Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5.
USA, 1976. Cinema Associates. Screenplay by Arnie Reisman. Cinematography by Barry Abrams. Produced by James C. Gutman. Film Editing by Frank Galvin. Academy Awards 1977. Toronto International Film Festival 1977.
The period of the Hollywood Blacklist is one of the ugliest eras of American political history, and certainly not something that, in retrospect, recommends the film industry as a moral force. David Helpern’s succinct, absorbing documentary does a terrific job of encompassing the entire experience, beginning with the labour movements that grew out of the Great Depression, the industrial boom of World War II and the panic the resulted in that combination in the years of post-war prosperity. With the Cold War beginning quietly in the late forties and growing louder with each passing year, Congress was terrified of allowing anything to harm America’s status as economic leader and set its sight on the infiltration of communist ideology in the one place where culture was spread the fastest, Tinseltown. Studio heads, directors and actors, none of whom earned their careers by being particularly accomplished as orators, thinkers or strategists, were summoned to show trials that dared them to announce themselves as anything other than committed capitalists. When it came time to bring up a group of writers who would eventually go by the infamous label of the Hollywood Ten, you had a slightly more complicated school of thought on the stand that refused to answer the question of possible communist affiliations because such an inquiry went against essential freedoms protected by the constitution. For their perceived contempt of court, these men went to jail, their defeat ushering in the McCarthy years that followed, seeing scores of film artists on a “blacklist” (either in theory or in fact was never determined) that prevented them from working for many years. Or in cases such as Dalton Trumbo, who in his interviews here is still his deliciously ornery self, working in secret and even earning Academy Awards for scripts written under phantom names or fronts. The rewards are many in this terrific film, the most beneficial aspects of it the fact that many of the victims of this period were still alive during production and were generous in sharing their experiences, and the wealth of footage of testimonies that are very emotionally powerful. A great record of a terrible time.