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