last time, same as the next time. It never works, and they never stop trying. TV  

4 comments:

  1. "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it" But when those claiming this time will be different are also the people striving to erase the past, it just makes it easier to lead us down another destructive path.

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  2. As Shakespeare is adapted to present day, so could Darkness at Noon be modernized to reflect our current period with actors who resemble various current political figures and clothing design emphasizing certain colors
    Thanks for an observant and informative review.
    Just because it hasn't happened yet doesn't mean it can't happen now.

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    Replies
    1. That's a very good point, Dickie. When Bishop Sheen did the burial scene from "Julius Caesar" on one of his programs back in the 50s, he substituted the names of the current Soviet hierarchy for the names in the original. Quite effective.

      I've long thought the same kind of thing could be done with "Romeo & Juliet," such as staging it at the Berlin Wall. Their actions make much more sense if you put them into an environment where they don't have much to live for.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!