Media & Democracy in Guilty by Suspicion

Guilty by Suspicion (1991)
Irwin Winkler
Robert De Niro
Annette Bening
George Wendt
Sam Wanamaker
Martin Scorsese

By Yoshifumi Kobayashi and Rebecca Doser

Fig. 1: Guilty by Suspicion features actor Robert De Niro as David Merrill.

Guilty by Suspicion (Fig. 1) is an American film based on the Hollywood blacklist in association with McCarthysim, the Red Scare and the House Un-American Activities Committee. When David Merrill, played by Robert De Niro, returns home after being abroad, he finds that he is continuously being pushed to implicate his own colleagues/ best friends as Communist agents. In order to be allowed to work in films again he must decide whether he wants to turn in his friends or stay loyal to them and his family.

the second red scare
Fig.2: A poster recommending people to turn in others associated with the Communist party during  the McCarthy era.

The story recounts when the Second Red Scare intimidated people  in the United States in 1947 right after the Cold War broke out.  The U.S. was afraid of communism coming from their opponent, the  Soviet Union, and decided to ban it. As a result, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) led the movement now called the Red Scare. ‘Red’ refers to communists and their sympathizers. Additionally, because Republican senator from Wisconsin Joseph McCarthy became the symbol of the Red Scare, the time was well known as the McCarthy era and we regard the anticommunism movement as McCarthyism (Baran, 2015, p.133). The HUAC scared “Reds” by demanding them to name acquaintances who were potentially communists. The committee felt threatened by those associated with the communist party and their potential influence on the majority through mass communication in regards to film specifically (Fig.2).

This affected the Hollywood industry significantly because the HUAC feared that “communist, socialist, and leftist propaganda was being secretly inserted into entertainment films by ‘Reds'” (Baran, 2015, p.133).  Consequently, the HUAC created the Hollywood Blacklist composed of the people working in Hollywood whom  they removed in order to prevent spreading communism through film. About 325 people involved in the film industry were expelled from their Hollywood job, including Charlie ChaplinOrson Welles and many others.  As a result of the threat produced by the blacklist, “the film industry abandoned those who were even mildly critical of the ‘Red Scare'” and “movies became increasingly tame for fear of being too controversial” (Baran, 2015, p.133). But why? Why did film industry need to cut its own throat by excluding its top directors and producers and therefore reducing its business?

The answer lies in the fact that the film industry’s success is highly dependent on audience.  People become engaged by buying film tickets, similar to buying books, which means “the audience is in fact the true consumer” (Baran, 2015, p.134). This points to the book burning and censorship seen at the very beginning of the movie when Larry burns his books after the investigation. He is not only told that his involvement in films is a threat because of his previous communist affiliation, but he further sees almost any medium involving personal opinion and audience engagement as a threat to what the HUAC will allow. Movies involve personal interaction just as much as books do. Film is thus a “culturally special medium” (Baran, 2015, p.134). Hollywood still needed to sell its movies to an audience. When the HUAC intimidated people so much that they avoided almost anything related to communism; Hollywood was forced to continue following the social structure shaped by McCarthyism. After all, McCarthyism itself was in control of the film industry as if it had regal authority to do so, similar to Edison who was in control of making movies by setting rules by himself in 1900 (Baran, 2015, p.129).

Media and democracy is also  the largest concept revolving the plot of the movie. Larry Nolan’s interrogation by the HUAC at the very beginning of the movie (1:30) is a clear indication of the chain of events that proceed throughout the movie. Many people, including Merrill and his best friend Bunny, are questioned and pushed throughout the movie to reveal their friends who were formerly associated with the communist party.  Regulation, a term discussed in class, is the study of this social phenomenon in which someone or a group of people regulates actions that are legislated at a federal government level.  In the case of this movie, usually a set of rules approved at any level of the government and imposed on the media industry, limit the way the industry performs.

Fig. 3: The House Un-American Activities Committee was largely involved in the associated activities stemming from McCarthyism.

The first scene in which this level of regulation is evident is one involving Graff, an HUAC lawyer Ray Karlin and Merrill. It is during this meeting that Merrill clearly sees what he is up against in terms of the HUAC’s attempt to censor language in films, themes in films and individuals working on films that are associated in any way to communism. For example, Sam Wanamaker, an American film director in the movie, was put on the hollywood blacklist in the early 1950s as a result of this regulation of films. Darryl Zannuck was not just going to let his favorite film directors be destroyed, however, he knew that the HUAC (Fig. 3) was compiling a list of people to be called by HUAC as communists to keep out of the film industry. Intertwined with McCarthyism was the regulation that the HUAC perpetuated of intense levels of regulation and censorship. This is an element that we first viewed in the banning of books in Fahrenheit 451 and see yet again at the beginning of this movie when Larry Nolan burns books as previously mentioned. The  influence of McCarthyism and the Red Scare acted as “cultural repositories and agents of social change” that pushed films to be targeted for censorship, similar to books in Fahrenheit 451 (Baran, 2015, p. 53).

As evident through class discussion revolving the role of the U.S. national media as a “Defender of Democracy” it is easy to analyze the media prior to the Iraq War and it’s effect on how news broadcasters alike all complied with the media’s policies, similar to this movie. In Guilty by Suspicion it is easy to see how the three components of the movie industry-production, distribution, and exhibition (Baran, 2015, p. 138)  are all significant in the media environment and how the regulation of film is skewing even the production of movies because of filmmakers such as Merrill and their association with communism. Exhibition became a huge concern for authorities during McCarthyism and still remains a large concern today. The HUAC attempted to prevent communist-associated directors and writers in relaying their political mentalities through their screenwriting and productions that would reach millions. Similarly in today’s world, a film will simply not be produced or sell if it does not follow the political, social and cultural mentalities of the masses.

Baran, Stanley J. “Chapter 6.” Film. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2015. Print