Guilty by Suspicion (1991)

 

 

 

 

Director:      Irwin Winkler.

Starring:      Robert De Niro (David Merrill), Annette Bening (Ruth Merrill), George Wendt (Bunny Baxter), Patricia Wettig (Dorothy Nolan), Sam Wanamaker (Felix Graff), Luke Edwards (Paulie Merrill), Chris Cooper (Larry Nolan), Ben Piazza (Darryl Zanuck), Martin Scorsese (Joe Lesser), Barry Primus (Bert Alan), Gailard Sartain (Chairman Wood), Robin Gammell (Congressman Tavenner), Brad Sullivan (Congressman Velde), Tom Sizemore (Ray Karlin), Roxann Dawson (Felicia Barron).

This story is set in the McCarthy Communist witch-hunts with Robert De Niro who is harmed by the communist chasers.

 

Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire film. Curse words spelled out.

"In 1947 the House Committee on Un-American Activities began an investigation into Communism in Hollywood. Ten men who refused to 'cooperate' with the committee were tried, convicted and sentenced to prison terms after the Supreme Court refused to hear their case. Thereafter, no one called to testify, either in public or in secret, could work unless he satisfied the committee by naming names of others thought to be Communist."

 

House Committee on Un-American Activities, Los Angeles, California, September 1951, Executive Session. Larry Nolan is testifying before HUAC. Larry tells them: "I beg of you. But please don't make me do this. Don't make me crawl through the mud. You know who they are.  My friends."

The Committee chairman shouts: "They are communists! Now why do you feel that they ought to feel protected? We need to protect this country from the ideas that they're spreading through their films and their television shows."

Nolan says he doesn't want to be an informer. The Committee insists that he name names.

Bunny Baxter meets his friend David Merrill at the train station. David is returning from a two month trip to Paris, France. Bunny says he's not marrying his girlfriend because she wouldn't swear to a loyalty oath and that would not be in his best interest.

A group of David's friends are waiting for his arrival so they can surprise him. Someone is coming so they all prepare to yell surprise. But it's only a frazzled Larry Nolan that steps inside. Larry's wife is there and Larry gives her a hard time about being at the surprise party.

While the party guests relax, David and Bunny come in. David laughs and says he's surprised his own surprise party. Out on the terrace Larry and Dorothy are still arguing. Larry finishes off his argument and starts to leave the party. David shouts out to him. Larry looks at him and then just continues rushing out of the house. David thinks that's strange. (His buddy Larry probably named David as a communist to the Committee.)

The FBI are outside taking down license plate numbers of the party goers. David speaks to his friend Joe Lesser about the film Joe is presently working on.

Dorothy Nolan gets good and drunk and then says she has to go. David chases after her. He drives her home. When David arrives at the Nolan house, Larry is burning books out on the driveway. His wife goes inside the house. David asks him what's he doing? He says he's rearranging his library.

Dorothy throws down a bunch of Larry's clothes out of a second-story window while she is shouting for David to go ahead and ask Larry whose names he gave. "How many of your friends did you sell out?" Larry throws a book at her and it shatters a section of the window next to her. She says: "If you come here again, I swear to God, I'll kill you."

David asks what did Larry do? Larry says: "I did what any scared shitless, loyal American would have done."

The next morning David drives over to his ex-wife's house. His son rushes out to say hello to him. The bus comes and the boy gets on to go to school. He tells his wife that he missed their son and her. David doesn't stay long, but before he leaves, his wife gets a few digs in on him saying that David never has enough time for his family.

David drives over to see Darryl Zanuck, a studio head for 20th Century Fox. Zanuck tells him that before he can work on his picture, he has to get himself straightened out. He gives him an attorney's card and tells David to go see him.

David goes to lunch with Bert Alan. He tells Bert that Zanuck tells him to go see this attorney named Felix A. Graff. David asks if he has some kind of problem? Bert tells him to go see Graff. David will go.

David goes to a run-down section of town. When he gets up to Graff's office he asks him why are they meeting in such a rough neighborhood? David gets concerned when Graff says this is to protect all his clients from suspicion [of being a communist]. David gets more concerned when Graff says he deals with HUAC.

Graff introduces David to a fellow named Ray Karlin. Ray tells David that he has been cited as a communist sympathizer and even by some as having attended meetings of the communist party. David says he attended a couple of meetings twelve years ago.

Ray says he's been led to believe that David would be a friendly witness. Therefore, can David identity any of these pictures: Sterling Hayden, Howard da Silva, Lionel Stander, Elizabeth Cummings and Robert Baxter (Bunny). The only one that David hasn't met is Howard da Silva. He says that he knows that Bunny Baxter is not a communist. David says he can't confirm their membership in the communist party.

Karlin asks him: "You really want to be associated with these people?" David says he doesn't care what Karlin thinks of him, because if he informs on these people, they lose their jobs.

Graff urges David to cooperate because Zanuck wants David's name cleared of any suspicion. David is indignant about the whole thing and starts walking out. Karlin says that David will be subpoenaed to testify before HUAC.

Karlin sends Graff out to speak some more with David. David is in no mood to discuss the matter. Graff is upset about this and says almost in disbelief: "Everybody said you were a team player." As David pulls out, an FBI agent in a car tails him.

David goes to see his son in a school play. His wife is also there. Ruth Merrill sees how upset David is and asks him what's wrong? He was called up by HUAC. And they want him to name names.

David tells Bunny he better get a lawyer, because his name is being mentioned about. Bunny insists that they are not going to call him. "I didn't do anything." David tells him: "It doesn't matter."

David goes into see Zanuck. Zanuck says he thought David wanted to make this picture. He's letting David know that now this may be impossible.

David's lawyer Bert says that Zanuck pulled the picture. He asks his client: "When did you become a saint?" Furthermore, they want the $50,000 dollars they paid David for the film. If he doesn't give it to them. they are going to take his house because they have a lien on it.

Ruth tells David that Dorothy is in trouble. There's some type of problem at the studio. So David drives Ruth and they both go to the studio. David knocks on her door. Dorothy lets them in. She is very drunk, but she tells her friends that her husband came to the house this morning while she was at work. An FBI agent was with Larry and they showed the house keeper a court paper. The paper says that Dorothy's a communist and an unfit mother. They took her son away from her.

David is crazy mad. He goes to the cafeteria, calls Larry a son of a bitch, pushes him up against the wall and balls him out for treating his wife that way. Larry says that's his problem not David's. Bunny pulls David off Larry. A security guard tells David to get off the lot.

David tries to work on his picture. Joe calls him late at night. He goes down to the RKO studio and talks with Lennie. Joe comes in and says that he's going to Europe permanently. The HUAC has subpoenaed him and he's not going because he will be far away.

Joe says that Lennie is going to finish the picture for him. Lennie ges mad at him, but Joe tells him that he was a communist and he still is a communist. If he stays, he'll end up in jail. He tells David that he just can't inform on his friend. He's leaving.

David drives over to his ex-wife's house to see his son, but he just missed him. Ruth tells him that Dorothy is staying with her. She also tells David that she is going back to teaching. She also wants to just rent an apartment rather than live in a big house.

Bunny tells his friend that he is scared shitless. Bunny implies that he may be called by HUAC because someone, maybe David, informed on him. This makes David angry. He says he would never name his oldest and closest friend. He starts leaving. Bunny yells out an apology to him, but David goes anyway.

David drives onto the set, but the guard says he can no longer let David on the set. David backs his car backward out of the parking area.

David starts calling around, but can't get any work. In a rage of frustration he throws the telephone up against a brick wall in his house. David puts everything he owns in and on the top of a taxi and is driven to his wife's apartment.

Paulie, the son of Ruth and David, listens to the news about the two sons of the Rosenbergs who are about to be executed. for espionage He gets very upset and goes to his room upstairs.

David tells his ex-wife that he is going to New York. She says that it seems like he's always leaving for some place or another. David asks her what else can he do . He needs to find work.

Dad goes upstairs to talk with Paulie. He asks his father: "Are they going to kill you?" He asks this because he hears that they kill reds.

In New York more FBI agents follow David around. He visits with a married couple he knows in the business. They invite him for dinner.

David is having no luck in getting a job in New York City. He pays a visit to the apartment of the people in the business. The husband is away for the weekend. David has to tell her that he's not really doing anything right now. And he admits he has been having trouble with HUAC and the FBI. She gets scared and says: "I think you better go, honey." She also tells him not to come around the theater. She wants to give him some money. He says he doesn't want the money. She barks at him: "Why don't you just give them what they want David? I really am surprised at you." He tells her, oh, maybe he will give them what they want because he's sure getting tired of dealing with this shit.

David gets a job fixing radios, but one day the FBI come into the shop and start talking to the boss. David really gets angry about the agents following him and trying to scare any employer that might be interested in him. He almost comes to blows with one of the agents, but the guy's partner tells him they should leave now.

When David's employer starts talking likes he's scared of the FBI, David picks up his stuff, puts on his jackets, says good-bye and thanks to his employers and leaves. The shop owner says he didn't mean for David to go, but this ain't David's first rodeo with the devil. He knows the routine.

David calls Los Angeles collect. He talks with Ruth. David returns to L.A., but this time he comes by Greyhound bus. Ruth finally arrives at night. She says they called a teachers' meeting after school was over.

David stays with his ex-wife and his son. She says she's going out tonight with Dorothy and invites David to come along. Dorothy arrives a little late. She says that she has stopped drinking liquor. She says she's going to take control of her life.  Then Dorothy scolds David for going to New York on business and not offering her a part in his new play. David tries to tell her there is no play, but she is too busy scolding David to hear what he is really saying.

Dorothy starts to fall apart. She leaves the restaurant with David and Ruth following her. Dorothy starts up her car and David asks her if she is okay to drives. She says yes she is. David steps back. Dorothy revs the engine, puts the car in reverse and crashes through the railing in back of the car, sending it and Dorothy down a cliff side.

David and Ruth go to the funeral for Dorothy.

At home David gets a call of a job. A guy named Gene Woods has some project for him to do. He rushes out there. David is going to take over the director's job. Gene only says that the former director left.

So David works with the actors on shooting a few scenes of the movie. At home David works on the storyboards.

Gene Woods comes on the set and tells David that he is being replaced by another director. He knows now that David is in trouble with HUAC. The main actors says if David is leaving, he's leaving too. Gene tells David to tell the young actor how hard it is out there to get jobs. Woods says to the actor: "You want to share his [David's] coffin? Tell him [David]. David says: "Yeah, you end up working for assholes." David leaves.

Dad and Paulie are watching a TV program through a store window. Dad thinks an FBI agent is crowding him and he finally blows his top. He goes over yelling at the guy saying won't the FBI at least give him a break at Christmas time? He roughs up the guy, but stops when the guy's wife runs over to his rescue. David finally realizes that the guy's not with the FBI. So David apologizes to the couple, but the husband still wants to throw a couple more verbal jabs at David and does so.

David goes over to see lawyer Graff. The lawyer thinks that David is going to cooperate now, but David says he hasn't really made a decision yet. He wants to discuss with Graff any options other than cooperation with HUAC that might be available to him.

David tells Graff that he can't get a job; all his friends are gone; he's being followed by the FBI everywhere he goes; he lost his house; and he can't even buy his son a bike for Christmas. Graff still pushes for cooperation. Graff tells David that a subpoena will be served to him within two to three weeks. David walks out.

Bunny waits for David on the steps of his apartment building. He tells David that he was so right when he tried to tell him that the same thing is going to happen to him that happened to his good friend David. But what David really wants is permission to give HUAC his name as a communist. Bunny starts crying but still asks for permission. David finally says no, but Ruth is the one who is really angry. She tells Bunny to get out of her house right now. He leaves. Ruth really cries and is comforted by David. He says he loves her.

David goes to see Zanuck. Darryl says he wants to use David as a director. But there's still that problem with HUAC.

David tells Ruth that cooperating with HUAC is tempting and maybe it's not so bad.

House Committee on Un-American Activities, Washington, D.C. February 1952. Public session. Graff says that David will do fine giving his testimony. Davie confesses to attending some communist meetings until they threw him out for arguing too much. But when David is asked to names of the hosts of these meetings he balks at answering.

Graff confers with his client and tells him that they want the names. In fact, that's the very reason David is here. After a long wait, David says: "Fuck 'em." Graff now leaves saying his client just dismissed him.

David refuses to answers questions about other people. But the Committee keeps asking for names and David keeps refusing. He says: "I'm not going to let you hurt innocent people." They threaten David, but David is through cooperating in any form.

The bastards now try to incriminate Ruth Merrill. David won't cooperate with that. He starts asking the Committee if any of them have even an ounce of decency?

The Committee now has to throw David out because he is speaking up too much in defiance of the Committee. David and Ruth wait at the back of the meeting room to see how Bunny will perform before the Committee. Bunny gives them the same trouble that David gave them.

"Thousands of lives were shattered and hundreds of careers destroyed by what came to be known as the Hollywood blacklist. People like David and Ruth Merrill faced terms in prison, suffered the loss of friends and possessions, and were denied the right to earn a living. They were forced to live this way for almost 20 years. It was not until 1970 that these men and women were vindicated for standing up -- at the greatest personal cost -- for their beliefs."

 

Every now and then the United States seems to become so fearful of what they regard as a threat that they lose all perspective of right and wrong. McCarthyism and the Hollywood blacklist were one of the times where people were willing to throw out basic civil rights because of their exaggerated fears. There was the old saying that the right wing in America thought there was a commie under every bed in the country. Fear makes it possible for people to take advantage of temporary insanity. McCarthyism was used as a political tool to bash the leftists. They must have loved going after Hollywood and political figures and ruining their lives.

A more recent example of a bit of McCarthyism was the 9-11 terror attack on New York City and the Pentagon. Karl Rove said that with this level of fear in the country, the Republicans could rule for an entire generation. Charlatans can always take advantage of situations where fear reigns over careful thinking.

McCarthyism is a political situation where basic civil and legal rights and decency are thrown out the window and a kind of reign of terror takes over. Not only are peoples lives destroyed, but the whole nation becomes fearful of challenging the system and its abuses in any way for fear of being blacklisted or sent to prison.

Some victims killed themselves and this is illustrated in Guilty by Suspicion. The character played by Chris Cooper (Larry Nolan) was a real person. Screenwriter Richard Collins was put on the blacklist. After awhile, he was willing to name names for HUAC and incriminated other people in Hollywood. He became a "friendly witness". He dumped his wife played by Patricia Wettig (Dorothy Nolan). The wife was Dorothy Comingore. Dorothy was further hurt when Collins took the couple's young son away from his mother. The result was that Dorothy Comingore killed herself.

The film is very good for it really illustrates the some of the pain that Hollywood people were put through because of unbridled fear in the nation. Robert De Niro is really good at showing his suffering. Annette Bening is also good in her role as the wife of the screenwriter David Merrill. And this is why film is such a powerful instrument. It allows one to identify with victims and feel sympathy for families ruined by a reign of terror.

McCarthyism split Hollywood between those who supported the madness of HUAC and the American people versus the Hollywood people who were so badly damaged by HUAC.  Some of the informers in Hollywood defended their throwing out civil and legal rights, while other informers apologized to the Hollywood community. One wonders how many films were never produced because of the fear that reigned in the USA? And how many other films were cheapened because of fear of the right wing?

Read the Wikipedia entries for McCarthyism and the Hollywood Blacklist. The latter article has a long list of Hollywood people harmed by the overreaction toward communism.

Personally, I don't care how scared the right wing gets, there is no justification for fear overwhelming an entire country's basic civil and legal rights.

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 

 

 


Historical Background:

 

"An American Tragedy"

 

1938 -- chairman Martin Dies, Jr., the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) released a report in 1938 claiming that communism was pervasive in Hollywood.

1940 -- Dies privately takes testimony from a former Communist Party member, John L. Leech. He gives Dies the names of forty-two movie industry professionals as Communists.

A Los Angeles grand jury meets and Dies repeats his testimony. The names are leaked to the press. Among those named: Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Frederic March, Jean Muir and Lionel Stander

Dies said he would "clear" all those who cooperated by meeting with him in "executive session". Dies "cleared" everyone except actor Lionel Stander, who was fired by Republic Pictures.

1941 -- producer Walt Disney takes out an ad in Variety, the industry trade magazine, declaring his conviction that "Communist agitation" was behind his cartoonists and animators' strike. This was a way to get Disney off the hook gor his overbearing paternalism, high-handedness, and insensitivity. Inspired by Disney, California State Senator Jack Tenney, chairman of the state legislature's Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities, launches an investigation of "Reds in movies". The probe falls flat, and is mocked in several Variety headlines.

1941-1945 -- during WWII, membership in the communist party reached a peak of 50,000.

1945 -- Gerald L. K. Smith, founder of the neofascist America First Party, began giving speeches in Los Angeles assailing the "alien minded Russian Jews in Hollywood". Later Mississippi congressman John E. Rankin, a member of HUAC, held a press conference to declare that "one of the most dangerous plots ever instigated for the overthrow of this Government has its headquarters in Hollywood...the greatest hotbed of subversive activities in the United States."

1946 -- the Republican triumph in the 1946 Congressional elections, which saw the party take control of both the House and Senate, led to a major revival of institutional anticommunist activity, publicly spearheaded by HUAC.

1947 -- the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA), a political action group cofounded by Walt Disney, issued a pamphlet advising producers on the avoidance of "subtle communistic touches" in their films. Prohibited were: "Don't smear the free-enterprise system ... Don't smear industrialists ... Don't smear wealth ... Don't smear the profit motive ... Don't deify the 'common man' ... Don't glorify the collective".

The Black List begins.

October 1947 -- a number of persons working in the Hollywood film industry were summoned to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The purpose was to investigate whether Communist agents and sympathizers had been surreptitiously planting propaganda in U.S. films. Among those testifying about the great threat of communism in the film industry were: Walt Disney Ronald Reagan and Adolphe Menjou.

Several leading Hollywood figures, including director John Huston and actors Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Danny Kaye, organized the Committee for the First Amendment to protest the government targeting of their industry.

October, 1947 -- forty-three people put on the witness list to appear before HUAC. Nineteen said they wouldn't give evidence. Eleven of these nineteen were called before the committee. Of these eleven, playwright Bertolt Brecht ultimately chose to answer the committee's questions. The other ten refused.

These "Hollywood Ten" were formally accused of contempt of Congress. Proceedings against them began in the House of Representatives.

November 17 -- the Screen Actors Guild vote to make its officers swear to a non-Communist pledge.

November 24 -- the House of Representatives votes 346 to 17 to approve citations against the Hollywood Ten for contempt of Congress.

November 25 -- MPAA president Johnston issues a press release on the executives' behalf nown known as the Waldorf Statement. The statement said that the Hollywood Ten would be fired and suspended pay and not reemployed until they were cleared of contempt charges and had sworn that they were not Communists.

The first Hollywood blacklist was now in effect.

early 1948 --all of the Hollywood Ten were convicted of contempt.

1950 -- the Hollywood Ten start serving their one year sentences.

June 1950 -- publication of Red Channels that listed 151 people in entertainment and broadcast journalism involved with communist activities.

September 1950 --director Edward Dmytryk publicly announces that he had once been a Communist and was prepared to give evidence against others.

1951 -- Dmytryk testifies before HUAC. Soon he is let out of prison.

With the U.S. Congress now under Democratic control, HUAC launches a second investigation of Hollywood and Communism. "Taking the Fifth" before HUAC guarantees that one would be blacklisted.

1952 -- the Screen Writers Guild authorizes the movie studios to "omit from the screen" the names of any individuals who had failed to clear themselves before Congress.

1956 -- the first Hollywood movie to overtly take on McCarthyism was Storm Center starring Bette Davis. The movie makes a hero of a small-town librarian who refuses, on principle, to remove a book that was labeled as subversive.

1957 -- a key figure in bringing an end to blacklisting was the leftist John Henry Faulk, host of an afternoon comedy radio show. He was scrutinized by AWARE, one of the private firms that examined individuals for signs of Communist sympathies and "disloyalty." Marked by the group as unfit, Faulk was fired by CBS Radio. Almost alone among the many victims of blacklisting, Faulk sues AWARE.

1960 (Jan. 20) --the first main break in the Hollywood blacklist came when director Otto Preminger publicly announced that Dalton Trumbo, one of the best known members of the Hollywood Ten, was the screenwriter of his forthcoming film Exodus.

1962 -- John Henry Faulk wins his case. Now the movie industry realizes that it will be legally responsible for the damage they caused to persons whose name appeared on any blacklist.

1965 -- Lionel Standard finally gets work in Hollywood.

2011 -- announcement that Dalton Trumbo would get full credit for his work on the screenplay for the 1953 romantic comedy Roman Holiday, almost sixty years after the fact.

 

 

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