Adina Hoffman’s Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures

Now that I’ve finished my Clarence Thomas book—it’ll be out in September, pre-order it now—I’m catching up on my reading. Adina Hoffman’s Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures wasn’t first on my list, but once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down.

Hecht was a screenwriter, the force, or one of the forces, behind films like ScarfaceNotoriousTwentieth Century, and many other films. “He invented 80 percent of what is used in Hollywood movies today,” said Godard. As Hoffman explains:

Screwball comedy’s airborne patter; the brooding tones of the gangster saga; the newspaper farce and its hard-boiled banter—these were among Hecht’s signature modes, and whether or not he fathered these forms, he certainly played a major role in their upbringing.

Hecht was something else: a Jew. An American Jew, in fact, a Jewish-American. As Hoffman shows, he took to the hyphen with all conviction of a convert. (Indeed, his onetime collaborator Herman Mankiewicz, who co-wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane, said, after one of Hecht’s many explosive episodes involving the question of Judaism, “Six years ago Ben found that he was a Jew, and now he behaves like a six-year-old Jew.” It wasn’t really true, but it captured something about Hecht’s zeal.)

I was going to say that, for me, the Jewish Hecht is the real power of Hoffman’s book. Hecht, you see, aligned himself in the 1940s with the most right-wing forces of the Zionist movement, the Revisionists as they were called. Menachem Begin visited him in Nyack (this was a famous visit of Begin to the US, which Hannah Arendt mobilized fellow intellectuals to protest. Arendt called Begin the leader of “a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.” That should give you a sense of how far-out Begin was and how adventurous Hecht’s expeditions were.)

Hoffman captures Hecht’s sympathies, and this larger world of right-wing Zionism, with great sensitivity. You see in Hecht’s extravagances—and he got a lot of justified hell for that—a premonition of the Zionist project, what it would mean and come to mean, to an American Jew. It’s a cliche of nationalism studies that the author of a national identity will often come from outside the nation; think Napoleon, Stalin, or even someone like Alexander Hamilton. In Hoffman’s hands, and through Hecht’s outsider eyes, we see what Zionism meant to so many Jews. So much so that Begin spoke at his funeral, and there was a move in 2003, while Ariel Sharon was prime minister, to have Hecht reburied in Jerusalem.

But as I said, I was going to say this, the Jewish Hecht, is the real power of her book. But without giving anything away, Hoffman does something at the end of the book that nearly took my breath away, bringing Hecht’s Judaism back to the question of his filmmaking. Late in life, Hecht wrote a searing and sentimental book about the Kasztner trial in Israel. (No need to dwell on the details, but the trial raised profound questions about the role of Jewish collaboration with the Nazis and the role of those collaborators in the construction of the Israeli state. Arendt takes up the trial in Eichmann in Jerusalem.) Hecht was in his element: denouncing the Diasporic Jew, the collaborating Jew, the compromising Jew.

The easy and obvious move would be to mock Hecht, demanding machismo and martyrdom, denouncing compromise and collaboration, from the safety and comfort of his Nyack estate. Hecht wasn’t the first armchair warrior; he wouldn’t be the last.

But Hoffman does something far more interesting:

Ben Hecht, no martyr he, knew a thing or two about compromise—and even if he’d recently bristled on live national television at the mere suggestion that he’d sold out, he had in fact spent his life making deals, hustling, opting for the actual over the ideal, improvising with wile, collaborating, if you will, in the more positive sense of that term. Much of his best work had, in fact, been the product of collaboration—and while whipping off a Hollywood script with an old pal like Lederer or MacArthur, or doctoring a screenplay for Hawks or Hitchcock. Selznick or Zanuck hardly entailed the same crushing ethical concessions as did bargaining for Jewish lives with Nazis during wartime, Hecht himself certainly never aspired to the purity it seems he demanded of the players in this wrenching life-and-death drama. That paradox seemed to land squarely in his blind spot.

Hoffman appropriately holds back here, but it’s a fascinating insight and question she raises about compromise and collaboration: when it produces barbarism and when it yields art.

But there is something much more profoundly subversive at play here, beyond the usual culture/barbarism meditation that we’ve come to expect from writing on the 20th century and Jews. Hoffman also seems to be suggesting, offering, collaboration as the hidden thread of Hecht’s whole life: of his artistry, of his life as Jew and as an American. All of it was compromise, all of it was collaboration, all of it was genius. What else is Hollywood, at its best, if not collaboration and even compromise? The genius was in the compromise, in the collaboration, not in the purity. There’s a sense throughout the book of that kind of miraculous alchemy, where vice becomes  virtue.Brecht, or Adorno, or one of those guys said the mansion of culture is built on dog shit. He, whoever it was, offered that up in a declensionist mode. Hoffman turns that around and serves it up as exaltation.

It’s the kind of question Hecht would have scorned as fancy and highfalutin, yet it’s the kind of question that haunted him throughout his life—drawn as he was to the seamy side of the gangster world, the world of Jewish terrorism, the world of the cynical newspaperman, yet always rousing himself to make great art and tormenting himself for failing to do so (in his head, at least).



  1. Daniel Caraco February 2, 2019 at 9:06 pm | #

    If you are interested in film and its history during the middle of the 20th Century, aka the Black List, you might want to check out Jeff Corey’s “Improvising Outloud ( It isn’t political theory. But it offers a personal account of the times and other interesting information about organizing and the craft of acting.

  2. jonnybutter February 3, 2019 at 12:01 pm | #

    Super interesting post!

    “landing squarely in his blind spot’ is a great way to put it. She doesn’t have to commit to a possibly vulgar psychological economy, but doesn’t forestall an evocation of the *symmetry* blind spots have.

    I think there’s a lot of support for the idea that art is always an attempt, always a compromise of some kind, that the ‘magic’ happens when we are forced to ‘nail something down’. I’d note also that film is way more collaborative – especially in those days – than other forms.

    [Godard quote: “He invited 80 percent’ – ‘invented’?]

    • Corey Robin February 3, 2019 at 5:54 pm | #

      Aach, thanks for catching that re Godard. Have fixed!

    • jonnybutter February 10, 2019 at 1:03 pm | #

      While I’m at it, this is connected to a question we in the music world are often confronted with (directly or no) and applies to other art too: is there an essential difference between improvisation and ‘composition’? Of course a final composition is the result of editing and refining, but is there a truly *essential* difference? I don’t think so. Find the exact spot where one begins and the other ends and you’ll have an argument. Otherwise, meh.

      One of the many stupidities of Romantic period Western art music is a valorization of composition and depreciation of improvisation. After Beethoven (and probably partly due to hero worship of him) it’s as if no one ever improvised anything! Or rather: ‘sure you could improvise in Bach’s time but we’re far too self-conscious/lofty now’. Practically speaking, it’s essentially forgotten – ‘erased’, to use a twitter word – that improvisation had been a normal part of music and music education. Pretty weird! Beethoven himself improvised in concert, and Bach improvised fugues – I think that’s how many of them were ‘written’, including really great ones from the WTC. [naturally there’s a racist element to this division too, esp vis a vis jazz later on]

      In Argentina and Spain (at least), BSing your way through a moment you aren’t prepared for is called ‘tocar guitarra’ – to play the guitar. I guess the (less ambivalent) equivalent in English would be ‘tap dancing’. But the category is just improvisation, where difficult-to-explain (and replicate) inferential leaps happen; where the raw – or not so raw – material comes from. As with just about everything, there is no utterly defined boundary between improvising and composing/editing. The whole object can change enormously, even radically, as you edit – or not. But in any event you need something *to* edit.

      When you collaborate with a lot of people and move quickly – Hecht could, as the OP suggests, team up w/someone and crank out a great screenplay quickly – what are you doing other than dealing creatively with practical problems on the moment? Improvising, in other words. Production => post-production.

  3. sanford943 February 12, 2019 at 12:40 pm | #

    Interesting article. I knew nothing about Hecht except that he wrote The Front Page. Another book I have to read. I probably didn’t know he was Jewish. I do know who Hannah Arendt is. I would like to read her article from the New Yorker.

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