ONE OF THE MAJOR VACUUMS in American films is the absence of any movie about the blacklist by someone who experienced it firsthand. “Guilty by Suspicion” was long toiled upon by Abraham Polonsky before he withdrew from the project, and while the makers of “The Front” certainly knew their subject, the film concentrated exclusively on the New York TV scene.
But it’s still not too late, and one of the most intriguing and durable directors whose career was forever marked by that blighted era is giving indications that he may be the one to pull off such a project.
John Berry’s career has been marked by more comebacks than Judy Garland. A kid from the streets of New York, Berry served his showbiz apprenticeship in the activist theater of the 1930s, and was one of the members of the Mercury Theater who did not choose to accompany Orson Welles to Hollywood when RKO beckoned.
Berry’s film career didn’t begin until after World War II, when he directed six increasingly good films, culminating with the psychological suspensers “Tension” and “He Ran All the Way,” the latter being John Garfield’s final film, as well as Berry’s last in the U.S. for 25 years. Berry and Garfield were planning to make “The Man With the Golden Arm” together, until politics intervened.
Before leaving Hollywood, however, Berry surreptitiously made a 10-minute short called “The Hollywood Ten,” a rarely seen page of history that was paired with “He Ran All the Way” as part of a fascinating “Carte Blanche” series of little-seen films at New York’s Museum of Modern Art programmed by Pierre Rissient.
Designed as an appeal for support of the “Ten” on legal, patriotic and humanistic grounds, the film eerily shows Dalton Trumbo, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson and all the rest sitting together in a room, speaking separately to the camera and posing with their families in conspicuously middle-class surroundings. Ironically, it ends with a brooding close-up of Edward Dmytryk, who went on to name names after a spell in prison.
Fleeing the country to avoid appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee (“I was called but didn’t answer the phone,” he says), Berry landed in France, where he directed several pictures through the 1950s before returning to the stage in both London and New York to direct acclaimed productions of plays by Athol Fugard, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frank Gilroy and Ted Allen, among others.
Back in the States, he helmed some episodes of the gritty early 1960s TV series “East Side, West Side,” returned to France after an Indian fiasco called “Maya,” then came back once more to direct the well-received “Claudine” in 1974.
BUT BERRY SEEMS NEVER to have been able to follow through on his comebacks, as this second Hollywood phase fizzled in the wake of the ill-fated “Thieves” and “The Bad News Bears Go to Japan.” It amuses Berry no end that his most recent effort, the glasnost-era survival drama “A Captive in the Land,” was one of the last international coproductions to be shot in Soviet Union.
If the record didn’t state that Berry is in his mid-70s, one would assume from meeting him that he was possibly pushing 60. Burly, with boisterous energy and an unadulterated New York accent, Berry still looks ready to take on anyone or anything, including a few more film projects.
The one furthest along is called, logically enough, “The Comeback,” which he describes as “a good inside story of the traditional spies and detectives from movies of the 1960s, and how one of them who never made it comes back. The main character is someone like James Bond, but completely screwed up. He doesn’t have it anymore at the beginning. It will have action and adventure, but will wink at the audience and look at the differences between the action of today and when those heroes were in their prime.”
With Bond author John Gardner, Berry also has written a Gotham-set thriller, “The French Cop,” and is thinking of reviving a dark psychological script he wrote some years ago, “The Betrayal,” if he can interest Harvey Keitel, whom Berry considers one of the best actors now working, an heir-apparent to John Garfield’s mantle for playing tough outsiders.
He’d also like to do a small-scale “My Dinner With Andre”-type film about his final meeting with the dying Dalton Trumbo, when they spent high-spirited and emotional hours ranging over their entire tumultuous lives.
But the blacklist remains as an inevitable subject. “I would love to do it,” he admitted, “to show how grotesque, romantic, hilarious and tragic it all was. Even when the heat was on, we were having fun with it. We resisted up to a certain point, and we thought we were going to win that fight. It’s got so much madness in it, there was always something crazy going on. It would deal with the funny, the grotesque.”
BERRY HAS SET DOWN MUCH OF HIS LIFE in the 900 pages of autobiography he has already written (he’s about two-thirds of the way through, and knows that a good deal will have to be cut before publication), and has envisioned how he would structure the blacklist section as a script.
“The story begins with me going out the window with the FBI at the front door, which is exactly what happened, then going back and showing how we got there. It was like a B movie — the guys in trenchcoats, me running down Santa Monica Boulevard in the rain, sitting in a movie theater for hours until I dared to come out. I never went back to my house. My wife brought my car to me and I was off.
“It’s too easy to treat it as a heroic, valiant story. I was crapping in my pants, because I thought I would either break on the stand, which I probably wouldn’t have done, or go to prison.
“I don’t think, in hindsight, one can say what we could have done and where we could have gone. But the guys who stood there and took it were really an extraordinary bunch of guys. What I think is most interesting for me is, what have we learned? Where are we now? Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve learned very much.”