The opening scene of The House on Carroll Street is a wonderfully rich re-creation of a Senate hearing room, circa 1951. The mahogany tables, the clustered microphones, the angularity of the costumes and attitudes, all evoke the McCarthy era and its sense of reckless interrogation.
On the witness stand is a young woman (Kelly McGillis) who’s some sort of left-leaning activist. Questioning her, and coolly impugning her character, is an oily Senate counsel, played by Mandy Patinkin as a synthesis of Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn. The most chilling touch comes at the end of the scene when, having destroyed the woman’s career, the panel breaks into a warm round of “Happy Birthday” for the committee chairman.
Adding a layer of reality (and payback) to the early going is the fact that The House on Carroll Street was written by Walter Bernstein, a Hollywood screenwriter who was himself blacklisted in the 1950s for the flimsiest of reasons. Bernstein previously examined the era in The Front.
After the galvanizing opening, Bernstein and director Peter Yates veer off from the blacklisting angle. Instead, their heroine stumbles upon a conspiracy to bring some unwanted foreigners into the country, and uncovers the plot with the aid of the sympathetic FBI man (Jeff Daniels) who’s been watching her.
In other words, the film turns into a rather conventional romantic thriller. As such, It provides a couple of satisfactory sequences, especially a long chase scene in Greenwich Village that travels from a bookstore to a theater, plus the knockout finale in the rafters of Grund Central Station. But the material that links these sequences is muddled; the movie feels as though it’s missing a reel somewhere. The romance between McGillis and Daniels has a perfunctory air about it, which isn’t helped by the awkwardly old-school dialogue (“We’re oil and water,” she tells him).
Whenever Mandy Patinkin is onscreen, the movie gets a boost – Patinkin, so winning in The Princess Bride, glistens with malice in this film. He sits in a restaurant with McGillis and douses the tablecloth with ketchup as an illustration of – the Communist menace covering the world. Yates’ direction is as ordinary as his work on the similarly unsatisfying Suspect, which also had a couple of suspenseful scenes surrounded by a rickety plot. His – and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’s – best work is simply the evocation of 1951, in the brick houses of Brooklyn and the sharp-creased hats of the FBI men (whose ties come down to the middle of their chests).
It is interesting that a definitive fiction film about the blacklisting era has yet to be made; perhaps still more distance is needed to see the time clearly. Or does Hollywood remain skittish about this period in its history? ln any case, after its opening scene, The House on Carroll Street doesn’t begin to capture the paranoia and shame of those times.
First published in the Herald, March 3, 1988
Yes, a truly dull film that raises but then backs away from the blacklisting angle. Somebody needs to do a powerhouse narrative film on the subject, but this (and the similarly bland Guilty by Suspicion) isn’t it. It sounds like it might almost be worth re-watching for Patinkin, but not really.