Movie Review: Guilty By Suspicion (1991)
It should’ve been a slam dunk. A Hollywood movie about the blacklist (with its obvious heroes and villains) that was originally written by someone who had been blacklisted (Abraham Polonsky, “Force of Evil”), and starring one of the greatest actors of his generation (Robert De Niro).
So what happened? Why does it lie there?
I think it combines too many stories into too few characters in a way that doesn’t make sense dramatically or historically.
Take the opening. In September 1951, Larry Nolan (Chris Cooper) testifies in private session before the white-haired, fat men of HUAC—one literally smoking a cigar—and begs them not to force him to name names. “Don’t make me crawl through the mud,” he says. “They’re my friends.” It’s a powerful scene. The next time we see him, Nolan ruins a welcome-home party for director David Merrill (De Niro) by shouting, to the movie people gathered, “Who are we trying to kid? We’re all dead!” Then he goes home to burn books in his front yard—including, I should add, “The Catcher in the Rye,” which, since it had been published only two months earlier, was hardly on anyone’s list of “subversive” material yet. Upstairs, his wife, Dorothy (Patricia Wettig), drunk and hysterical, makes accusations and throws his clothes/typewriter out the window. It’s the stuff of melodrama. But that’s not the worst of it.
For the rest of the movie, Nolan becomes a major asshole. After naming his wife’s name, he sues her for sole custody of their child, and wins, since she, a former communist, is an unfit mother. (And he? No? Because he ratted?) She winds up alone, unemployable, and eventually kills herself in front of Merrill and his ex-wife, Ruth (Annette Bening), by driving her car off a cliff. At her funeral, Nolan doesn’t bat an eye.
This is a helluva 180: from begging “Don’t make me crawl through the mud” to throwing it on everyone without a thought. It’s like Nolan is two different people. Which he is.
The powerful opening scene is based on the 1951 testimony of Larry Parks (“The Jolson Story”), who used the “crawling through the mud” metaphor before HUAC in ’51, betrayed friends, and was blacklisted anyway. But he didn’t become a major asshole; he and his wife, Betty Garrett, stayed together. The second half of the 180? That’s probably based on someone like Elia Kazan, who named names but took a kind of neocon pride in it. Of his 1954 film “On the Waterfront,” he writes, “When Brando at the end yells . . . ‘I’m glad what I done!’ that was me saying, with identical heat, that I was glad I’d testified as I had.” (ADDENDUM: A better possibility is Budd Schulberg, the screenwriter of “Waterfront,” who testified against his ex-wife, Virginia.)
And you can’t do that. You can’t combine two very different people and think you’ve made a whole character.
‘Wait, with who?’
We have a bigger problem with our main character. David Merrill seems bright enough, but at times he’s about as sharp as Homer Simpson.
Merrill, a golden boy director, has the ear of studio chief Darryl Zanuck (Ben Piazza), and has just returned from a few months in Europe, ready to start his next picture. Then the party; then the book burning, where Nolan warns him about HUAC: “Wait until Karlin and Wood put your nuts in a vise.”
He doesn’t have to wait long. The next morning, Zanuck breaks the news:
We got a problem. I got a board of directors in New York, and ... I gotta listen to ’em when they tell me my movies won’t get played because some guy running for Congress has a hard-on for Hollywood. Business is lousy, the theaters are empty, everyone’s staying home to watch Milton Berle dressed up as a woman. And now this.
Merrill’s quiet response: “What do you mean, ‘Now this,’ Darryl?”
Zanuck then gives him the name of an attorney, Felix Graff (Sam Wanamaker, who was himself blacklisted), to get straightened out.
Merrill’s quiet response: “I’m sorry, Darryl, I don’t get this.”
Then he goes to see Graff in a dingy hotel room (to preserve his rep, Graff says), and Graff talks about clearing his name with the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Merrill’s response: “Wait. With who?”
Then HUAC stooge Ray Karlin (Tom Sizemore, playing essentially Roy Cohn) emerges from the shadows, and says, “It’s probably no surprise to you that your name has come up as a communist sympathizer.”
Yes. Yes, it is a surprise. “Wait a minute,” Merrill says, “I’m no communist. I went to a couple of meetings 10 or 12 years ago—that’s it.”
I guess the point is to show how innocent Merrill is. It takes him this long to get up-to-speed. But man is it boring.
Since Merrill refuses to cooperate, the Zanuck gig, and other gigs, disappear. People won’t take his phone calls; friends desert him. They accuse him. They think he named their names, since they know how much making movies means to him. That’s a dull little subplot, actually: Merrill realizing that he spent too much time on work, and not enough with family, and with his kid, Paulie (Luke Edwards, soon seen in “Little Big League”). So he amends his ways. He becomes a better father. Yay.
Eventually he goes to New York to see about work there. He visits old theater friends, the Barrons (Stuart Margolin and Roxann Dawson), but doesn’t let them know he’s been named. Which is, again, not smart. Doesn’t he get it? He’s got the plague. Everyone he’s with can get contaminated. A good scene at the Barrons’ apartment exemplifies this. It’s just Merrill and Felicia. She’s drinking, acting flirty, and lets him know Abe is away for the weekend. Then Merrill mentions he’s being followed by HUAC investigators. Talk about your cold water! She says the following in rapid order:
- “Do you think they followed you here?”
- “I think you’d better go, honey.”
- “And stay away from the theater, OK? I don’t want Abe to have any problems.”
She’s supposed to be awful in this scene, but he isn’t much better. His innocence is a liability.
Is De Niro a liability? He internalizes everything. He’s just there. When Martin Scorsese shows up in a small role as Joe Lesser (i.e., Joseph Losey), a director who flees to England to keep working, and gives us that Scorsese rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, it’s a relief. It’s pizzazz and excitement and life. As opposed to what De Niro is giving us.
The one lively moment with Merrill is when he gets a B western and begins directing again; he takes over and the cast and crew suddenly light up because they know they’re in the hands of a pro. But it calls attention to what’s been missing. The movie is about a guy who does one thing well, and we don’t get to watch him do that one thing. Which, yes, is the point. But surely there’s a better way to dramatize it.
An ounce of decency
That western, by the way, is another odd amalgamation. It’s a B version of “High Noon,” in which the lead is a young, B-list actor named Jerry Cooper, rather than an old, A-list actor named Gary Cooper. Jerry even tries to defend Merrill the way Gary did with Carl Foreman, “High Noon”’s blacklisted screenwriter; but Jerry, unlike Gary, has no clout, and the producer questions his loyalty. It leads to one of the movie’s best lines:
Jerry (angrily, to producer): If you want to call me a commie, you got to back it up!
David (quietly, to Jerry): Jerry, if he wants to call you a commie, he doesn't need to back it up.
In Polonsky’s original version, Merrill actually was a communist; but writer-director Irwin Winkler took over and turned Merrill into a fairly apolitical everyman. It pissed off Polonsky so much he took his name off the product and badmouthed the movie all the way to the theaters.
He was right. Even the final dramatic showdown against HUAC, with flashbulbs popping, doesn’t quite work. I like that Merrill doesn’t know what he’ll do until he does it. I also like the fact that the members of HUAC don’t back down even after he gets all Joseph Welch in their faces. “Don’t you have an ounce of decency?” he tells them when they ask about Dorothy Nolan. “Don’t you have an ounce of shame? She’s DEAD!” But, no, they don’t have any shame; they keep talking. As in life. What’s the significance of the line: “I know this hurts you, Mr. Welch?” It’s what Sen. Joseph McCarthy says after Welch asks him if he has no sense of decency. We think of Welch’s line as a game-changer; but it didn’t change the game immediately, only historically. In the moment, McCarthy kept attacking. Because he had no sense of decency.
Except Merrill can’t be Welch. Welch was an attorney sparring with McCarthy in 1954, not an accused director dealing with HUAC in 1952. Winkler has Merrill take a principled stand, and he’s followed by a friend, screenwriter Bunny Baxter (George Wendt), who takes the same principled stand: I will answer any questions about me but not about my friends. It’s seen as a kind of victory, this ending. Merrill and his wife walk out of the hearings in triumph. But can’t HUAC find Merrill and Baxter in contempt—as it did with the Hollywood Ten? Won’t they go to jail? Won’t they still be blacklisted for another 10 years? The movie wants it to be a happy ending but it isn’t. Hollywood wants the hero to come from Hollywood but he didn’t.