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Guilty By Suspicion
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I have always been fascinated by the Red Scare of the late 1940's and early 1950's. In a country that was founded on the premise of freedom for all, many were persecuted for ideas, free assembly and daring to question authority. I know someone who suffered due to the hysteria of the age. For a short time, America became the Great Britain of the 1600's that our founding father fled.
After World War II, the Soviet Union, previously an ally during World War II, became America's most dangerous adversary. The Cold War had begun and each side engaged in an arms race that was unprecedented at anytime in world history.
America's leaders took up the task of finding communists in all parts of society and removing them from influential positions before they could spread the ideology. Civil servants, military service people and even teachers were required to sign loyalty oaths. Senator Joseph McCarthy became a national figure and hero to some for his efforts to remove alleged communist sympathizers from government service. To top it all, the United States House of Representatives established the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), headed for some time by Congressman Richard Nixon.
HUAC mimicked the efforts of Senator Joseph McCarthy, but found a new enemy. The committee investigated famous Hollywood stars, producers and directors in an effort to stop them from supposedly spreading communist propaganda through the media. Those who didn't cooperate were banished from the business when the major studios wouldn't hire them.
Guilty By Suspicion stars Robert DeNiro as a fictional director, David Merrill. He is the biggest director of the day and the apple of powerful studio chief Daryl Zanuck's (Ben Piazza) eye. Merrill is about to take on a major project, but he has a little problem. Zanuck has asked Merrill to meet with a lawyer because HUAC wants to ask him about possible radical activities. When he was young, Merrill attended two meetings of the local communist party and someone spilled the beans.
Will Merrill take the easy way out and tell HUAC who else attended those meetings? Will he tell about his friends' activities and beliefs to save his own career?
Writer and director Irwin Winkler brilliantly captures the madness that overtook Hollywood in the early 1950's. Naively aloof from politics, the people who entertained us were thrust into the hottest political war of the millennium. Through the struggle of David Merrill, we see the paranoia that drives Hollywood's rich and powerful to cower before the committee. He is quickly abandoned by his friends, treated like a pariah by the studio and even loses the support of his family.
DeNiro is magnificent as the man who is outraged at this behavior, but the biggest surprise is George Wendt, lovable Norm from Cheers, who plays Merrill's childhood buddy, Bunny. When you think of Wendt, the word thespian doesn't come to mind, but he is fantastic as the man who is tempted to rat out his friends to save his own career. While Merrill is fighter, Bunny is a weaker soul who hides his fear behind a great sense of humor. Wendt shows his stuff when Bunny can't hide behind the laughter anymore.
My only problem with the movie is some leaps that required more explanation or background. Merrill has just returned from France and claims to know very little about HUAC, yet, suddenly, knows everything a few moments later. Also, I wish we could have learned more about Merrill's struggle to find work. We know it's a struggle and see the various problems he faces, but a few minutes on his fall from grace would have been great.
Directed and Written by Irwin Winkler
Robert DeNiro David Merrill
Annette Benning .. Ruth Merrill
George Wendt . Bunny Baxter
Patricia Wettig . Dorothy
Sam Wanamaker . Felix Graff
Chris Cooper .. Larry
Martin Scorcese .. Joe Lester
Tom Sizemore . Ray
Ben Piazza .. Daryl Zanuck
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