The blacklist era of the fifties, when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) wrecked reputations and lives by ferreting out alleged Commies within the film industry, is a terrific movie subject. But Hollywood keeps screwing it up. Films such as The Front and The Way We Were offer the hysteria without the analysis. Expectations were higher for Guilty by Suspicion. Irwin Winkler, making his debut as a director-writer, has a solid record as a producer (Raging Bull, GoodFellas). He enlisted his longtime colleague Robert De Niro to star as David Merrill, a director being pressured by the HUAC to turn in his leftist friends. Martin Scorsese has a striking cameo as Joe Lesser, a director who flees to Europe when the HUAC starts closing in. The scenes between De Niro and Scorsese playing characters loosely based on, respectively, directors John Berry (He Ran All the Way) and Joseph Losey (The Boy With Green Hair) have heft and heat. But Winkler’s script creaks with melodrama, especially in the scenes with Merrill and his ex-wife, Ruth (Annette Bening), though Bening gives the role spine. Director Winkler fails to modulate the performances. Patricia Wettig (thirtysomething) as an accused actress, George Wendt (Cheers) as a frightened writer and Gailard Sartain (The Grifters) as the Joe McCarthy-like HUAC chairman go over the top into caricature.
Even De Niro is straitjacketed by a stereotyped role as a weak man who finds courage under pressure. Clearly, Winkler wants to set up a parallel between the inquisition of Merrill and the threat to freedom of expression in the arts today. But such honorable polemics make for facile dramaturgy. There are no gray areas. Winkler never lets us in on Merrill’s politics. In almost every American film treatment of these witch hunts (TV’s potent treatment of the Alger Hiss-Whittaker Chambers case in Concealed Enemies excepted), the hero has wandered into Communist-cell meetings by mistake or through idle curiosity. The idea that Hollywood professionals might have gathered out of conscience actually to criticize the workings of the capitalist system seems to scare filmmakers almost as much as it did the HUAC. Would Merrill be less of a hero if he had strong political convictions? Winkler seems to think so.
In one scene, the film hints at what it might have been. Down on his luck, Merrill directs a low-budget western, which, like Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, ends with the sheriff’s throwing away his badge in contempt of a corrupt system. That kind of subversive filmmaking including Don Siegel’s forceful Invasion of the Body Snatchers showed how film artists could express provocative ideas in genre films. But Guilty, despite cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’s evocative rendering of the period, shies away from the reality in favor of the myth. Winkler isn’t trading in ideas; he’s selling bromides.