Michael Seeley seems to be among the top lawyers in the field of intellectual property rights. However, between marital troubles and drinking he's losing his grip.
He turns up drunk at a hearing over the right of a building owner to change a sculpture. He tries to talk his client out of a settlement the client very much wants. He insults the judge. The judge threatens to have him disbarred, and his firm threatens to fire him.
Seeley has one chance to make good. United Pictures needs a legal opinion that it owns the rights to the original “Spykiller,” which was the basis for a series that made the studio's fortune. However, Seeley determines that they don't own the rights, and he refuses to write the opinion.
Instead, he attempts to get the apparent author, Bertram Cobb, to sign over the rights. Cobb refuses, and his manner leads Seeley to believe that he isn't the actual author. The movie was produced during the 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy was investigating communism among screenwriters. Seeley concludes that Cobb, a photographer with no other writing credits, was the front man for the actual author, Max Kanarek, who was blacklisted for being a Communist.
The personnel at the studio seem to be working at cross purposes. Mayer Bermann, the founder, wants Seeley to find Kanarek and get him to sign a statement saying he wrote Spykiller, but he doesn't seem interested in having him sign over the rights. Hersh Landau, in charge of day-to-day operations apparently has no interest in finding Kanarek, and wants to establish Cobb as the author. He wants Seeley to get him to sell the rights.
Meanwhile, Seeley is working with Julia Walsh, a lawyer and film historian who has written a book about the McCarthy era in Hollywood. She confirms Kanarek's role as author, and apparently knows where to find him. However, she refuses to give Seeley the information.
Julia's boss, Harry Devlin, wants Seeley to give up the search for the author of “Spykiller” and work with him on a lawsuit to gain better conditions for the writers in his union. Seeley is tempted, but he doesn't fully trust Devlin.
Bermann tells Seeley how to locate Kanarek in Germany and pays his expenses. Seeley finds that Kanarek is married to Carlotta, the star of the original “Spykiller,” then a sultry beauty, now an elderly but still attractive woman.
While Seeley is in Germany, he learns that Cobb has been murdered – apparently by a burglar. However, he believes the studio is behind the murder, and he fears for Kanarek's life. The only way he can save him is to get his signature on a statement taking credit for writing “Spykiller.” Then, there would be no further point in trying to stop him. Killing him would only transfer the rights to Carlotta.
In order to save Kanarek's life, and possibly his own, Seeley must figure out why the owner of a studio would want to lose the rights to its biggest moneymaker. He must balance this against the fact that the chief operating officer wants the rights so badly he would literally kill for them. He must work out why Cobb was killed, and he must convince Kanarek to proclaim his authorship. And while he does this, he must stay one step ahead of the thugs the studio has hired to stop him, fight his alcoholism and sort out his feelings for Julia.
This report prepared by David Gordon