Note: this review was commissioned after the 1991 Cannes for the Polish film magazine KINO, hence the explanations and the non-inclusion of a star(* to ****) rating that might not make sense to some readers in Poland.
GUILTY BY SUSPICION (1991). Written and directed by Irwin Winkler. Produced by Arnon Milchan. Executive Producer, Steven Reuther. Co-producer, Alan C. Blomquist. Music by James Newton Howard. Director of Photography, Michael Ballhaus. Production Design, Leslie Dilley. Editor, Priscilla Nedd. Cast: Robert De Niro, Annette Bening, George Wendt, Patricia Wettig, Sam Wanamaker, Luke Edwards, Chris Cooper, Ben Piazza, Martin Scorsese. A Warners release. 105 minutes.
The American film industry has always been strong, but today it is not only stronger than ever, it finds itself without competition.
The 1991 Cannes Festival is the double proof of this. The U.S. films triumphed , in presence and prizes -- although a Greek, a Polish-French and Italian film were at least as worthy of the Jury's accolades. At the same time, and for different reasons, almost all other countries in the world were either scantily represented at Cannes or not at all. It is as if they had stopped making Cannes-worthy films.
Still, by and large, the American prestige is based on films that are overwhelmingly made for entertainment and avoid social and political topics. GUILTY BY SUSPICION is a major and welcome exception, but one should not be too hopeful, since, although generally appreciated by critics in the United States., that film has not had a brilliant career at the American box-office.
Even so, no matter what its intrinsic strengths and weaknesses, no matter how it is perceived from a purely cinematic point of view, the subject of GUILTY BY SUSPICION makes this picture the most serious and the most important to have been made by Hollywood in a very long time, because it deals with a period that has been little depicted in features, that grave and shameful chapter of our history: the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) investigations leading to the Hollywood blacklisting of the 1950s.
This needs some explanation.
The blacklisting did not spring out --like Athena from the head of Zeus--of America's political system, ready-made and fully-armed. It was but a tragic link in a long chain of American attitudes and reactions to what could generically (and vaguely) be called "the Left".
Those attitudes can easily be traced back to the end of the 19th century. They are not specifically American, as in many ways they resemble the responses of much of the world to anarchism, socialism, and a quantity of other -isms, all made more acute by the Russian Revolution.
In the UNITED STATES the period immediately preceding World War II saw much violent conflict between Labor and Management, a conflict that was inextricably tied to the fear of the Left, the Red Scare. The rise of Fascism (more specifically, Naziism, as Mussolini and the like were not very clearly perceived) and the Spanish Civil War did much to polarize American society. On this side, conservatives and isolationists and pragmatists.On the other, sympathizers of socialism and idealists, found especially among immigrants, industrial workers, intellectuals and artists.
During World War II there was, in the United States, a massive support of, and admiration for, the fighting Russians.It became increasingly common and sometimes chic for Hollywood figures to contribute a little time and money to humanitarian causes of the Left, without necessarily being politically involved or conscious. (Even whenever they did join the Communist Party, their concept of it was often more naive than in many other countries). But the wartime years were a parenthesis in History.
Peace came, and with it the Cold war. HUAC began its official witch-hunts of suspected Communists in 1947. By 1951 it was in Los Angeles, frightening the timorous film industry and blacklisting "uncooperative" witnesses.The blacklisting itself went well beyond Hollywood and into the entire media business, especially the television industry. (That was the subject of the late Martin Ritt's superb THE FRONT of 1976). It also permeated the entire fabric of American life.
Additionally, it intermingled with another witch-hunt, one intent on "purging" the very Government of "Commies". The latter was launched in 1950 by the notorious Wisconsin Senator Joseph (Joe) McCarthy whose downfall finally came when the took on the Establishment's hard core, the US Army. * It is worth repeating that the deplorable state of mind known as McCarthyism existed well before the Senator gave it a name.
In GUILTY BY SUSPICION, David Merrill (De Niro), a major film director, returning from Europe in 1951, finds a Hollywood in the grip of panic. With its subpoenae, HUAC is bulldozing its way through the movie business, ferreting out real or imagined communists and browbeating witnesses into naming names.
David, the Golden Boy of 20th Century Fox's czar Darryl Zanuck, is asked by the latter to cooperate. His conscience is clear yet he refuses on the principle that he can incriminate others whose activities, though generally innocent, humanitarian and idealistic, would be anathema to HUAC.
Rapidly, David's life and career are shattered, doors are shut on his face. He becomes a pariah to friends and colleagues. His main support is his ex-wife Ruth (Bening). Always hounded by the FBI, he tries New York and fails.Eventually he accepts to appear before a Senate subcommittee.
The movie, interesting but somewhat sagging until now, picks up in a shouting match as David defies his coarse, prejudiced Inquisitors and stands fast. He will not involve others.
As a producer, Irwin Winkler had worked five times before with De Niro. Winkler's other films include POINT BLANK, RAGING BULL, THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY?, ROCKY, GOODFELLAS, as well as some mediocrities or duds.This is his debut as writer and as director.It is neither bad nor particularly impressive.The script is honest but tends to go limp.The direction, though clean, is undramatic.
GUILTY is still a producer's film, with careful, convincing sets and photography and a good sense of the movie business shown here without flamboyance but rather through small, relatively discreet touches.
The film is also a seasoned producer's work as proven by Winkler's choice of stars. De Niro is quiet, natural and plays with reserve. Bening is totally transformed from her elegance in VALMONT and her devastating sexiness in THE GRIFTERS into a very pretty young matron.The brief appearances of director Martin Scorsese as Joe Lesser (obviously based on blacklisted Joseph Losey) are mini-joys. And so on down the line.
Where GUILTY gets a bit annoying is that it is a film à clé, so that you expect realism heightened by genuine Hollywood models behind the fictitious names. Except for the Scorsese and Zanuck parts, the other figures are unclear composites.This creates some vagueness and discomfort, as up to a point, it reduces the power of the subject.The existing documentaries on the blacklist and/or the Hollywood Ten carry more drama and more emotion. **
Facts and dates can be confusing. David eventually gets a tiny stint as replacement director, but soon he is "understandably" fired. That film is a B western, a sleazy, inexplicable, indeed baffling, clone of HIGH NOON (1952) which may not even have been released by then.
(In specific connections with HIGH NOON, the B movie's hero refers to Frank Miller, the name of the character who wanted to gun down Marshal Will Kane/Gary Cooper.The hero also throws down his badge and takes off in a buggy with his Grace Kelly-like blonde wife!)
David is presumably inspired by blacklisted John Berry who exiled himself to France, but then Berry was a minor figure. Scorsese-Lesser-Losey shows David his unfinished THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR on a Moviola, but that Losey movie dates from 1948.
At his 1952 hearing David cries out: "Don't you have any shame, Senator? Don't you have an ounce of decency?" Those are almost verbatim the words of Army counsel Joseph N. Welch *** (Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?") during the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings as he exposed to the world the Senator's wanton cruelty.
GUILTY contains fleeting allusions to other politicians too, notably one to Richard Nixon who made his career by false accusations. This allusion leaves you hungry for more -- and you do not get it.****
Paradoxically then, GUILTY, an overall fine movie, is historically and dramatically guilty of not doing what the HUAC people demanded of their victims: naming names.
* That was when McCarthy, feeling too secure,went too far by accusing the Army of harboring Communists. The Army, defending itself, hired a superb lawyer, Bostonian Joseph N. Welch. **** In his tweed suit and with his fatherly, conservative looks and manner, Welch showed up McCarthy as a cruel paranoiac. The hearings were nationally televised. Since most people did not have television sets then, millions went to neighbors who had one,to watch this "program." It became the first huge non-fiction event on U.S. TV. The viewers could see the presumably invincible Senator disintegrate before their eyes. When McCarthy was obviously vanquished, there was a colossal sigh of relief throughout America.The country sensed right away that this was the beginning of the end of a terrible period.
** These documentaries are primarily shown on PBS, the Public Broadcasting System, which is not commercial but funded mostly by private donations. It is the (very) rough equivalent of the BBC in England.
*** Joseph N. Welch had a brief film career after his TV celebrity when he played (very well) the judge in Otto Preminger's ANATOMY OF A MURDER (1959).
**** When a younger Nixon was trying to get into politics and become a Republican Congressman from California, his main opponent was Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas, the wife of actor Melvyn Douglas. Nixon's people would call voters on the telephone in the middle of the night. They would say: " Do you know that Helen Gahagan Douglas is a Communist?" They would then hang up. Nixon won.