Movies about the blacklist aren’t common, probably because as Robert Vaughn wrote, the period produced no happy stories, ‘Only Victims.’ Robert de Niro, Annette Bening and George Wendt give a bite of immediacy to the way the blacklist upset careers and blighted lives. Few of us would like to be publicly branded an Enemy of the People, but doing so seems to be America’s number one spectator sport.
Guilty by Suspicion
The Warner Archive Collection
1991 / Color / 1:85 enhanced widescreen / 105 min. / Street Date May 12, 2015 / available through the WBshop / 17.99
Starring: Robert De Niro, Annette Bening, George Wendt, Patricia Wettig, Sam Wanamaker, Luke Edwards, Chris Cooper, Ben Piazza, Martin Scorsese, Barry Primus, Gailard Sartain, Robin Gammell, Brad Sullivan, Tom Sizemore, Stuart Margolin, Gene Kirkwood, Illeana Douglas, Adam Baldwin.
Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Film Editor: Priscilla Nedd
Original Music: James Newton Howard
Uncredited writer: Abraham Polonsky
Produced by Arnon Milchan
Written and Directed by Irwin Winkler
Anticipated as a top-quality exposé of Hollywood during the blacklist years, Irwin Winkler’s Guilty by Suspicion created its own industry flap in 1991, thanks to a dispute between its credited writer/director and a famous blacklisted writer. Not until the ‘give Elia Kazan another Oscar’ flap a number of years later did the blacklist rise again to the newspaper-editorial level of Hollywood controversy.
Martin Ritt’s highly entertaining Woody Allen comedy drama The Front (1976) now plays better than some of Allen’s self-directed pictures. It’s about the blacklist in New York TV, that hit writers and actors with insufficient clout to fight back. A labor of love that included serious input from blacklisted talent, Ritt’s film showed how messy and cruel conditions could be for writers branded as public enemies. Any group can be demonized, but even before the political troubles began Hollywood professionals were often thought to be overpaid or morally suspect.
Other titles that directly reference the blacklist are The Way We Were, The Majestic and to a lesser degree The House on Carroll Street. The most disappointing film by far on the subject is Trumbo, from just a couple of years ago. It distorts many facts and personalities, skips important personages and falsifies the record on others. Its version of history is as useless as its laughable scene that pastes Dean O’Gorman’s face over that of Kirk Douglas, in a clip from Spartacus.
Guilty by Suspicion does much better than Trumbo in most details despite a tendency to scramble the chronology of events. Mixed in with fictitious characters are number of real personages that are shown doing things that didn’t happen, or happened at a different time for different reasons. Although the scripting and direction are only so-so, Robert De Niro’s performance is excellent. The picture captures a feel for a tense period of ugly political slander.
Director David Merrill (Robert De Niro) returns from Europe looking forward to his pending picture deal with Fox studio chief Darryl Zanuck (Ben Piazza of The Hanging Tree). David enjoys a welcome-back party and looks forward to spending time with his son and repairing his marriage with Ruth (Annette Bening). But the witch hunts have hit Hollywood. David’s writer friend Larry Nolan (Chris Cooper), under pressure from the House Un-American Activities committee, names names and is thus shunned by his colleagues and his own wife, actress Dorothy Nolan (Patricial Wettig). David is told that to work he must also first be cleared, through attorney Felix Graff (Sam Wanamaker). David was never a Communist but attended a few meetings, and is thus ‘tainted.’ But the lawyer insists that David not only confess his wrongdoing to the committee, but also inform on all of his associates. Graff is actually working closely with a HUAC rep, Ray Karlin (Tom Sizemore).
The ordeal begins as soon as David refuses to debase himself. The Zanuck job evaporates, and he’s suddenly barred from all studio lots. A disreputable independent producer (Gene Kirkwood) hires him but then lets him go under political pressure. David loses his house, and Ruth goes back to teaching. A retreat to New York fails because his old stage associates shun him as well, including an actress he once helped get started. David is infuriated when his best buddy, writer Bunny Baxter (George Wendt) asks permission to betray him to the Committee, to clear himself of a perjury charge. That, and the Larry & Dorothy Nolan marriage has fallen apart too: Larry has denounced his own wife as a Communist, so she’s lost custody of her child. FBI agents hound David both in L.A. and New York. Just to survive, David goes back to the attorney Felix Graff, ready to bare all: he hopes that if he comes clean about himself and makes a forthright appeal to decency, the Committee might not make him become an informer.
Irwin Winkler’s unusual drama takes on a social injustice that ranged far wider than the publicity attached to the movie business. The Hollywood scene and the personalities pictured are fairly realistic — mainly un-glamorous behind-the-camera types, and up’n’coming writers and directors on the cusp of cementing solid careers in the postwar film biz. Although the spirit of the times is more or less intact, individual persons and movies and the chronology of events have been jumbled. Several sources say that ‘David Merrill’ is meant to be the director John Berry, a former Orson Welles associate who was getting up a good head of steam in Hollywood when he was denounced by fellow directors Edward Dmytryk and Frank Tuttle, both of whom reclaimed Hollywood careers by denouncing their peers wholesale. Unable to work in the U.S., Berry was forced into exile in France. Often directing without credit, he made a couple of the early Eddie Constantine thrillers movies, and Laurel & Hardy’s last feature together. Thirteen years passed before Berry could tentatively resume his U.S. directing career.
Other personages and films seem rather mixed up. Darryl Zanuck is pictured a little harshly, as an executive who wants to stay at arm’s length from the blacklist problem. It’s fairly well documented that Zanuck spent years trying to hide writers and directors in trouble from the wrath of the New York office. Martin Scorsese’s brief part as ‘Joe Lesser’ is supposed to be director Joseph Losey, who did indeed split for England rather than be served a subpoena. But the movie shows ‘Lesser’ trying to arrange for David to finish directing duties on his movie The Boy With Green Hair, which predates Losey’s flight to Europe by at least three years. The movie on which Losey might have had to bow out early was 1951’s The Big Night. The most salient example of scrambled Hollywood lore is when David puts in a couple of day’s work on a western that’s obviously High Noon. Nothing of that kind ever happened. That movie’s backstory is an important chapter in the blacklist years, but not in the way shown here.
Some characters are fully fictitious. Chris Cooper plays a busy writer and his wife a famous actress who comes to a bad end, characters that don’t align with specific blacklistees. Likewise George Wendt’s Bunny Baxter has no definite real life counterpart. At the end of the film Baxter is inspired to follow David’s example and at least save his self-respect; his bit of testimony is the film’s only dim ray of hope.
Robert De Niro comes off exceedingly well as the persecuted director, a reasonable man well aware of the gambles inherent in movie work. David Merrill is not given to outbursts of violence against his family. Annette Bening is stuck playing the long-suffering wife Ruth. She’s better than good but the part is not very rewarding. The stigma of association with a blacklisted person is made clear when the main inquisitor committee speaker (Gailard Sartain) attacks Merrill’s wife right on live television. The legislator asserts that disloyal teachers — purposely indicating Ruth — should be fired as well.
The film only hints at the wider effect of the blacklist. The ability to obliterate a person’s ability to make a living made the blacklist a tool for political hacks that fed on publicity. It was a perfect opportunity to attack the labor movement. Companies were formed to ‘cleanse’ employee lists of subversives, for money. Today’s Americans that support the historical blacklist seemingly don’t take into account the thousands of careers that were cut short across America, of teachers, bureaucrats, Librarians. It was a field day for bigots and anti-semites. Anybody could be denounced, not just those that exercised their political rights, especially if their names sounded ‘foreign.’ Nervous personnel departments and school boards caved under pressure from the ‘clearing’ companies, fearing that newspaper editorials and political vigilante committees would accuse them of being soft on Communism.
Among the bits that stand out are Stuart Margolin’s informer, looking miserable as the HUAC parades him as a friendly witness; Scorsese associate Ileana Douglas is an executive secretary and Adam Baldwin is a cocky FBI man who harasses David as he tries to earn money in a demeaning job. The villainous attorney is played by Sam Wanamaker, who in real life had to flee the blacklist as well. Working in England, Wanamaker starred in one of the more notable ‘exile’ pictures, Edward Dmytryk’s Give Us This Day (Christ in Concrete).
Irwin Winkler produced a number of important films, and several of Martin Scorsese’s big hits. Guilty by Suspicion was announced as a project that Winkler would produce, Abraham Polonsky would write and Bertrand Tavernier would direct, probably for Warners. At some point, Tavernier dropped out and Winkler’s directorial debut was announced. Later on, Polonsky’s name was no longer associated with the project, and Winkler was announced as the film’s writer. Guilty is Winkler’s first stab at writing and direction, and his work is just passable.
The story I have is that the formerly blacklisted writer-director Abraham Polonsky (Body and Soul, Force of Evil. Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here) is the actual author of the script for Guilty by Suspicion, but demanded that his name be removed because of changes made by Irwin Winkler. the David Merrill character was originally to have been a real communist and not simply a liberal who attended a couple of meetings. Polonsky’s argument was that with the change, the movie became not a story about a man unfairly persecuted, but a man persecuted by mistake. The story maintains that David is innocent, but it never says outright that those blacklistees that actually were party-members are not guilty.
Few if any grievances associated with the blacklist were ever resolved, and those accused that wished to survive had to grow thick hides against an onslaught of disapproval and abuse. Abraham Polonsky didn’t talk much about the films he wrote from the shadows but he did protest the changes made to this movie, and he came out very loud in protest for the career Oscar given Elia Kazan in 1999. Movies like The Front and Guilty by Suspicion will interest more people in the volume of good literature written about the period, all of which is recommended. Actual transcripts of HUAC testimony make the truth clear enough. And is it fair to condemn a picture as gutless for backing off a full statement on the blacklist? On its own the subject has never sold tickets, that’s for sure. A longer original version of The Way We Were went deeper into the issue, but the filmmakers preferred to concentrate on the romantic chemistry of its two stars.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Guilty by Suspicion looks like a re-boot of an earlier WB disc. The DVD transfer quality is just fine, and the audio strong. The production design by Leslie Dilley is particularly good, with the period feeling credible but not pushed in our faces in every scene.
No extras are included, not even a trailer. The WAC’s goal is to make the width and breadth of the Warners’ library available, and this disc fulfills that mission very well.
Decent stills for this title are so tied up by services claiming exclusivity, that the poor selection here is topped by an irrelevant photo of Robert De Niro in a fancy sports car! Well, I do like the car.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
with substantial help from valued correspondent ‘B.’
Guilty by Suspicion
Movie: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; No subtitles but it is Closed-Captioned
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 15, 2018
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson