British Film Critic Was Soviet Spy

Cedric Belfrage, a British film critic who also served as Samuel Goldwyn’s publicist, was a spy for the Soviet Union during World War II, as confirmed by documents newly released from the UK’s National Archives. While working for the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in New York from 1942 to 1944, Belfrage passed documents to the USSR and was, for a time, continued a more valuable source of information than the notorious double agent Kim Philby.

It’s not clear how damaging the documents Belfrage gave to Soviet intelligence may have been: One such was “a Scotland Yard guide to breaking and entering, with contributions from ‘prominent burglars of England.'” His actions were enough for him to be questioned by the FBI in 1947, at which point Belfrage told them he was passing along “meaningless bait” in the hopes of getting more useful information in trade. But when the FBI asked MI6 to confirm the arrangement, the British stonewalled. “It might be embarrassing even to give a reply,” said an official telegram, “since it would mean that we should have to admit that [MI6] has employed a man with a known communist interest in their organisation in the USA.” In other words, better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.

Belfrage’s career in the film industry took on many guises. He began writing reviews for Kinematograph Weekly in 1924, then traveled in 1926  to New York, “where film criticism was a more profitable occupation,” and to Los Angeles the following year. After writing for Picturegoer, Bioscope, The New York Herald Tribune, The New York Sun and Film Weekly, he returned to London in 1930 and worked for Goldwyn. Two years later, the Sunday Express sent him back to Hollywood, and then, in 1934, on a trip around the world, which brought him face-to-face with the dawn of European fascism. After returning to Los Angeles in 1936, he joined the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and, in 1937, the Communist Party. In 1953, he was called in front of Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities, and deported in 1955. 

As a critic, Belfrage apparently relished his status as a gadfly, writing in the biographical note of his first book, Away From It All: An Escapologist’s Notebook, “He then became a press agent to a picture company at three pounds a week. He was fired. He went to New York and got a job as scenario reader with Universal Pictures. He was fired again. He then became a movie critic, which profession he kept up until 1930, when he had interviewed all the stars several times over and had been ejected from four major studios. Later, he film-criticked in England, got himself into trouble with his remarks, and the entire film industry in protest withdrew advertising from his paper. He quit dramatic reviewing for a time until the trouble blew over.”

Belfrage’s criticism has not been collected, but he’s cited in Jack C. Ellis’ biography of John Grierson as being instrumental in providing support for Robert Flaherty’s “Man of Aran,” and is quoted in Deborah Cartmell’s “Adaptations in the Sound Era” lamenting the death of silent film:

“The international language was over. This was really a thing which nobody seemed to notice very much, but after all, the human species had lived on the face of the globe for a number of years and they had never had a language in which they could all speak to each other, which could be shown everywhere, and which everyone could understand. We just blew it up. And it was really rather sad.”

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