Guilty by Suspicion (1991)

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The most powerful effect of the film is the equivocation it caused in contemporary American reviews about the shameful subversion of that nation’s constitution presided over by HUAC between the 1930s and ‘50s. How is it possible that nearly 30 years after the last of this lynch-mob witch-hunting was finally discredited, along with Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s career, American journalists are still too cowardly to admit that those years represented the high point of their own Stalinist show-trials, with not a single crime by anyone in Hollywood being uncovered, and not a single prosecution being mounted that didn’t directly undermine constitutional guarantees of the right not to incriminate oneself, and the right to free speech and association.

Writer and director Irwin Winkler’s strategy of focusing on the personal tragedies that befall the protagonist, fictional director David Merrill, his family, and his friends, as if these were somehow divorced from politics, might have spared Winkler making a more overtly political statement, but robbed the film of any chance to say something powerful and engaging. That this formula didn’t work appears evident in box office takings of $9.5 million against a budget of $16 million.

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The Key Largo hypothesis: Brooks and Huston set the noir context

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My re-discovery of Key Largo (1948) unwound in two parts, beginning on an apparently well-known terrain of technique and visible content, but progressing to something else entirely as I fell into the rabbit hole of previously unseen discourses.

Most of what I have to say is from inside that rabbit hole, but it is a journey that may be more explicable if I begin with my own starting point, which was to look again at Key Largo, with a view to adding a critique to my small collection of film noir commentaries.

A re-enounter

Like Dark Passage, Key Largo had struck me as slow and ponderous the first few times I saw it in the 1970s and ’80s, but something else about it grew on me. Perhaps the combination of Edward G Robinson and Humphrey Bogart, or the broodingly oppressive atmospherics simulating the arrival and passing of a Hurricane, which rang more intimately true for me after the first tropical cyclone I experienced in the far north of Western Australia during the early 1980s.

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Dark Passage (1947) as locus of film noir

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In 2008 I scratched out some notes on the Bogart and Bacall vehicle Dark Passage in my longhand journal. Those notes seemed just a little too conspiratorial for me, and I did not follow up on them, until they came to mind in the past few days, when I read some other perspectives on film noir that prompted me to reconsider.

What I had written in 2008 was an interpretation of Dark Passage as an allegorical condemnation of the anti-communist witchhunts that began in the US during the later 1940s, and that have never really subsided since that time.

I saw in the film’s first person ‘point of view’, as it was called in the 1940s – the camera showing us what the protagonist sees rather than the actor portraying the protagonist – an earnest attempt to propose to us, the audience, that we are the fugitive. An innocent man accused of murder whose redemption hinges on others telling the truth, but encountering instead a spiteful and relentless persecution, ameliorated only by a handful of decent people, willing to believe in fairness and having the courage to act on that belief, even at great risk to themselves.

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