Back in the pre-internet era there was an old adage that went "Never pick a fight with somebody who buys ink by the barrel." In other words, think twice about taking on someone who can reach millions of people through the reach of magazines or newspapers. That might have included screenwriters, as well. Take the case of Walter Bernstein, a prolific television writer in the early days of the medium. Bernstein was one of the high profile victims of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunts which, through the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The committee was ostensibly searching for "Fifth Columnists" who were secretly in league with the Soviet Union and plotting to undermine the American way of life. McCarthy and his cronies convinced a wide swath of the American public that Hollywood was a nest of covert commies and would point to films and TV series that were alleged to be sympathetic with the communist doctrine. Conveniently forgotten was the fact that the U.S. government had implored the major studios to make such films after our enemy, Josef Stalin, was betrayed his ally Adolf Hitler, who launched a massive invasion of the Soviet Union. Immediately Stalin found himself now a crucial member of the Allies. It was a relationship of convenience for both sides. Stalin depended on the war in the West to occupy the majority of Hitler's forces, which would otherwise have been able to to capture his entire nation. For America, Britain and the other allied nations, Stalin and his tremendous military resources managed to keep Hitler bogged down in Soviet territory, sustaining huge losses in what became the Fuhrer's greatest military blunder. Hollywood studios were called upon to start cranking out propaganda films disguised as popular entertainment that would paint Stalin and the Soviets in a benign and heroic manner. The studios cooperated in the spirit of patriotism. Ironically, as soon as Nazi Germany was defeated and Stalin became a villain again, these same studios were chastised in some quarters for being pro-communist- and the "proof" was the very film that the U.S. government had implored the studios to make. McCarthy, a far-right zealot, shot to international fame with his hearings before HUAC at which suspected subversives were compelled to testify at. The deal such individuals were offered was simple: rat out suspected fellow subversives or incur the wrath of the inquisitors. Many people did betray their friends and colleagues but others, such as Walter Bernstein, refused to do so. In return they found themselves blacklisted in the entertainment industry. Legally the government could not demand that such people be denied a living but from a practical standpoint, pressure was put on TV networks and studios so that the top brass "voluntarily" decided not to employ these individuals. In the end, McCarthy's hearings unveiled no real communist threat but he did succeed in ruining the lives of plenty of left-wing artists, writers, directors and academics before being publicly humiliated himself.
By the late 1950s, Bernstein was gainfully employed again and was writing for film and TV productions (his credits include the screenplay for "Fail Safe"). In 1976, Bernstein wrote the screenplay for the devastatingly effective Martin Ritt-directed film "The Front", which explored how blacklisted writers had to endure the humiliation of employing "fronts" (i.e non-writers) to sell scripts to studios and networks, ostensibly as their own work. The real writers were denied decent paychecks and screen credit. Bernstein's long memory of those dark days of disgraceful American political policies extended to another film, "The House on Carroll Street", made in 1988. This production was somewhat less political and concentrated more on the aspect of being a thriller, which is probably what attracted the involvement of Peter Yates, who directed such high profile action films as "Robbery", "Bullitt" and "The Deep". The story centers on Emily (Kelly McGillis), a vivacious young woman living in New York City who is strong-willed and independent. She is also a "career girl", to coin a quaint phrase of the time, and holds a prestigious position as photo editor for Life magazine. However, her leftist views place her in the cross-hairs of HUAC and she is called to testify before the committee. When she refuses to cooperate and "name names" of friends and colleagues who might be communists, she is fired after her employer receives pressure from government agents. To make ends meet she makes a measly salary by reading novels to a rich old woman, Miss Venable (Jessica Tandy). While at Venable's house, she notices some strange goings-on in a house across the garden. A group of German men are having intense discussions and acting in a rather suspicious manner. Emily goes into Nancy Drew mode and eavesdrops on them but can't quite figure out what they are talking about. She later meets a young man who was at the meeting and strikes up a friendship with him. However, his behavior only increases her concerns. He is extremely nervous and informs her that there are some dastardly things being planned but he won't reveal what. Emily begins to secretly follow him and discovers that other people are doing the same. Who are they- and why does she feel increasingly threatened herself? Meanwhile, Salwen (Mandy Patinkin), a hard-nosed big wig on the HUAC committee, is ordering increased pressure on Emily to cooperate. The FBI sends a team of agents to routinely harass her and subject her to humiliating searches of her home. One of the agents, Cochran (Jeff Daniels), takes sympathy on her and the two strike up an awkward friendship that later turns into a love affair that could threaten Cochran's career.
The plot becomes increasingly complex as Cochran begins to assist Emily in finding out what the group of German-speaking men are up to. It appears that they are working in league with Salwen and government agents in a top secret plot to provide ex-Nazi war criminals with false identities in order to allow them to enter the United States and become citizens. It seems that the U.S. is willing to forgive these men for their crimes of genocide because they could provide valuable tools to combat the Soviets in the Cold War. Emily and Cochran are even more horrified to discover that the ex-Nazis are being given the identities of deceased Jewish people. Selwan discovers that Emily is on to the scheme and tries to bribe her to keep secret. When that doesn't work, things heat up and attempts are made on her life. The action-packed finale finds Emily and Cochran in a battle for their lives against Selwan and his men in the midst of bustling Grand Central Station.
"The House on Carroll Street" was met with apathy by both critics and the public but the film's attributes are more apparent today. It plays out like a Hitchcock thriller with the innocent protagonist swept up into incredible events that are initially beyond their comprehension. Walter Bernstein's screenplay is both intelligent and largely believable and director Peter Yates downplays violence in favor of good old-fashioned suspense. (It's the kind of film in which the heroine decides to place herself in harm's way by walking through an eerie old house in order to investigate suspicious activities.) The film effectively reflects an era in which America went mad and civil rights were sacrificed in the name of national security. McGillis gives a very fine performance and even provides a nude scene that is completely gratuitous but which was still much-appreciated by this viewer. Jeff Daniels is also commendable as a likable, all-American FBI man who finds that his agency is embroiled in some very un-American activities. Patinkin is a villain in the Bond mode: dripping with phony charm and charisma while all the while plotting nefarious fates for his intended victims. The production design is also commendable and convincingly evokes the look and feel of New York in 1951. The most ambitious sequence is the finale set at Grand Central Station. The mind boggles at how Yates pulled off shooting such a complicated action scene in a place that is jam-packed with people 24 hours a day, but the result is highly impressive . It should also be noted that the movie boasts a fine score by Georges Delerue and excellent cinematography by the esteemed Michael Ballaus. The film is not an underrated classic. There are some occasional laps in logic, loose ends and some highly predictable plot developments but for the most part it plays out in fine style and is consistently interesting and entertaining. Recommended.
The Kino Lorber Blu-ray has a fine transfer and features the original trailer.