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Point of Order (1963)

De Antonio’s first film was an unlikely commercial success—a historical compilation film about an event a decade prior, an event whose significance was settled. Made with Dan Talbot, owner of the recently-opened New Yorker Theater and future founder of New Yorker Films distribution company, Point of Order tells the story of the infamous Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954. In the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy cast a wide net in his search for Communists, and he accused Secretary of the Army Robert T. Stevens of harboring subversives in the Army. Stevens fired back, issuing a charge that Roy Cohn—attorney for McCarthy-led Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations—had badgered Army officials for preferential treatment for recently-drafted G. David Schine, a former assistant to McCarthy. Hearings were held to settle the matter, and the proceedings were televised. Over 20 million people watched the television broadcast of the hearings, which were broadcast in their entirety: 188 hours.

 

 

De Antonio and Talbot obtained these 188 hours of television kinescopes from CBS, at a cost of $100,000. After a false start that included voiceover narration read by television journalist Mike Wallace, de Antonio took over the production, despite having no prior filmmaking experience. Rather than employing extradiegetic hints for the audience’s comprehension, such as voiceover or newly-filmed transitions, de Antonio used the kinescopes as his sole raw material. He not only whittled those hours down, he manipulated the chronology of the footage so as to provide a conventional rise and fall to the narrative. As Vance Kepley has pointed out in his careful analysis of the film and the original kinescope footage, de Antonio strove for the principle of narrative coherence rather than corresponding to the events’ actual chronology ("The Order of Point of Order," Film History 13, 2).

The final theatrical version of the film offered a satisfying conclusion of a disgraced McCarthy, though in actuality, that disgrace was not an immediate end to his career; McCarthy’s downfall was more gradual than Point of Order’s montage makes it seem.

Point of Order opened at Talbot’s New Yorker Theater with no distributor, but once box office receipts showed the film’s commercial promise, Walter Reade-Sterling picked it up for national distribution. The film’s historical view of political events a decade prior appealed especially to a youth population being rapidly politicized by national and international events, and Point of Order played on numerous college campuses, continuing to be booked for years after its initial run.

Point of Order had a long life, which was extended when it was twice recut for different audiences. First, in April 1968, ABC showed a version of the film called The Confrontation, sponsored by Xerox. De Antonio shortened Point of Order and added in extra explanatory material and narration to contextualize the Army-McCarthy hearings for television viewers. This version was even nominated for an Emmy Award. Also in 1968, de Antonio reedited Point of Order into Charge and Countercharge to be distributed via the educational market. This version was distributed by several companies through the 1980s, along with an instructor’s guide for showing the film in a classroom seeting (as pictured above). Through its film and manuscript holdings, the collection offers a unique look at a theatrical documentary’s repurposing for the educational market at different historical and political moments.