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‘Guilty by Suspicion’

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 15, 1991


Irwin Winkler
Robert De Niro;
Annette Bening;
George Wendt;
Patricia Wettig;
Sam Wanamaker;
Ben Piazza;
Gailard Sartain;
Stuart Margolin;
Martin Scorsese
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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Four decades later, the suspicious shadows of McCarthy-era blacklisting still swirl around the relationship between government and the arts. It's hard to avoid thinking of the recent art-politics tussles surrounding Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs and federal funds for controversial artists when watching "Guilty By Suspicion," producer/director/screenwriter Irwin Winkler's troubling story of the Hollywood witch hunts of the '50s.

It's 1951 and movie director David Merrill (Robert De Niro) is back in hometown Hollywood from Paris. His best buddy, screenwriter Bunny Baxter (George Wendt), picks him up at L.A.'s Union Station and drives him to a surprise party at Merrill's swank Mullholland Drive home.

But it's a tense sort of bash Merrill walks in on, with the guests, most of them fellow film folks, huddling in hushed clusters. While Merrill was away, the atmosphere in Tinseltown has taken on an eerily paranoiac chill.

We eavesdrop as another of Merrill's chums, screenwriter Larry Nolan (Chris Cooper), undergoes an arm-twisting by agents of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Later, Merrill and Baxter find the unfortunate informant hastily burning his potentially dangerous books -- "The Catcher in the Rye," "Tom Sawyer," etc. -- in a back-yard bonfire.

"What did you do?" asks Merrill about Nolan's interrogation.

"I did what any scared . . . loyal American would have done," Nolan mutters.

"Welcome home, David," says Baxter.

And soon it's Merrill, the studio's golden boy and a fundamentally decent man whose major flaw is his consuming devotion to his work, who is summoned to a dingy apartment building to see if he'll cooperate. Meaning, will he name names? Merrill doesn't deny that he attended a few Communist Party meetings -- he was thrown out "for arguing too much." But he bristles at the suggestion that he betray friends as a "demonstration of patriotism."

A plum project is dangled in front of Merrill by none other than studio boss Darryl Zanuck (Ben Piazza): All he has to do is say "yes" as a few names are read from a list. But Merrill sticks to his principles, and swiftly and silently, loyalties dissolve and doors are shut in his face all over town. While some colleagues swiftly buckle to save their hides, the children of others are removed from their "unfit" parents. Merrill considers himself fortunate when he's tapped for some humiliating B-movie hack work, on the condition that he will go uncredited. But he can't even keep that job; the fear of taint is so all-pervasive that even small-town projectionists won't touch a film he's been involved with.

Merrill's story, synthesizing the painful paths of dozens of blacklisted men and women, is told with admirable simplicity and lack of sensationalism. Winkler, a teenager when he watched the Un-American Activities hearings on television, keeps the focus on Merrill's personal life, catching the relatively conservative ambiance of '50s Hollywood (and of a brown-suited, cigar-smoking backwater Washington) in the corner of the camera's eye.

De Niro projects a warmly masculine presence, struggling to maintain dignity while wrestling within with the Faustian bargain. As a frightened actress, Patricia Wettig registers strongly, recalling such hard-boiled Hollywood dames as Gloria Grahame and Bette Davis. The large cast (which includes director Martin Scorsese as an auteur who abandons a beloved work in progress to flee the country by night) includes a handful of Hollywood names affected in some way by the House committee. Winkler's ultimate casting irony is hiring actor Sam Wanamaker, himself blacklisted in absentia in 1951, to play a gladhanding, studio-owned attorney who urges Merrill to become a "friendly witness" and "purge" himself to the committee.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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