FBI Memorandum, May 26, 1947: Communist Infiltration Of The Motion Picture Industry: "With regard to the picture 'It's A Wonderful Life', [redacted] ... the film represents obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a "scrooge-type" so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This is a common trick used by Communists."
"I've got this really weird idea," Chris said.
"How unusual," I replied, rather dryly. "Last I checked, that's how we made our living."
But Chris was in no mood for banter. Although the day had just started, he was worked up, twisting the ends of his hair, chewing on his mustache, smoking up a storm. Either he was at the edge of a nervous breakdown, or in the throes of the Muse.
I chose Choice Number Two: "Okay, have at it."
"I know this might seem ridiculous," Chris said, pulling a paperback from his briefcase. "And it probably IS ridiculous. But I can't get the fucker out of my head."
I read the title: Enemy At The Gates: The Battle For Stalingrad, by William Craig.
There was only one thing to do when one of us got an idea stuck in his noggin. No, two things: (1) Fetch the Metaxa, even if it was only 10 in the morning. And (2) Listen to the idea. More often than not, an idea that started out seeming ridiculous turned into gold - or, some reasonable facsimile of same.
I poured us a couple of shots, and said, "Let's hear it."
"No rocks?" Chris said.
"No rocks," I agreed.
Another Rule Of Two: For a successful writing partnership, you must, (1) Check your ego at the door; (2) Do not throw rocks at thy collaborator's ideas. Violation of either rule will doom the partnership.
Chris tapped the book and said "Craig did an amazing job with this. Puts you right in the middle of the fight. Maybe you already know this, but the battle for Stalingrad was probably one of the biggest engagements in history. Thousands of tanks and artillery, millions of soldiers and civilians caught up in it.
"Not only that, it was a fucking siege that lasted for months. From July, 1942 to February, 1943, the city was ringed with Nazi steel. The weather was miserable. Hot as an oven, pissing rain, with mud up to your nuts. Going to freezing cold, with hail and snowstorms up the wazoo. People starving. The city reduced to ruins. But the Russians held the fuck on. Two million casualties. Maybe more."
Chris knocked back the shot. I did the same, then made with the refills.
He said, "Basically, it was the turning point of the whole war. The Russians broke the Germans' back at Stalingrad and Hitler and his generals were never able to recover."
"That's interesting as all hell," I said. "Nothing weird about it. We're not that far along with Sten, maybe we can work in a sci-fi version of Stalingrad. If not this book, maybe one down the line." As all Sten readers know, we used many an historic battle in the series - wars from the days of Alexander to modern times.
"No, no, not for Sten," Chris said. "I mean for a movie."
"A movie?" I goggled. Okay, he was right. This WAS weird. I said, "Never mind who the fuck is going to make a movie about one of the biggest battles in history. Riddle me this: how in Hell do we tell the story?"
"Sure, sure. All that's true," Chris said. "But hang on a minute. There's more. And it is fucking fantastic. An absolute through-line that solves the whole thing. Well, everything but the money part."
I took a breath. "Tell me."
Chris said, "The movie I've got in mind isn't about the battle, exactly. It's mainly about two guys going mano-a-mano. One's a Russian kid - a farmboy from Georgia. The other's German nobility. A Nazi baron, for Christ's sake."
This grabbed my interest. I waved - Go on.
Chris riffled pages of the book. "It was like this: the Russian kid was a sniper. Probably the best sniper ever seen on the Russian Front. Or any other front, for that matter. And like any good sniper, he concentrated on German officers. He'd stalk them for days. Lie in wait. Then, bam! One dead mother fuckin' Nazi!"
"I like this kid, already," I said.
Chris went on. "It got so bad, that German morale - already in the pits - really went to shit. Especially for the officers. And on the Russian side, it was a rare bright note in a pretty bleak situation. So, the Nazis, being Nazis, decide to fight fire with Sturm und Drang. I mean, Mein Gott! Who is this little Russian shit? Probably a God Damned peasant. Maybe even Jewish. Which, by the way, he was.
"So, the Germans haul out one of their very best shots - if not, THE best shot. German nobility. A fucking Baron! He was a major, or something. Big sportsman before the war. Stalked and murdered every kind of Big Game imaginable. Rhinos, lions and elephants, oh my! Everything. Which made him a hell of killer of men when Hitler started invading other people's countries."
Chris' voice was sounding hoarse, so I fed him more Metaxa.
After lubricating his throat, and lighting another smoke, he said, "Anyway, with great panoply and newsreel hoopla for the homefolks, the Germans put this guy on a train and send him to the Eastern Front. To Stalingrad. And then he and the kid start to stalk each other.
"With the whole fucking battle raging around them... cannons... and tanks... machineguns... and artillery... bayonet and grenade charges... here are these two sons of bitches solely focused on killing each other."
"Jesus Christ," I said. "What then?"
Chris grinned. "The kid won. Bam! He got the German."
Now this was really something. Weird idea or not, it was a fabulous story that had the added advantage of being absolutely true.
"And get this," Chris said. "The guy is still alive and well in Georgia. A major hero in the good old USSR. Plus, we have a legit movie Love Interest. Kid had a girlfriend. Another sniper. They had a very mad affair and all. She's also still alive - emigrated to Israel after the war."
Better and better. Except...
I say, "Yeah, but how do we get something like that made? I mean, the good news is we can probably get the rights cheap from Mr. Craig. Mainly because movie possibilities are slim to non-existent. Also, there's no American angle. The Majors aren't going to pony up money for a movie about a Red Army hero. And there's no way an Independent could come up with that kind of dough, even if we convinced them. Shit, you'd need a cast of fucking hundreds. Thousands, even. The uniforms and costumes alone would break the bank.
"Plus, you'd need all those WWII weapons. Germany lost, last I heard, and we blew hell out of all their tanks. And the Russian stuff? How do we do that?"
"Well, that's the weird part of my idea," Chris said.
I was flabbergasted. "How much weirder can you get, Bunch?"
"Really, really weird," Chris said. He braced himself with more Metaxa, then said, "We could maybe get the Russians to do it."
Imagine me on the floor. Imagine Chris scraping up my remains, then reviving me with heavy doses of Greek cognac.
But then, after a bit, I started to see what he was talking about. I forget who the president was - probably Ronnie - but we were enjoying a brief thaw in Soviet/American relations. So, if we could get the Russian government behind this, we just might be able pull in some Hollywood types.
Chris could tell what I was thinking. He said, "Shit, the Russians would probably turn out the whole army for us. Dig up everything we need. I mean, this sniper kid was a huge hero. Huge! This would be their chance to let the world know how one little commie saved Western Civilization from Hitler's Hordes."
He started to say more, but I signaled time-out with a raised hand. "Let me catch up," I said, and started running everything over in my mind.
As it happened we were a few weeks into a Writers' Strike. Don't remember which strike, but the point is that we had a little more time than usual. We were working away on the next Sten - Number Five, I think... Revenge Of The Damned. Plus, we were picking up a few extra bucks writing animation for Stan Lee. (The strike didn't include Animation.)
Sure, there was not a chance in hell we could get a movie of this scope - and subject matter - made. But it would be fun to try. And what the fuck - what if we succeeded?
"We've got nothing to lose," I said.
Chris laughed. "Shit, Cole - as Butch said to Sundance: the fall will probably kill us anyway."
Then he frowned and all his story-pitch adrenalin drained out and he became despondent. Writers are all basically Bipolar. When an idea hits, we get higher than an upper atmosphere weather balloon. When that high ends - and it usually ends in a heartbeat - all the devils in Hell couldn't dig a hole any deeper.
A bitter laugh. "I'm such a fucking idiot," he said. "Just forget what I said."
But now my bennies were cutting in. "Hang on, partner," I said. "What the hell is the harm trying? Worse they can do is say, Nyet."
Chris glowered at me. "Yeah? Try how?"
I picked up the phone and dialed long distance information. When the operator came on I said, "I'd like the number of the Soviet embassy in San Francisco, please."
Chris laughed. "You're fucking with me, Cole," he said.
But I was writing down the number. I hung up and said, "Help me figure out a pitch. It's gotta be short and sweet and designed not to trigger any Yankee-Trickster alarm bells in the mind of a Soviet bureaucrat."
We figured it out. I called, talked to a nice lady with only a trace of a Russian accent. She took my number and said somebody would call back - probably in the afternoon. We went to lunch, and upon our return there was a voice on the answering machine from a guy with a somewhat thicker accent.
I called. Made the pitch. The guy got excited. Shit, this was looking good! He said he'd have to talk to somebody in Washington and they'd get back to us.
"Think it was a brush-off?" Chris said.
Maybe. Maybe not. The following day when we returned from lunch, there was a message from a person at the Russian embassy in Washington D.C. I returned the call. Repeated the pitch. And, damn, if that guy didn't sound excited too. Another promise of a call back.
When I hung up, Chris said, "What's happening?"
"He's probably checking us out," I guessed. "You know damn well the guy in San Francisco vetted us before he kicked it upstairs. Now this guy is likely doing the same thing."
It didn't take long. That was either on a Thursday or a Friday, if I recall correctly. Monday afternoon the guy called back, said he'd talked to the head of production at Sov-Film in Moscow and that guy wanted us to give him a call. So, now it was on to Moscow, and after several conversations, the guy at Sov-Film expressed a definite interest. He said he'd talk to his bosses, called back a day or so later, and said they were just as excited as he was.
They asked for some pages. We said we'd get them some.
And there it stood when the strike suddenly ended and the phone started ringing off the hook and we were soon scrambling with a plethora of script orders. We also sold a TV series to CBS - Finders, Keepers - and got busy writing the two-hour pilot.
Time passed. The Russian project dimmed in our minds.
I got sick. Hospital-type sick. Then I was recuperating at home, writing little bits in between long naps.
One day, as I was thinking about getting off my back and plopping my butt in front of a computer monitor (the age of the desktop had finally dawned), I heard a tap at my bedroom door. I said, come in, and my teenaged son appeared. (Check out his new book - 50 Rooms.)
I was startled to see that Jason looked scared. Face pale. Eyes wide as a Keane orphan. What the hell?
He said, "Dad, there's a couple of guys at the door."
I swung my legs onto the floor. "Okay... What guys?"
His voice quavered as he replied, "They say they're from the FBI."
Now, it might seem odd to a few of you, but his announcement didn't faze me. My heart did not quicken its pace. I did not break out in sweat from imagined guilt. It wasn't that I was expecting the FBI, or that the FBI had ever visited me before.
I suppose it was because I was raised in the CIA - had spent most of my youth following my father on various missions abroad - that very few things, even a couple of guys at the door claiming to be from the FBI, surprised me. Fourteen years as a newsman had added to the calluses. If you had suffered through a one-on-one interview with an astonishingly flatulent Gov. George Wallace, you'd be startle-proof too.
Besides, my father and his buddies thought FBI agents were little more than trumped up knuckle draggers in suits. Below even the spy-riddled State Department in brain power.
I told my son there was nothing to worry about and to tell the gentlemen I'd be there in a minute. When he left, I put on my pants, pulled on sweatshirt, shoved my feet into Zoris, and padded out to see what was what.
The front door was closed, but there was a large glass pane set in the upper section. We had a hippie-era stained-glass rendition of a Peacock dangling from a chain over the door. It was a translucent blue, so the look I got at the men as I approached was somewhat psychedelic. Definite Mutt & Jeff types - one quite tall, the other about my height - 5'11.
I opened the door, asking "Can I help you?"
The shorter of the two was obviously the boss. He was middle-aged, wore suit pants, with a white short-sleeve shirt tucked in around desk-bound spare tires. Open collar, but with tie creases. I guessed that he'd shed his coat and tie in the car, trying to look relaxed. The other posed behind him, like a bodyguard. He was much younger, probably only recently out of FBI school. He was wearing pressed jeans, sensible black cop shoes, and was displaying rather impressive muscles in a tight T-shirt with a collar.
Displaying his ID, the shorter of the two said, "We're from the FBI. I'm Agent Kelly, and this is Agent..." I don't remember what Muscle's name was. But he was showing me an ID as well.
Agent Kelly said, "We'd like to come inside and chat with you for a few minutes, Mr. Cole."
I didn't ask him what about, I just waved the men through and escorted them to a large, glass top table we had in the dining area - it was an open plan front room. There were four comfortable leatherette chairs set around the table. I waved them into seats and sat across from them. I offered them coffee, they accepted and Jason, still looking weirded out, fetched it. He retired to his room, but I noticed that he left the door cracked so he could big-ear the conversation.
I started. "What can I do for you gentlemen?"
Agent Kelly made with a nice, friendly smile. "There isn't any trouble, or anything," he said, no doubt trying to put me at ease.
I smiled back and said, "I didn't think there was."
Agent Kelly glanced at Agent Muscles, then back at me. They seemed a little nonplussed that I wasn't. "We're just here for a little conversation," he said.
I nodded, encouraging him to continue. "Sure."
He said, "It's our understanding that you... and Mr. Bunch?" He looked at Agent Muscles who nodded. "Yes... Mr. Bunch... have a film project with the Russians."
Ah, so that's what this was about. If I hadn't have been sick and out of it for so long, I'd have guessed right off.
"Not exactly," I said. "We were in discussions about a project. Nothing has come of it so far."
He said, "Enemy At the Gates, I believe. Based on that book..." And he pointed past me.
I turned and saw that he was indicating my bookshelves. Off the living room was the kitchen, a recent and rather odd remodeling job made by my landlord. On one side - the side we could see from the table - there was a wall that ran about forty feet. Beyond, was a step down rec room that we'd turned into an office. Along that wall, and three of the office walls, was most of my book collection - well over three thousand volumes, both paperback and hardback.
Agent Kelly said, "It's by William Craig, isn't it? An excellent book on the Battle of Stalingrad in World War Two... Well, we call it World War Two. The Russians call it The Great Patriotic War."
He pointed again, "There's the book right there. Third shelf from the bottom."
Now, I was mildly surprised. But, I didn't show it. Instead, I got to my feet and went into kitchen area. And, sure enough, there was the paperback - third shelf from the bottom. And maybe ten or eleven books in. One out of three thousand. Hmm...
I pulled it out, thinking, how in hell... Then I glanced behind me and saw the window over the kitchen sink. You could see the books through that window, which was off a driveway that ran along the house. We didn't use it as a driveway - it was too long and narrow and backing out of the carport would have guaranteed scraped fenders. There was zip room between the house and our neighbor's high cement-block fence. Instead I'd turned it into a rather elaborate container garden, growing mainly veggies.
Okay, so somebody could have snuck along the driveway and peered through the window with binoculars, or something. (They'd be hidden from the street by the pea and bean vines) Or, maybe they just broke into the house and pawed through the place when we were at a meeting and Jason was at school. Except we had a pretty sophisticated alarm system. Snort! Don't be stupid, Allan. This is the fucking FBI. They may be clueless clods - in your dad's opinion - but they could certainly bypass a residential alarm, no problemo.
Either they spied on us through the window, or broke into the house, or both. A mental shrug - So, what? I retrieved the book and returned to my guests.
I grinned at Agent Kelly. "How did you know about the project?" I asked.
Looking self-satisfied as all get out, Kelly returned the grin. "Come on, Allan," he said. "With your background you have to ask?"
Mentally noting that we had gone from Mr. Cole to Allan, I made him say it:
"Your father," he said. "That background."
And he was right - I didn't have to ask. The first flare had gone up the minute I called the Soviet Embassy in San Francisco - which they'd be fools not to monitor. I mean, everybody does it. Our enemies, as well as our friends. Then they would have become even more interested when I called the embassy in D.C. And triply so, when the discussions with Sov-Film in Moscow commenced.
All those conversations took place with an ever-widening audience of guys crouched over listening devices. For better or worse - mostly for worse - it's the way of the Actual World. Hell, it was quite likely my phone was bugged as well. No big deal. Long ago my dad had cautioned me from ever saying anything on the phone that you didn't want to broadcast to the world.
I thought his ghost was probably laughing at the whole scene from whatever place in Purgatory that spies dwell. A spy's ghost? A Spook's spook? Don't get funny, Cole. Pay attention to business.
Breaking in, Agent Kelly said, "Now, we don't want you to get the wrong idea, Allan. We don't want to interfere with your project. Not by any means." He exchanged looks with Agent Muscles, who shook his head. No. Never. Absolutely not.
"In fact," Kelly went on, "we want to encourage you to continue your efforts to get the film made."
He had finally surprised me. "Really?" I said.
"Really," he replied. Let it sink in, then: "You could be a big help to us."
I wasn't liking where this conversation was going. But I hid my displeasure.
"Help? How so?"
He said, "There's this gentleman with Sov-Film that we're interested in. He's a Cultural Attaché based at the San Francisco embassy. But, as you can imagine, he spends a great deal of time here in Los Angeles."
"I suppose he does," I said.
Agent Kelly leaned closer, lowering his voice as if Others Might Be Listening. "We think he's actually KGB."
"And?" I prodded.
He said, "Well, considering the nature of your project, you'll probably become acquainted with him down the road... Hollywood parties... meetings about the film... things like that... And we'd like your take on him."
"Yes. We'd like your opinion on whether he's a KGB Agent, as we suspect." Agent Kelly said. "We'll pay your expenses. Kick in a little per diem so you can buy dinner and drinks. If you have to travel, we'll pay for that too."
"What kind of a guy is he?" I asked, playing for time.
"He's quite charming," Agent Kelly said. "Sophisticated. Widely read. Speaks English like he went to Oxford."
"His teacher probably did," I said, keeping the ball in play.
"That's what we think," he said, glancing at his silent companion, Agent Muscles, who nodded solemnly, as if Agent Kelly's words were weighted with gold.
I couldn't help but tease. "How about you?" I asked.
Agent Kelly was puzzled. A little taken aback. "Me?" he said.
"Minor in Russian literature?" I guessed. "Or history?"
He seemed oddly relieved. "History," he confirmed.
It was a good time to end this. I said, "Well, Agent Kelly, you gentlemen have certainly given me quite a bit to think about. And I'll have to discuss it with my partner, of course."
"Of course," Agent Kelly agreed.
He slipped a card out and put it on the table. "We're looking forward to your call," he said.
I nodded, rose from my chair, which got them to their feet as well. Shook hands, then escorted them to the door. I watched them walk down the street to a newish Chevy Impala; neutral color, big engine compartment. I thought it was mildly interesting that they hadn't parked in front. Agent Muscles got in on the driver's side, while Agent Kelly opened the passenger door. He retrieved his suit coat from a backseat hanger, put it on, then looped a tie around his neck.
Got in the car, shut the door, turned the driver's mirror so he could tie his tie. Settled in his seat and let Agent Muscles return the mirror to its proper place. They exchanged a few words, I saw Agent Muscles make with one of his hagiographic nods, then start the car and drive away.
Jason came out as I walked away from the door. "You're not going to do it, are you Dad?" Obviously he'd been listening in.
"Not a chance," I said and I was pleased when I saw the look on his face. The Old Man hadn't let him down.
The next day I felt well enough to work and when Chris showed up I told him about our visitors. And, man, was he pissed.
"Shit," he said, "what the fuck do they think we are? A couple of their bum boys, creeping and crawling around the bushes and snooping on people?"
"Well, maybe not bushes," I said. "Cocktail lounges, more likely."
"The point is," Chris said, "We're writers, not fucking finks. I don't care if the guy is KGB."
"He most certainly is KGB," I said.
Chris gave me a questioning look. "No way would the Russians let the guy out of the country to cruise decadent Hollywood if he hadn't already been vetted," I said.
"Besides, that's the kind of job they give spooks at embassies. Either you're a Political Officer, or Cultural Affairs Attaché. That's what we do. It's what the Russian do. Hell, it's what everybody does. The Cultural Affairs Attaché at the Israeli embassy is more than likely Mossad."
Chris saw the sense in that. They he frowned, "Yeah, but if everyone knows, how come the FBI doesn't?"
"But, they do know," I said.
"I don't get it," Chris said. "Why ask us to check on the guy? Give them our opinion?"
I shrugged, "My dad always said that if you want to hook somebody, you get them to do one little thing. Something easy. Something you already know the answer to. You appeal to their patriotism. Cross their palms with silver."
"The per diem," Chris nodded. "And travel allowance."
"Right," I said. "And once we do that, they can ask - no, they can demand - that we do other 'Little Favors.' And if we refuse, and try to dig in our heels, they can bring all kinds of pressure to bear."
"Like tell the whole town," Chris said. "Embarrass the shit out of us. Hell, a lot producers would freeze us out. Thinking we were spying on them for the FBI. Or, with the dope epidemic going on in Tinsel Town, if not for the FBI, it'd be the DEA. One look at us and they'd think - Bust City!"
"You got it," I said.
Chris thought a minute, then asked, "So, when do we call and tell them to fuck off?"
"We don't," I said. Adamant. "You never say no to the FBI. Or, the CIA. Or any of those alphabet soup Fascists."
Before Chris got the wrong idea, I pushed on: "We don't tell them, No. And we don't tell them, Yes. We just make vague noises, and keep kicking the can down the road until people get transferred, priorities change, whatever."
Chris liked that. He'd used similar tactics with great success during his Army days. "Just get yourself a clipboard," he used to say, "and walk around looking busy. Nobody will ever ask you what the fuck you are doing."
"One other thing," I said. "I'd better touch bases with them now, so they don't think we're ignoring them."
Chris nodded agreement.
"Besides," I said, "I want you to talk to Agent Kelly too."
Chris looked alarmed. "Just bullshit him a little," I urged. "You're good at that. Besides, nobody is going to fucking believe me without a witness. If I tell them about the FBI putting the arm on us, they'll start looking for the aluminum foil cap on my head."
He laughed. "I would have thought the same thing," he said, "if I hadn't known you half my life."
I got Agent Kelly's card. Made the call. There was no waiting. He picked up right away.
"Allan," he said, full of good fellowship. "Nice to hear from you."
I told him that I'd just filled my partner in on our conversation. Then made a joke. "Chris has been sitting here looking at me like I've turned into a fruit cake," I said. "So, I'd really appreciate it if you spoke to him. Tell him, Yes, Virginia, there really is an FBI Agent named Kelly."
Agent Kelly chuckled. I gave the phone to Chris and he bullshitted the guy up one side and down the other. Chris was a past master of bullshitting Authority Figures.
After he hung up, I got us some coffee. When I returned, I could see he'd been thinking a little more on it.
"You know," he said, "one thing still bothers me. The FBI has a lousy reputation in this Town. Back in the day, they were accusing everybody of being a commie. Shit, J. Edgar was sneaking around everybody's place. Getting ammunition on them. Getting them hauled before HUAC. (The infamous House Un-American Activities Committee) Getting them blacklisted, or put in prison, or both."
Chris said, "So, how'd they know you wouldn't blow the whistle on them? How'd they know you wouldn't complain to the Guild, or call the LA Times and accuse them of trying to infiltrate Hollywood. Accuse them of attacking our First Amendment Rights, and shit?"
I said, "I thought of that too. I mean, face it, writers are weird. Maybe I'd freak out. Blow all kinds of whistles."
"Yeah, they were taking big chance with you, weren't they?" Chris said.
I shrugged. "Agent Kelly said it right from the start," I said. "When I asked him how come the FBI knew we were flirting with the Russian movie people he told me..."
Laughing, Chris broke in, finishing it: "'...Come on, Allan, with your background you have to ask?'"
Postscript #1 At the time we talked, Agent Kelly was head of the LA Bureau. Which, when you think about it, made it even more bizarre that he'd hit up a lowly writer. Why not just send one of his field agents?
Postscript #2 and #3: A year or so later he was made head of the West Coast FBI and transferred to Dallas. A few years after that, he was called to Washington D.C. where he became the Number Three man in the FBI. (Eventually he retired and is no longer among us. Probably playing cards with my Dad and the Devil.)
Postscript #4 & 5: Chris and I never did pursue the project - for lack of time. The film was finally made, however, in 2001 - after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Enemy At The Gates starred Jude Law and Ed Harris.
Postscript #6: We never heard from the FBI again.
NEXT: THE NEIGHBORS ARE SCARING OUR WEREWOLF