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MOVIE REVIEW : Mr. De Niro Goes to Washington

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When I was in college in the early ‘70s, I became friendly with a 60-ish actor-in-residence in the theater arts department. He was a fairly well-known character actor who had appeared in at least half a dozen top-rated Hollywood films from the ‘40s and ‘50s and then dropped out of sight. I had always wondered what happened to him. Alcoholic but still game, he was, I discovered, blacklisted, spending what should have been the prime years of his acting career running a florist shop.

Watching “Guilty by Suspicion,” I thought once again of that actor. For most of the people who go to the movies now, the blacklist era might as well be medieval history. The film won’t revive memories for them: It will, instead, be a revelation. With the exception of “The Front” (1976) and a handful of made-for-TV features, there have been no other movies primarily about the blacklist era.

“Guilty by Suspicion” (citywide) gets points for dealing with a subject that, even today, is highly volatile and controversial. If it prompts people to re-discover, or re-examine, that era, it will have performed a valuable service. But the film itself doesn’t provide the climate of ideas that might make that era come alive in all its controversy.

Robert De Niro plays David Merrill, a highly successful film director and one of 20th Century Fox boss Darryl Zanuck’s “golden boys.” Returning to Hollywood from Europe, Merrill finds himself pulled into a movie colony shuddering under the gaze of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). It’s 1951, four years after HUAC’s initial incursion into the entertainment community and, as each “subversive” is brought before the committee to testify about his political background, the ritual purgation of “naming names” threatens to tear apart careers, families, lives.

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Although Merrill was never a Communist, a brief, long-ago dalliance on the Party’s fringes provides the occasion for a call from HUAC. In order to clear himself and get on with a new project at Fox, Zanuck requires Merrill to go through the motions--to become an informer. Stubborn and uncooperative, Merrill is dropped from the project and in a flash his career dwindles to nothing, while all around him friends flee the country, go mad, plead for forgiveness, inform on each other.

By making Merrill a political naif, the movie soft-peddles the full political implications of the HUAC horror story. Irwin Winkler, making his writing-directing debut after a long career as a producer of films ranging from “Rocky” to “GoodFellas,” concentrates on Merrill’s anguish without giving it any political underpinnings. His turmoil is presented practically as a case of mistaken identity.

While it’s true that the vast majority of blacklisted show people were not Communists, it’s also true that their political sympathies were often vibrantly and vocally progressive. By making Merrill a man for whom career is all, the film takes the easy way out. It turns a complex muddle of psychosocial circumstance into a Capra-esque courtroom showdown between the good guys and the bad guys. Merrill swaggers into his date with destiny like an anointed gladiator.

Winkler works into his character’s dialogue a promiscuous sampling of famous lines--including those derived from Larry Parks’ testimony before HUAC and even, in paraphrase, Joseph Welch’s tauntings of Joseph McCarthy. But it takes more than this to bring “Guilty by Suspicion” (rated PG-13) to historical life--or to make the film’s history speak to our own era.

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In downplaying the political subtext of Merrill’s blacklisting, Winkler denies the devil his due. The Cold War fever that gripped the country comes across as lukewarm; the anti-Semitism that underscored the purges--many of the blacklistees were Jewish--is never dealt with. Only one blacklisted character in the film--a director modeled on Joseph Losey and played, alarmingly well, by Martin Scorsese--is characterized as a Communist, and he’s so affable that any threat he might pose to audiences is defused.

Winkler doesn’t have the filmmaking skills that might make this era come alive for us. Scene after scene is stiffly staged; they make their points, treatise-style, and move on. And the characters are far too easy to read. Merrill’s ex-wife, played wanly by Annette Bening, is all principled righteousness; his best friend (George Wendt) is such a big chummy teddy bear that you wait for the inevitable scene where he turns on him; an actress friend (Patricia Wettig), deprived of her children, flips out; the HUAC honchos are all gelatinous ogres. (Gailaird Sartain, who appears as Chairman Wood in the big finale, seems to have been chosen in part for his subliminal resemblance to Whittaker Chambers.)

Only Sam Wanamaker (a real-life blacklistee) demonstrates manifold shadings. As the lawyer who primes his clients to inform, Wanamaker shows us a man who is too pumped up with power to register any self-loathing.

Robert De Niro is a great actor who needs an edge in the characters he plays in order to be great. He’s far from wonderful in “Guilty by Suspicion” because he isn’t challenged by his role. Merrill is too upstanding and uncomplicated, and the role’s goodness brings out in De Niro a wholesome drabness. He isn’t sorely tempted until very near the end of the movie; it’s too little too late. Winkler is so interested in making Merrill admirable that he neglects to make him interesting. That’s true of the movie too. In the ethics department, it’s commendable. In the drama department, it’s bland.

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‘GUILTY BY SUSPICION’

Robert De Niro: David Merrill

Annette Bening: Ruth Merrill

George Wendt: Bunny Baxter

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Sam Wanamaker: Felix Graff

A Warner Bros. release of an Arnon Milchan production. Director Irwin Winkler. Producer Arnon Milchan. Executive producer Alan C. Blomquist. Screenplay by Irwin Winkler. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Editor Priscilla Nedd. Costumes Richard Bruno. Music James Newton Howard. Production design Leslie Dilley. Art director Leslie McDonald. Set decorator Nancy Haigh. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13 (occasional strong language).


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