Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Guilty by Suspicion (1991)

Director: Irwin Winkler                                     Writer: Irwin Winkler
Film Score: James Newton Howard                  Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Starring: Robert De Niro, Annette Bening, Chris Cooper and Sam Wanamaker

Guilty by Suspicion is a story of the House Un-American Activities Committee and how it glommed onto Hollywood as the only real way to make the point that communists were infiltrating American life. Unable to find any real communists in government other than Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, they had a much easier time going after media personalities which culminated in the witch hunts and blacklists and the Hollywood Ten, those artists who refused to name their friends as having communist ties. Robert De Niro stars as sort of a composite suspect, a popular director who has communist sympathizing friends but doesn’t realize it until it’s too late. But he also doesn’t realize the lay of the land, and thinks that simply telling the truth will be enough. It isn’t. The committee wants names and if he doesn’t give them what they want they’ll arrest him. They don’t care about the truth, only about proving their point. And once the suspicion falls on him, no one will be able to associate with him, let alone hire him.

The story begins with Chris Cooper sweating it out in closed session before members of the committee. He has already said he will tell them what they want to know, but when faced with doing it he doesn’t want to. And though the scene then shifts to the opening credits, it’s clear that he will be naming names. Robert De Niro is a big time director, called back to Hollywood from Europe to meet with Ben Piazza as Darryl Zanuck. He wants his director to meet with a lawyer to clear his name with the committee before starting his next project. De Niro is mystified, of course, and when he meets with Sam Wanamaker and Tom Sizemore he becomes indignant. But what they were offering was a private session with the committee, just like Cooper’s. His refusal of that will result in his being subpoenaed before the committee in public hearings. In addition, all of his work has suddenly been suspended. Cooper’s actress wife, Patricia Wettig, was also named by her husband and she has her child taken away. And though De Niro is divorced from Annette Bening, they have a young boy and being ostracized is almost more than her good natured character can take. Worst of all his best friend, George Wendt, is caught in a lie by the committee and wants to name De Niro just to appease them.

The character is said to be loosely based on Edward Dmytryk. But this story is set in 1951, after the Hollywood Ten had already been arrested. The part that’s similar is that he’s portrayed as someone who always cared about work more than people and when Dmytryk finally gave in to the pressure and named names, no one who knew him was really surprised. But this film takes a slightly different tack at the end, one that is still in keeping with Dmytryk’s initial refusal to give the committee what they wanted. Writer-director Irwin Winkler had been a well-known producer in Hollywood for years. Clearly this was a pet project of his, and the first film he decided to direct. It’s a valiant effort, and an important story, but somehow the whole film comes off as too generic. The most impressive thing about the film is the production design, but Winkler seems too concerned with getting all of that on camera than digging deep into the characters. There’s a superficiality to the film as well because none of the characters really talk to each other in any meaningful way about what’s going on. It’s an unfortunate flaw. De Niro is solid, but limited by the script, and Annette Bening’s characters seems entirely too nice. But she’s still very much in love with him, another aspect of the story that isn’t developed enough. Having Sam Wanamaker in the cast is a nice touch, as he was on the blacklist himself, while George Wendt was a bad casting move any way you look at it. Guilty by Suspicion is an interesting look at the plight of Hollywood during the McCarthy Hearings, worthwhile for the subject matter but lacking in the kind of character development needed to make it great.

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