"Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?"
So began the interrogations by the House of Un-American Activities Committee that led to the ruination of many Hollywood figures who could claim to have ideals or a conscience and a desire to help their fellow man. Entered onto the infamous blacklist often just through hearsay and scaremongering, the committee - drunk on power - prohibited them from their right to work and, driven to despair, they were humiliated and publicly shamed 'lepers' who remained in the shadows for a further twenty years.
Guilty By Suspicion is a faithful and engrossing depiction of that time which focuses largely on one director (played by Robert De Niro) and his internal battle to choose over his friends or his country. Marking the directorial debut of veteran producer Irwin Winkler, the film scores successfully on authenticity (thanks in no small part to contributions from blacklisted names such as actor Sam Wanamaker in front of the camera and, behind it, scriptwriter Abraham Polonsky, as well as several characters and scenes echoing real life figures and events - the western film star who intervenes when De Niro is thrown off set is said to have been inspired by Gary Cooper's stance on the witch hunts) but perhaps loses a little in terms of enjoyment thanks to a largely pedestrian air from the first time director. Winkler may be an unshowy helm for a movie but ironically he's helped greatly by an unshowy turn from his leading man, De Niro - a world away from his Mafioso heavies. A great supporting cast includes the likes of Annette Bening, Cheers star George Wendt in a rare straight role, the aforementioned Wanamaker, a young(ish) Chris Cooper, Patricia Wettig and a coolly professional cameo from director Martin Scorsese playing (what else?) a director, who avoids his subpoena by exiling himself to London, an action taken by many including Jules Dassin whose film there, Night and the City, was remade a year on from this by De Niro and Winkler to poor reviews.
It's interesting to note the controversy that occurred behind the scenes of the production which saw Abraham Polonsky take his name off the script and refuse an executive producer credit when it transpired Winkler changed the backstory of De Niro's central character from that of a committed Communist Party member to a fairly apolitical liberal with a strong sense of injustice. There may be something to be said for the depiction of a man forced to take a stand, neither hero, fighter or fanatic but the decision to take this path leaves a bad taste in the mouth; suggesting that even in 1991, Hollywood still wasn't ready for a hero who truly claimed to be a Communist.
Here's a very rare UK TV interview with De Niro on the Wogan show done to publicise Guilty By Suspicion.