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THE TRIALS OF ALGER HISS

USA, 1979 (MIFF 1981)

Director: John Lowenthal

Time: 1948. Place: U.S. Congress -House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Alger Hiss. president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former State Department officer, confronts his erstwhile friend Whittaker Chambers. former Communist become Time magazine editor Chambers accuses Hiss of having purloined State Department documents ten years earlier for a Communist spy ring Hiss denies it. is indicted for perjury and after two sensational trials, the first ending in a hung jury, is convicted and sent to prison.

After that introduction, the film moves back in time to set the scene: the Depression and President Roosevelt s New Deal, the Spanish Civil War; Hiss at the Yalta Conference with Roosevelt during World War Two; President Truman's loyalty-security program and the emerging Cold War.

Richard M Nixon, who pressed the HUAC investigation and rose to national prominence on the Hiss case. begins the story of the case in depth. The incriminating "pumpkin papers'' hidden by Chambers in a pumpkin on his Maryland farm, the Woodstock typewriter supposedly used in typing other documents, the personal relationship between Hiss and Chambers, and other details are given by the participants themselves Besides Hiss Chambers, and Nixon, the film features retired Representative F. Edward Hebert. a colleague of Nixon's on HUAC; Robert E. Stripling chief investigator of HUAC; Samuel Kneger. who was Chambers' sponsor for Communist Party membership in 1 925: Rev John F Cronin. Nixon's private source of confidential FBI data. Claudie M. Catlett, the Hisses'cook when Chambers stayed with them in the 1 930s. and her children to whom the Hisses gave their old Woodstock typewriter, Thomas F Murphy, the prosecutor; Ramos C Feehan, the FBI documents examiner and witness; Vincent H. Shaw, a juror from the first trial; and Gussie Feinstein. a second-trial juror.

The jurors tell what went on in the jury room and what really convicted Hiss The camera catches their startled reactions as they are shown recent FBI disclosures under the Freedom of Information Act.

The aftermath of the case is seen in McCarthyism and its victims.

At the end. Hiss is still seeking vindication, now using the FBI files in a new court move to set aside his conviction.

The Trials of Alger Hiss is about a series of events, as they were seen at the time in newsreels and other documentary footage, and as they are seen now in dozens of contemporary interviews with the surviving principal players, particularly with Mr Hiss. It's about lifetimes spent in self-justification. about fashions in thought As the movie proceeds, it's also clear it's about time itself and the uses of history and maybe even the abuses of history, which is not only what can be documented as having been, but also the way we choose to perceive the documented facts."

Vincent Can by New York Times

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