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When Alfred Hayes met Roberto Rossellini in 1945, in a trattoria in Rome, the war was almost over. Hayes, a soldier in the U.S. Special Services, was turning thirty-four. He had not yet written a screenplay, but he had begun collecting his war experiences into short stories. Back in New York, he had been a newspaper reporter, a poet, a film critic, a member of the Young Communist League, and an early contributor to Partisan Review.
In the decade before the war, two of Hayes’s poems had become songs. In 1934, after it won a contest in the New Masses, “Into the Streets May First” was set to music by Aaron Copland. The song was deemed too avant-garde for the working man and forgotten. The other poem was “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” about the martyred Wobbly, a revered figure in the labor movement. In 1936, after Earl Robinson wrote a tune for that poem at a Communist Party summer camp, the song became a movement rallying cry. Paul Robeson recorded it, and “Joe Hill” became a folk music standard. Joan Baez would revive the song at Woodstock, bringing Hayes unexpected royalties as his Hollywood screenwriting career wound down.
By the time he met Rossellini and began working with him on Paisan (pictured above), Hayes’s YCL days were behind him. If his Hollywood novel, My Face for the World to See—written thirteen years later—is any indication, his future screenwriting career in Los Angeles was probably not something he would have cared to envision. Sitting together in a bombed-out Rome, eating together in a black market restaurant, Hayes and Rossellini sketched out scenes with a group of other screenwriters, Italian and American, including Klaus Mann, the son of Thomas Mann, and Federico Fellini. The exhilarating bleakness of postwar Italy, as seen in Paisan’s grainy black and white, contrasts sharply with the Technicolor bleakness Hayes came to know.
After Paisan, Hayes published his first novels, which fictionalized his war years and his labor movement decade. He turned one, The Girl on the Via Flaminia, into a successful Broadway play. Hayes spent the next decade working alternately on fiction and poetry in New York and screenplays in Hollywood. But despite a fairly large output in all these forms, he remains a mysterious figure. Hayes never spoke for the record about his trajectory from 1930s radicalism to 1950s Hollywood. Details of his career are murky. His involvement with Bicycle Thieves, for instance: when that film came out in the U.S., Variety reported that Hayes, a best-selling novelist, had contributed the English subtitles; other sources, with no backup, claim he worked on the screenplay uncredited. Maybe his early days as a left-wing writer made him wary of publicity. It is likely he renounced Communism during his Partisan Review days, but in the blacklist years of postwar Hollywood, he kept his head down and wrote.
Hayes did not capitalize on the good reviews his novels got in London (where he was born; he came to New York at age three). My Face for the World to See reveals a man intimate with nighttime Hollywood and its players, but Hayes appears only fleetingly in the biographies of directors he wrote for, men like Fritz Lang, for whom he wrote Clash by Night, based on a play by Clifford Odets, who did run into the blacklist, and Nicholas Ray, who avoided it, and for whom Hayes worked uncredited on The Lusty Men.
Hayes’s big-at-the-time screen credits were on more prestigious productions than those. He wrote two Fred Zinnemann films: 1951’s Teresa, directly inspired, like so much of his work, by his time in Italy, and 1957’s A Hatful of Rain, an early look at drug addiction. The same year’s Island in the Sun, a film by Robert Rossen, a blacklisted director who named names, is an interracial romance set in the Caribbean, starring Harry Belafonte, James Mason, and Dorothy Dandridge.
Hayes was unhappy with Belafonte’s and producer Darryl Zanuck’s on-set rewrites during Island’s location shoot, but he took them in stride. When TV offered steadier work than movies, he took that, too, writing several episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and then, later in the 1960s and in the ’70s, writing episodes of Mannix (semi-progressive at the time because the detective Mannix had a black secretary) and a TV series based on the sci-fi movie Logan’s Run.
If there is a further point from Partisan Review and Paisan than a TV show based on Logan’s Run, it must be off the map. A 1993 book called Wobblies, Pile Butts, and Other Heroes, by Archie Green, quotes another writer’s description of Hayes from New Masses in 1934: “There was Alfred Hayes, dark, Dantean, witty, conscious to imperiousness that he personified a new sort of ‘young generation,’ the lyric poet of the New York working class, the strike front, the writer of sketches that bite into memory.” A piece Hayes himself wrote for the New York Times in 1948, as Paisan was coming out in the U.S., presents a more self-effacing figure who has come through war and is glad to be alive, a man who “brought scars and wounds back from there.” He writes that for anyone who has lived through the war, Paisan will be a “Valentine” and “a mirror,” which is maybe a strange way to describe Paisan unless you were an American soldier in Italy.
Hayes starts to come into focus with the republication of two of his 1950s novels, In Love and My Face for the World to See, which New York Review Books Classics brought back into print last summer. These books bridge the gap between the dark, Dantean Hayes, the writer of sketches that bite into memory, and the Hayes who, in 1982, said about writing for movies and TV that “you learn not to suffer. You're manufacturing a product and they tailor it for all the different customers.”
The writer-protagonists in both books confront the world with no illusions about themselves, and strip their romances of fantasy, leaving behind an intense aura of fracture and loss. Both novels are existential, isolated, wounding and wounded in the style of hard-boiled American fiction or Georges Simenon, or of Bogart movies. In Love recalls Ray’s In a Lonely Place; My Face for the World to See is a Schwab’s counter Barefoot Contessa.
Paisan and an excellent film Hayes wrote for Fritz Lang in 1954, Human Desire, will show at BAMcinematék on Wednesday, September 18, and Thursday, September 19, as part of the Brooklyn Book Festival. I will introduce the screening of Paisan and discuss it afterward in a Q&A with film critic Tag Gallagher, author of The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini.
A. S. Hamrah is the editor of N1FR, n+1’s film review.