Reprinted from yesterday's early editions.
The 1950 trial and conviction of a seemingly faultless member of the Eastern liberal elite, Alger Hiss, on charges of having lied about passing secrets to the Soviets, has always contained the stuff of great drama. For some reason -- perhaps the bewildering complexity of the case -- it has never been dramatized. But a law professor turned filmmaker has turned the story into a compelling documentary.
"The Trials of Alger Hiss," a two-hour and 45-minute epic, opens today at the Inner Circle. The film is a must for students of contemporary American history, and a fascinating primer for those who have never heard of Alger Hiss.
Although he avoids an outright editorial, it is clear that Lowenthal, who attended the Hiss trials as a law student and has been fascinated by the case ever since, is sympathetic toward Hiss' avowals of innocence. Hiss was named by Whittaker Chambers, a pudgy, gifted writer, as having been a member of a communist cell while he was a high official in the Roosevelt administration, and of having given Chambers secret documents to pass on to the Russians.
One of Lowenthal's best interview subjects is Robert Stripling, who, as the chief counsel of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, was intimately familiar with the proceedings that led to Hiss' suing Chambers for slander and the subsequent perjury trial. Stripling says that HUAC originated in the late 1930s to investigate neo-Nazi groups.
Later, Stripling says that then-congressman Richard M. Nixon, whose zeal and, Lowenthal implies, leaks to the press were largely responsible for the sensationalism and durability of the case, "could not stand Hiss." Film clips of young Nixon talking about the case in a campaign commercial are amazing; Nixon comes off as a self-conscious high school debater whose credibility was already that of the man many would not have bought a used car from.
Aside from Hiss and Nixon, Lowenthal has assembled film or personal interviews with dozens of other people involved in the case, including the man who inducted Chambers into the Communist Party, the FBI technician who tested the typewriter on which Hiss or his wife was supposed to have copied the documents, former HUAC member F. Edward Herbert, and Chambers. But the tension of the piece, skillfully developed, comes in interviews with two former jurors, one from the first trial, which ended in a hung jury, and one from the second. Both jurors, shown evidence obtained by Hiss under the Freedom of Information Act, says they might have changed their votes if they have known then what is known now.
Technically, the movie has flaws. Cuts are often jerky and awkward, and speakers are not identified often and clearly enough. The value of "The Trials of Alger Hiss," is as a record, a video-history of an important episode, and in this function it excels.