Sunday, May 21, 2017

Fear on Trial (1975)

          Whereas the following year’s theatrical feature The Front (1976) memorably explores the tragic impact of the Hollywood blacklist on avowed leftists, the excellent 1975 telefilm Fear on Trial dramatizes the parallel horror of people whose lives were damaged by groundless accusations. Specifically, the movie adapts a memoir by John Henry Faulk, a broadcaster accused of being a communist in 1957. Despite the absence of evidence against Faulk, he was fired by CBS and became a pariah in the broadcasting industry, so he spent several years mired in litigation against Vincent Hartnett, the self-appointed public watchdog who “named” Faulk. With the counsel of elite attorney Louis Nizer, Faulk won a huge libel judgment against Hartnett, though Faulk was never able to reclaim his previous stature in his chosen field. According to Faulk’s book, he was targeted because of his involvement with AFTRA, a broadcasters’ union, reaffirming that busting trade guilds was a principal motivation of showbiz companies who hid behind the socially acceptable façade of an ant-communist crusade.
          Driven by David W. Rintels’ Emmy-winning script, which luxuriates in beautifully crafted dialogue, Fear on Trial benefits from excellent work on both sides of the camera. The skillful Lamont Johnson directs a sterling cast, led by William Deavne as Faulk. George C. Scott infuses the role of attorney Nizer with indignant fire, and some of the standout supporting players are Judd Hirsch, John Houseman, John McMartin, Lois Nettleton, Ben Piazza, and Dorothy Tristan. Production values are impeccable, re-creating 1950s New York in meticulous detail, and Bill Butler’s stately photography creates just the right somber mood. (Also notable is the absence of a musical score, because in this project, the words—some inspiring, some venomous—provide the melody.)
          The first half of the picture illustrates the insidious means by which an accusation could upend an individual’s life during the blacklist era. One day, Texas native Faulk is popular with coworkers and fans for his amiable personality and folksy storytelling, and the next, it’s as if he’s caught some terrible disease. The moment his name escapes Hartnett’s lips, Faulk encounters iciness from his employers, hostility from his wife, and warnings from friends who’ve already been blacklisted. Even issuing a humiliating declaration of innocence does nothing to impede Faulk’s downfall, because in the fraught Cold War climate, a Red whisper carries more weight than the truth. Faulk’s marriage breaks under the pressure of the situation, and the embattled broadcaster must accept handouts from friends to pay for legal fees and living expenses.
          The second half of the picture depicts the trial during which Nizer exposes Hartnett’s craven enterprise of selling names for profit, despite not having legitimate research with which to support his accusations. In one scene, a TV executive reveals he was told not to hire an eight-year-old child actor simply because Hartnett had smeared the child’s father.
          Fear on Trial starts out as a full-blooded drama before shifting into polemic mode during the trial scenes, so the talking-head stuff is less cinematically interesting. What keeps Fear on Trial vital from start to finish is the crispness of the writing and the impassioned nature of the acting. Devane is fantastic, charting a man’s evolution from a cheerful populist to a hardened veteran of the culture wars. Scott steals every scene he’s in thanks to his masterful way with complex dialogue, and every single player—no matter how small the role—rises to the level of the superlative material.

Fear on Trial: RIGHT ON


Unknown said...

Peter, thank you! (Honestly, doesn't Devane have one hell of a filmography? The man is a star, pure and simple.) 42 years later and I still have a positive recollection of this. We do well to remember that McCarthyism did not end with Tail Gunner Joe, that others sought to make it their own franchise.

Unknown said...

I most definitely need to track this down.

Unknown said...

In your cast callout, you didn't mention John Harkins, who played Vincent Hartnett.
Harkins, who passed on a few years back, was one of the best players of officious weasels in movies and TV; a few years before, he appeared in a TV-movie about the Sam Sheppard murder trial, playing the Cleveland coroner whose testimony turned out to be more speculation than science.
On the other hand ...
The part John Harkins will probably be best remembered for was on a classic Mary Tyler Moore Show: he was the minister at Chuckles the Clown's funeral. His total seriousness as he spoke of Mr. Fe-Fi-Fo and Senor Kaboom made Mary's inability to keep calm all the funnier.

Mention should be made of the appearances - as themselves - of David Susskind and Mark Goodson, recreating their testimonies from the trial (the story of the child actress who couldn't be "cleared" is Susskind's).

Also also:
Playing the presiding judge, Abraham Geller, was that gentleman's real-life son, Bruce Geller - who grew up to create Mission: Impossible.

Booksteve said...

Faulk himself got enough mileage out of this to become a regular on the popular syndicated version of HEE HAW that same year, sort of replacing the late Stringbean. The latter had been murdered in 1973 but the way the show was shot, he continued to appear for some time after that.

greg6363 said...

William Blake Hall Yes, I'll admit Devane has given some great performances in his career but there is a reason he ended up on Knots Landing in the 80's. Besides, he's a commercial pitchman selling gold for crying out loud.

Unknown said...

And Laurence Olivier wound up giving some embarrassing performances and selling cameras on TV. Some great actors can still wind up with deeply flawed bodies of work. Orson Welles did voice work for an early Transformers movie. No, I'll stand by Devane.