Why is it that whenever somebody makes a movie about the Hollywood blacklist of the ’50s, it turns out like some soggy melodrama from the ’50s? In Guilty by Suspicion, Robert De Niro plays David Merrill, a cocky, talented, and highly successful director — he’s buddies with über-mogul Darryl Zanuck — who finds himself out of a job when he refuses to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. David attended a few leftist meetings years before, but HUAC doesn’t care about that. If he offers up the names of assorted Hollywood Communists, incriminating his own friends, he’ll be in the clear — and that means he can start working on the new picture that Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century Fox, is dangling in front of him. David, though, isn’t having any of it. HUAC’s demand for ”loyalty” rubs up against every fiber of his being, and when he refuses to appear before the committee, his phone calls stop getting returned. Overnight, he can’t get a job with Zanuck; he can’t even get a job helming a grade-Z Western.
Guilty By Suspicion was written and directed by the veteran producer Irwin Winkler, whose many credits include Rocky, The Right Stuff, and GoodFellas. Winkler, who has never directed a movie before, gets across one essential aspect of the HUAC hearings: That they were about power — about the government pinning all those free-living Hollywood types on their backs until they cried ”Uncle!” (If you can get people to rat on their friends, then in some paranoid way you’ve demonstrated their moral weakness; you’ve justified your own scoundrel tactics.) Still, as drama, the film is astoundingly flat and banal. Winkler serves up this infamous slice of our history as though it were breaking news, and his re-creation of early-’50s Hollywood is a real Scotch-tape job. There are plenty of references to famous names (Marilyn Monroe, Sterling Hayden), but the people we actually see — George Wendt as a desperate screenwriter, Patricia Wettig as an alcoholic actress, Annette Bening as De Niro’s noble and perky estranged wife — are like characters in a generic soap opera. When they start to fall apart because of the blacklist, we don’t experience the cataclysmic terror of what was going on, since Winkler hasn’t drawn their lives in any detail.
De Niro, once again, proves that ”normalcy” is weirdly beyond his range. We can believe it when David talks tough, or when he stands up to a smoothly insinuating lawyer (Sam Wanamaker) who tries to get him to testify. What De Niro’s colorless performance makes it harder to buy is that David, who speaks in the same flat, gruff manner to everyone he sees (be it his best friend or his toddler son), is one of the sharpest, jazziest directors in Hollywood. The performance is woefully under-imagined. When David finally faces off against the bullies of HUAC, we can’t help but be outraged: The scandal of McCarthyism is too daunting to shake off. But Guilty By Suspicion leaves you wishing that someone would finally make a decent movie about it. C-