The Woman on Pier 13 had previews under the title I Married a Communist, and only came into its far less show-offy title when the test audiences rejected it for reasons that probably make perfect sense in the cultural context of 1949, but all it really says to me is that people used to have way less awesome tastes. Because The Woman on Pier 13 is like a pair of fresh-washed jeans, crisp and sturdy and really quite impossibly unexceptional, but I Married a Communist - tell me that there's not a tiny part of you that isn't desperate to see that movie. If the film had come out even a couple of years later, when the tacky excesses of '50s B-pictures had begun to make itself felt, I suspect it might have even been released under its far more delectably outrageous name, but then, by any title, The Woman on Pier 13 feels like a film which found the 1950s pushing their way in to the 1940s ahead of schedule.

It's not hard to guess that a film titled I Married a Communist at any point its development was intended as a ripe piece of anti-Red agitprop, and that was indeed a subject much on the mind of all Americans as the '40s turned into the '50s. The infamous blacklist had started in 1947, when the House Committe on Un-American Activities (HUAC) had begun investigating Communist ties in Hollywood, and those who refused to play ball were prevented from working by general agreement of the studio bosses, deeply anxious to avoid getting on HUAC's bad side. In 1950, a pamphlet titled Red Channels kicked the blacklist into high gear, and in that same year, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy began his attention-grabbing claims that the U.S. government - and the whole country! - was infiltrated by a small army of well-trained, merciless Commie agents who where this close to toppling the entire system of American democracy. Within a couple of years, American political discourse would be in full-fledged hysteria over the Red Menace, and within a couple of years after that, it would all be over, and the Red-baiting of McCarthy would already be regarded as weird, embarrassing paranoia.

The Woman on Pier 13 got out in front of that trend, and not by accident: RKO Radio Pictures, the studio that made it, was itself something of a crucible for how the film industry was tossed back and forth by the pressures of the anti-communist mood of the time. Two of RKO's top creators, director Edward Dmytryk and screenwriter Adam Scott, were numbered among the Hollywood Ten, the first blacklist victims, which gave the studio an early association with the scandals and ugliness that nobody much wanted to deal with at the time. Coupled with the collapse of the film marketplace in 1947, down from the all-time high water mark of 1946, RKO - always one of the smallest and most fragile of the big companies - was in freefall, and in 1948, a controlling interest was acquired by notable crazy billionaire Howard Hughes, who made a conscious point of retooling the studio to reflect his interests, which included nuking the progressive message pictures in the pipeline and replacing them with things like, well, like the hysterical I Married a Communist. (In 1950, Hughes made the decision to play along with the government's antitrust suits against the studios - which in those days were both producers and exhibitors - and divested RKO of its theater chain, one of the key developments in the end of the classical studio era. Which doesn't really concern us at this point, but it speaks to the turmoil during Hughes's time in charge, and even to the desperate straits that RKO would never emerge from after this period - the company would keep making movies for another decade, but never regain its footing as a significant studio).

I lead with the social context surrounding the film, and not the film itself, since without that context, The Woman on Pier 13 is not much more than any other meat-and-potatoes B-level noir of the same period. Less than, maybe; in its zeal to score political points, it allows character motivation to dangle, and so it feels quite a bit more dimwitted than the average 1949 thriller. On the other hand, it was shot by Nicholas Musuraca, one of the great noir cinematographers (though he's best-known for the horror film Cat People), and it's strong work even by his elevated standards. So no matter how flimsy the committee-written story gets, the film always looks like a million bucks, and the mood of tension and omnipresent danger remains high thanks to the visuals even when the script wants to suck all the wind out of it through some preposterous artless dialogue and character beats.

The "I" who married the Communist - ex-Communist, actually, though he gets browbeaten into rejoining the Party early on - is Nan Collins (Laraine Day), nΓ©e Lowry, newly married after a whirlwind courtship to one Brad Collins (Robert Ryan), an important executive in the San Francisco shipping world. No sooner have they returned from their honeymoon than Nan starts to realise the dark side of getting married to a fellow you barely know: he has secrets in his past, dangerous ones like the obviously shady Christine Norman (Janis Carter), who the couple encounters at a restaurant. How shady are we talking? Norman won't even drink good old American booze - she makes a big point of requesting important beer and champagne.

In no time at all, we find out - but Nan doesn't - that Norman is an active Communist, and that back in the '30s, she had quite the love affair with Brad, when he was still going by his birth name of Frank Johnson. He's since had to change identities to cover up his own Communist activism when miserably unemployed during the depression, and now Norman and her handler, a menacing hulk of a man named Vanning (Thomas Lopez), want Brad/Frank to do some work for them. There's a big war between the shipping union and the bosses, you see, and Brad has been the best voice of reason for a negotiation, convincing the union not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and convincing the bosses to stop being so resistant to giving up a fraction of profits for the benefit of all. But Vanning doesn't like that: he wants Brad to start stonewalling the union to trigger a strike and shut down shipping. He has a whole litany of options for blackmail and coercion right at his fingertips, too, and Brad's as good as dead if he doesn't play along. Meanwhile, Norman is busy seducing Nan's brother Don (John Agar), at first to hurt Nan and Brad, then to have another pawn in the fight against the shipping industry, then because she falls in love, to Vanning's immense disgust; for him, no good Communist would ever even think of having human emotions. And naturally enough, Norman's fit of the girlies will have some nasty ramifications that end up making everything a lot worse for Nan and Brad.

Impassioned message-spinning, I am sure, but The Woman on Pier 13 is awfully murky in pursuing that message: it's not really clear what the Communists are up to besides being Evil, with the shipping plan serving no apparent purpose besides causing mischief and hurting innocents. As far as propaganda goes, the film's a complete dud, since it's so freaked out by the merest mention of the word "communism" that it's more akin to one of those crazy anti-drug melodramas that have been made, on and off, throughout film history; especially in the form of Don, so wide-eyed in his innocence as to beggar belief as any kind of human character, simply functioning as the vessel for the film to depict how easily The Bad Thing can take control of your loved ones. It's so frenzied in its melodramatic scare-mongering as to lose any real ability to effectively monger those scares. And while it makes sure to put authentically communist-sounding statements in the mouths of its Party members, ideology isn't governing their actions, which feel like a low-rent supervillain cooked them up, rather than a radical strategist.

For all that, the film is still a brisk, easy thing to watch, for which we can above all thank its 73-minute running time (it's hard for even a very bad movie to feel particularly unpleasant when it has to rush through its plot quickly enough), but also the generally high level of its cast and crew. Laraine Day is a bit of a wet noodle, and with more or less the lead role, that's a problem; but everybody else around her is in pretty good form, especially the men: Ryan (a liberal activist who openly opposed HUAC and makes an odd choice for a film like this) is particularly great in a role that asks him to balance resentment at the dirty Commies with shame at knowing he was ever involved with them, while having to play the covert spy in front of his wife. It's a B-performance in a B-role, but within the range the film requires him to work, it's hard to imagine anybody doing better, and it provides a human hook that The Woman on Pier 13 dreadfully needs.

The real draw, though, is the style: Musuraca plunging the Communists into smokey shadows and letting darkness slowly creep in around Brad, while he and director Robert Stevenson come up with some pretty ingenious framings that present a close, claustrophobic industrialised world - the staging of a stoolie being drowned on Vanning's orders, for Brad's benefit, is in particular a fantastic piece of horror-tinged gangster viciousness of a kind that only a B-movie could have dreamed of getting away with in '49. Stevenson, a British filmmaker who came to Hollywood after the war and found himself at Disney after RKO folded, is undoubtedly most visible nowadays for his fantasy musicals Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, about as far from film noir thematically, morally, and tonally as you could possibly go; and yet there's a whisper of the same visual sensibility, of creating a light touch of the otherworldly. The film has at places a slight but distinct tang of non-reality, more like a very bad dream than a grubby urban hell like in other noirs; how much of that is the director, and how much is the cinematographer wanting to keep pushing forward, I cannot begin to speculate. But it has some nice touches of weirdness regardless: a couple of unusually low angles in the climax, some conscious dissolves that link characters together and emphasise the control that Vanning and Norman have over the good characters' lives.

It is, all told, a film for specialists: for history buffs digging into the world of the second Red Scare, for noir buffs, and probably not for anybody else. The script is, after all, pretty much a joke, and the themes wildly outdated, even more than in most films noirs. Certainly, it's not surprising that the film was a critical and box office fizzle when it was new, since it doesn't offer much that other films without so many flaws don't already have in abundance. But it's a very special little missive from a very unique time and place, all right, and it's more than a little bit rewarding to the morbidly curious.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1949
-Cecil B. DeMille reinvigorates the Bible epic with Samson and Delilah, at Paramount
-At MGM, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy star in what remains their most well-loved collaboration, Adam's Rib
-King Vidor, Patricia Neal, and Gary Cooper are among those not quite sure what to do with themselves in Warner Bros' wildly dysfunctional adaptation of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1949
-The British-produced The Third Man, shot in Vienna, is the finest depiction of moral rot in post-war Europe ever filmed
-In Japan, Ozu Yasujiro begins his cycle of family dramas with seasonally-inspired, virtually indistinghuisable plots with the masterpiece Late Spring
-Evelyn Lambart and Norman McLaren make the outstanding experimental animation Begone Dull Care for the National Film Board of Canada