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The Trials of Alger Hiss (1980)

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Alger Hiss ...
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1950s | independent film | See All (2) »

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Documentary

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9 March 1980 (USA)  »

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Good Documentary about 'The Case of the Century'
24 January 2017 | by (Arlington, Virginia, USA) – See all my reviews

This movie is a paean of praise to Alger Hiss – a distinguished lawyer, diplomat, and foundation head, a symbol of the New Deal and American Establishment. In 1950 Hiss was convicted of perjury for denying that he had spied for the Soviet Union in 1937 and 1938. The conviction destroyed his life and proved that there were traitors high in our government. Despite appeals that ended only in 1983, Hiss failed to convince a single judge who ruled on the merits that there was anything wrong with his conviction or the process by which it was reached.

Hiss's main accuser was a man named Whittaker Chambers. He ran the spy ring in which Hiss labored. Chambers produced 4 pages of confidential State Department documents in Hiss's handwriting, 64 more spy papers typed on Hiss's home typewriter, and films of more documents (from Hiss and others). At the very beginning of the scandal, almost the only man who believed Chambers was a freshman Representative, Richard Nixon. This scandal made him famous. The Establishment, liberals especially, never forgave Nixon or Chambers for exposing their soft underbelly – their weakness at pursuing Soviet spies.

The film appears to have been made in the late 1970s, when Hiss could have hoped for vindication after Nixon's disgrace and revelations of FBI misconduct. It lasts almost three hours – not for the faint of heart. One wonders who financed this very professional effort, which included much travel to interview many people involved in the Case

The film consists in large part of newsreels from 1948-50 and interviews in the 70s with witnesses, lawyers, jurors, journalists who covered the House hearings and trials in which the drama unfolded, and other secondary figures in the Case. The interviews capture the words and body language of these minor players before they died and, as such, are valuable historical records. The filmmaker, to his credit, included a few people who are unfavorable to Hiss. I do wish the film had included two major Hiss lawyers, William Marbury of Piper & Marbury and Edward McLean of Debevoise, Plimpton & McLean. Both concluded that Hiss was lying.

The largest single component of the movie, however, is Hiss speaking to credulous college students and a sympathetic interviewer. He takes the viewer meticulously through his defense and allegations of government misconduct. Hiss comes across at first as smart, precise, polite, and believable. At times, he can be quite charming, a grown up Mama's boy. After a while, however, he is so dry and unemotional that you get lost in his maze of detail and have to fight off sleep. Hiss loses not only the viewer's attention, but also credibility, as he attempts to justify his chameleon-like changes of story in 1948-50 and spins out conspiracy theories of how someone (Chambers, the FBI, Nixon) made a fake typewriter that typed just like Hiss's typewriter. Of the spy documents in his own handwriting, Hiss says simply "How Chambers got them I still don't know." The obvious explanation, of course, is that Hiss gave them to Chambers in the spy ring. In the end, Hiss brings to mind the character Eddie Haskell in Leave It To Beaver.

The film is rough on Chambers. It presents him simply as a grotesque and possibly insane. Chambers, in fact, was Senior Editor of Time Magazine, a respected translator of French and German literature into English, and friends with (or admired by) many of the leading public intellectuals of mid-20th Century America. He did not want to testify. He had no motive to lie. When he revealed his spying, he lost his job at Time, the only decent and decently paying job he ever had.

In the film, jurors and one Representative are presented with material that did not come out at the trials and that favors Hiss. They acknowledge that it might have swayed them towards Hiss. Most memorable among these papers is Chambers' handwritten admission to the FBI that he had engaged in gay sex. Hiss wishes he had been able to smear Chambers as a 'pervert.'

The film omits, however, facts that did not come out at the trials and that showed Hiss to be the liar and Chambers the truth-teller. Nor does the film mention the definitive book on the Case, Allen Weinstein's "Perjury." Published about the time the film was made, it examined for the first time Hiss's defense files and tens of thousands of pages of government documents. It concluded that Hiss was guilty.

The film, and especially the lengthy footage of Hiss, drew me back to the great lingering mystery of the Case – what was he thinking all those years? How and when did he become a communist and, later, a traitor? After his conviction and imprisonment, why didn't he just lay low and start a new career? Why did he lie so publicly and for so long? Had he convinced himself that he was innocent? Was he a die-hard communist operative? Or did he think he might get away with it if he kept bluffing?

I wish that the Hiss supporters in this film could be confronted with the incriminating files of the Hiss defense and the Czech, Hungarian, and Soviet spy agencies. The latter papers show not only that Chambers was the truthful one about what happened in the 30s, but indicate that Hiss continued spying for the Soviets through the end of World War II. Hiss's old supporters would, I am sure, now consider him guilty. More interesting is whether they would ask themselves how they, allegedly smart people, could have been fooled.

It's scary to think that this film might have become the accepted truth had it not been for the book Perjury and the revelations from secret communist government files. Today, the film shows us a great con artist at the top of his form and the credulous folk who fell for his con.


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