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The Trials of Alger Hiss (1981)

| March 9, 1981

The name Alger Hiss is something that I hear about quite often when a story about the political climate of the 1950s is recalled.  I wasn’t around but from interviews both old and new, I sense a time of political terrorism, when the climate of the fear of communism was so thick that a mere association or connection or accusation could destroy a person’s career and even their life.  During this era, hundreds of lives were put on the line as the loyalties of Americans who probably hadn’t thought of communism came into question under the House Un-American Activities Commission.

Hiss may have been the most famous of these unfortunate victims of the communist witch hunt because the circumstances of his case were so complicated.  He was a government official who was accused in 1948 of having been a spy for the Soviet Union during the 1930s.  At that point, he was not convicted because the statute of limitations on espionage had run out.  Yet, a complication came back around the would convict Hiss two years later when a former member of the U.S. Community Party named Whittaker Chambers testified under subpoena to HUAC that Hiss was, in fact, a member of the communist party during his time with the federal government.  Hiss claimed never to have even known Chambers, but Chambers gave testimony that included intimate details about Hiss’ inner life that proved – or seemed to prove – conclusively that the two men did know one another.  And with that, a federal grand jury convicted Hiss on two counts of perjury.  He went to trial twice.  The first resulted in a hung jury and the other ended with him given a five-year sentence of which he only served half.

The court of public opinion is still out and may remain so with regards to the case of Alger Hiss.  But John Lowenthal’s documentary The Trials of Alger Hiss is a great piece of solid reporting, a film that striking because it never really seems to take sides.  Like a TV news report, he shows us things.  He shows us footage of Hiss’ trial and interviews with surviving witnesses (including Mr. Hiss), some of whom seem as baffled by this case as we are.

But through simply showing us the footage and the interviews, Lowenthal is able to paint a portrait of the times, a time of tension and uncertainty, when simply being called before HUAC could destroy one’s career and reputation.  Such as the fate of Mr. Hiss and such is the interesting case of the fact that the movie shows evidence that both sides were sidicous in the case.  We see clearly that evidence was doctored to make Hiss look guilty, but at the same time just as much evidence that proved that Hiss was lying under oath.  Nobody gets away clean here.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1981) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized