Those who lived through the McCarthy era will find nothing new in "Guilty By Suspicion." Those who are too young to have been aware of that period should find the film both riveting and informative.
The late '40s ands early '50s are frequently referred to as Hollywood's "Dark Ages," and that they were. Those were the years when the House Un-American Activities Committee, knowing where it would get the most coverage, forced actors, producers and directors to testify before the committee. Were they or had they ever been members of the Communist Party? Were they prepared to name those who were?
It was a horrifying situation in which some actors and directors betrayed their friends, and others went to jail rather than do so. Ten who did choose jail were known as the "Hollywood Ten" or "The Unfriendly Ten."
It is a time that has rarely been dramatized. Irwin Winkler, producer of some 35 films, feels, however, that it is time to do so now. His "Guilty by Suspicion" gives us the familiar but nonetheless absorbing story of one man, a director, who was forced to appear before the committee in order to clear himself, so that he might continue to work at his chosen profession.
Robert De Niro, a very busy actor, stars as David Merrill, a leading Hollywood director who had made the mistake of attending a few meetings at the home of a Communist sympathizer during the '30s. He didn't belong to the party. He simply attended a few leftist meetings, and for that, he saw his career jeopardized. He could, of course, "clear" himself. Larry Parks was one of those hapless people who did. He, though, testified and was erased from the screen.
That was how it worked. You were damned if you did and damned if you didn't. If you testified and identified others, you were a traitor. If you refused to name others, your career was finished because the studios were afraid their films might be boycotted.
The Hollywood Ten were jailed on contempt charges, and it was a number of years before this particular nightmare came to an end. In 1960, Kirk Douglas was one of the first producers to give one of The Ten, Dalton Trombo, screen credit in his own name (some wrote under pseudonyms) for "Spartacus." From thereon, the climate changed, but the witch hunts had left their scars.
In the film, Merrill's estranged wife sticks by him as one of his close friends testifies and betrays his "friends." The director has another friend (George Wendt) who asks permission to use Merrill's name in his testimony. Annette Benning is the director's wife, Patricia Wettig is an actress who is close to collapse when her husband testifies, and Sam Wanamaker, a victim of the blacklist in real life, is the attorney who tries to persuade Merrill to cooperate.
Ben Piazza plays Darryl Zanuck, president of Twentieth Century Fox, who apparently went along with the blacklisting. He, too, according to the film, would not hire those who refused to testify.
4*"Guilty By Suspicion" opens here today.
"Guilty By Suspicion" ** A Hollywood director, asked to testify before the House American Activities Committee, doesn't know what to do.
CAST: Robert De Niro, George Wendt, Patricia Wettig, Annette Bening, Sam Wanamaker
DIRECTOR: Irwin Winkler
RATING: PG (language)
) RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes