I’ve talked about Karina Longworth’s fantastic You Must Remember This podcast before, and there’s a reason for that: It’s, well, fantastic. Karina does these long series of in-depth explorations of the stories behind the movies of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Not how these movies got made, but what the lives, loves and secrets were of the people who were making them, both in front of and behind the camera. Lately she’s been talking about one of the darker stories from that era: The Blacklist, the hunt by the House Un-American Activities Committee for Communists in Hollywood who were poisoning, the said, our culture with their lefty movies.
Surprisingly there haven’t been a ton of movies made about this particular chapter in Hollywood’s history. Maybe that’s out of some institutional guilt that doesn’t want to confront. Maybe because doing so would tear down the mythology that’s been built up around the stars of that era. As Karina points out in her series, for every actor or exec who was ready to tell HUAC to get stuffed there were five others who were more than happy to salvage their own reputations and businesses by naming names and clearing their own. I’ve covered the campaigns for some of those. Good Night, and Good Luck came at the story from a journalistic point of view. The recent Trumbo was more straightforward, telling the story of a writer on the Blacklist who skirted the system to keep working. And while there have been a few documentaries one of the only other feature is the 1976 Woody Allen-starring The Front.
The movie that most stands out in my memory for more directly taking on this particular story is 1991’s Guilty By Suspicion. Written and directed by Irwin Winkler, the movie stars Robert DeNiro as David Merrill, a fictionalized version of real-life director John Berry. Merrill is a director who has entered the crosshairs of the Communist hunters and suddenly finds not only his own studio heads are pressuring him to talk about his own affiliations as well as those of his friends but those friends are looking to save themselves as well. Torn between his desire to keep working and the fact that doing so would mean turning on those he knows and abandoning his own conscience, Merrill has to decide between the lesser of two evils and weigh how his choices will impact his family, his industry and ultimately his country.
The poster for the movie certainly doesn’t oversell the action in the movie but it does hit the setting and the star. DeNiro is seen sitting in what most people would quickly identify as a classic Hollywood screening room, a movie being projected through the window in back of him, something we can see thanks to the helpful addition of obvious smoke that’s diffusing the light. His hair and tie also help to place us in or at least around the 1950s. I don’t quite understand what the look of torn paper is supposed to add to the effect here. We do need to talk about lengthy copy that’s next to DeNiro. Because while it’s great at helping to establish the story and setting, it’s really long and isn’t exactly what you could call catchy. It reads:
“In the 1950’s a war was being fought in the U.S. A committee of Congress sought to control the creative community through fear and censorship. Anyone who disagreed with them became…” and then we lead into the title. After that title there’s the additional “All it too was a whisper,” a reference to just how little basis was needed for claims that could completely derail careers and ruin lives. But that’s just a lot of copy. You don’t often see marketers decide to just put the full movie synopsis on the one-sheet but that’s what they’ve done here. That approach makes a bit of sense considering this is not a well known story and it’s incredibly details in terms of the story. But still…it’s basically a procedural drama of a sort and these are sold all the time without adding a half a page of text to the one-sheet.
In the trailer looks, we’re quickly thrown into Merrill testifying in front of a committee and are told that there’s a problem with his involvement in a movie that’s being made. There are back room meetings before we see Merrill asked whether he’s a member of the Communist Party, our first hint at what that trouble is. He’s asked to not only explain himself as well as others before the narrator comes in and explains everything about the setting and the time period with some help from more footage that shows people pushing for Merrill to just play ball or give them permission to do so to save themselves. He’s a less than cooperative witness, though, which continues to cause problems for himself and his family.
Looking back at it now it’s very much an early 90s dramatic thriller and it’s instructive to remember that these movies were mainstream big studio releases at the time whereas now this would be a $20m indie that maybe winds up on iTunes with a minimal theatrical release. It sells a solid drama that’s spearheaded by DeNiro and which promises lots of hushed conversations and tortured consciences being debated. It looks like, based on this, a Big Idea movie that tries to take an important concept and story and condense it as much as possible to make it more approachable and understandable for the audience.
Blink and you’ll miss the cameo by Martin Scorsese, who appears in the movie as the fictionalized version of director Joseph Losey. In an interesting coda to this, Scorsese and DeNiro were the ones who introduced and presented the honorary Oscar to writer/director Elia Kazan in 1999. Kazan, for all the amazing work he’d done in Hollywood, had been put on the Blacklist for his own alleged affiliations and that presentation was marred by a number of big name stars who refused to applaud or acknowledge him because he had, during the HUAC hearings, named names, the ultimate sin in a town with a very long view of history.
This is a movie I saw in theaters and enjoyed on cable in the years afterward. It’s a compelling story about an era that should not be forgotten for how it turned people against each other and ruined the careers and lives of countless people not because of their actions but because of their beliefs. The movie may not be something that’s well remembered today but it’s a story we shouldn’t forget.