Peter Yates' new film, "The House on Carroll Street," is set in 1951, but it seems to come to us from even further back than that. It's like a '40s movie from a second-rate studio, with B-movie stars and a B-movie plot. Even the look of the picture is that of a faded relic that might turn up on late-night television -- it seems to have come precolorized.
The movie concentrates on the story of a bright young photography researcher named Emily Crane (Kelly McGillis), who stumbles across a plot to smuggle Nazi war criminals into the country to help boost our scientific brainpower in the Cold War fight against the Russians.
In an added twist, Emily is herself already the subject of a McCarthyesque Senate investigation into the activities of leftist political organizations and is being hounded by the FBI to cooperate by giving the names of others in her group. One of the agents assigned to Emily's case is a foursquare midwesterner named Cochran (Jeff Daniels), who, quite predictably, falls in love with his target and helps her crack the plot.
What the filmmakers have attempted here is to create a romantic thriller movie set against the background of anticommunist paranoia. And the screenwriter, Walter Bernstein, who wrote the script for "The Front" and was himself blacklisted during the '50s, would seem suitably equipped for the job.
Unfortunately, they never come close to pulling it off. Where the writing isn't bad, it's merely run-of-the-mill. The plot has no tension and the stars have no chemistry. As a member of the investigating committee and the mastermind behind the smuggling conspiracy, Mandy Patinkin has a few patent-leathery moments in which he seem deliciously corrupt -- a sort of '50s-style Richard III. And Daniels has a kind of shuffling charm; he plays the G-man the way Jimmy Stewart might play him, as a likable oaf.
These performers seem at least to be relaxed and, to some extent, enjoying the phony-baloney aspect of the roles they're playing. McGillis, on the other hand, appears pinched and woebegone. There's no ease or grace in her performance, and she doesn't have the star charisma to carry you over the weaknesses in the script.
My guess would be that Yates has gone for the feel of a old-fashioned, Hollywood-style star vehicle, but for that he needs a real star. And McGillis is 100 percent ersatz.
The House on Carroll Street, at area theaters, is rated PG and contains some suggestive material.