The Trials of Alger Hiss (1980)

Run Time - 164 min.  |   Countries - United States   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Kicking off the Red Scare in the 1950s and launching Richard Nixon's career, Alger Hiss, an important State Department official, was convicted of perjury in the spying charges raised against him by Time Magazine managing editor Whittaker Chambers and sent to prison until 1954. The case was notorious then and for years afterward. At the end of the 1970s, director John Lowenthal got his hands on documents that had been suppressed from Hiss's trials and spent a total of $400,000 making this documentary on Hiss. He interviews jurors and others connected with the case, provides a historical background of the Cold War, and details the suppressed evidence that the jurors never heard. Among these documents is the telling, hand-written statement by Whittaker Chambers that he was a homosexual and by his actions and words, a very depressed and unstable man. Though he himself does not say so in the statement, his behavior before and after the trial and other evidence suggests that he may have been infatuated with Hiss and angry when he was rejected. Lowenthal implies that this may have been the reason for Chambers's accusation. But time has, frankly, not been kind to Lowenthal's documentary on Hiss; Lowenthal claims that Chambers's confession of homosexuality and other more substantial evidence, such as FBI tampering with the results of a typewriter test and the statement of a Soviet official that no documentation on Hiss as a spy could be found in the archives of the former Soviet Union, make a case for Hiss' innocence. Lowenthal doubtless intended his film to become a tool for the exoneration of Hiss, much as Errol Morris would free Randall Dale Adams with The Thin Blue Line. But evidence discovered since 1980 (the year of this film's production), specifically the declassification of the Venona Papers by Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the mid-nineties that occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union, demonstrate that Hiss was indeed a spy for the U.S.S.R - thus proving fallacious the claim made by this documentary.