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Herbert Philbrick was a young professional and pacifist in 1939 Boston. He joined an anti-war group and quickly found himself caught up in the secret world of underground communist activity. He agreed to spy on the Communists for the FBI, and spent the next 9 years of his life as a Communist, FBI spy, and Communist counter-spy, since they had asked him to follow other comrades to test their loyalty. Hence the 3 lives; and his family, co-workers, and church never knew. This TV show is based on the TRUE story of how Philbrick (played ably by Richard Carlson) could never relax, but had to sneak to secret cell meetings and meet FBI agents in clandestine places to make info drops, never knowing when he might be found out, and if he would live to see the next rendezvous. Written by
J Barlow <jonahsdive@gmail>
It's hard to be objective about a series designed to raise the strongest political emotions. I should say that I haven't seen an episode since the show left the air 50-some years ago. I did, however, grow up with the series and share in its political assumptions. What I couldn't see then, but do see now, is how much a creature of its time it was. I think it's probably telling that the series-- to my knowledge has never been revived or syndicated since the original showing.
As I recall, the show worked well enough strictly as entertainment. The episodes followed a formula as most series doHerb (Carlson) would learn of some nefarious red doings, consult with FBI man Dressler (Zaremba), foil the doings, and end the show with an instructional on the many insidious appeals of communism. Drama grew out of thwarting red plans and avoiding exposure since Herb was an undercover FBI informant. I don't know how good the ratings were, but I can see the show being kept on the air regardless of popular ratings.
Two general points are worth noting, neither of which makes specific assumptions about a series I haven't seen for decades. First, the program comes out of a formative Cold War period in which the complex dynamic of Marxism and anti-colonialism was reduced in the public mind to the simplistics of good vs. evil. Put briefly, the series functioned as a popular reflection of that McCarthy period in which self-serving stereotype replaced real world complexity.
Ironically, however, it's the same simplistic perception of good vs. evil that underlay much of the trauma of Vietnam ten years later, when the extreme disconnect between American beliefs about the war and the actual realities resulted in a domestic crisis at home and mutiny in the ranks abroad. In short, Americans of the 50's were woefully unprepared for the complex political realities evolving outside their TV sets. A longer-term consequence, I believe, of propaganda products like Three Lives.
Second, during the three years of series run-time (1953-56), covert arms of the US gov't were directly responsible, we now know, for subverting at least two popular democracies abroadThe elected Arbenz gov't of Guatemala (1954) and the elected Mossadegh gov't of Iran (1953). Rather odd behavior, I believe, for the touted defender of democracy as the McCarthyite period presented our side. I wonder what Philbrick and Dressler would have said about our own sneaky subversives, keeping in mind that in democratic theory the will of the people is sovereign above all else.
These brief points are not intended as an apologetic for Soviet communism. I'm sure they propagandized their own people with similar stereotypes about the West, that is, when they weren't busy crushing dissent in their own part of the world. Instead, these points amount to a way of putting together a more critically realistic perspective than what we're force-fed in the media and by long-ago shows like Philbrick's.
In reflecting back on that time, I think it's important to keep such considerations as these in mind. At any rate, It's too bad the episodes aren't available for viewing even now 60-years later. I think they'd still be as provocative and even relevant in today's world, though maybe not in the way intended.
(In passingfor readers too young to recall context. When Khruschev made his reckless "We'll bury you" remark, he was referring to out-producing the West, not to mass murder. Too bad it's since been retailed out of context, but I guess that's the sort of thing I've been talking about.)
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