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This film was, obviously, made during the era when communists were
considered to be the major threat to the security of the USA. If the viewer
watches the film strictly to indulge in approximately 85 minutes of escapism
it can provide some low key entertainment. The story moves pretty fast and
never bogs down with any over-emphasis on character development or plot.
I had never seen this film prior to my viewing it on Turner Classic Movies. I was pleasantly surprised by the performance of Elliott Reed. I have seen him in several movies and, in all of the others, he portrays, basically, the same type of character, that is, a slightly officious mid level executive, a spurned suitor, etc. I really enjoyed seeing him, in this film, actually portray a romantic, leading man hero, type of character. Yes, this film is strictly fluff. But, it can provide enjoyment and, IMHO, is notable, for the casting of Mr. Reed as the "star".
The anti-communist film was a malignant undergrowth to the noir cycle; there has probably never been such a clumsy or dispirited clump of films ever foisted on the public. Some of them, nonetheless, have their moments. The Whip Hand, directed by William Cameron Menzies, is one of these (possibly because it started as an anti-Nazi intrigue piece before then-RKO boss Howard Hughes decreed that the Commies would make better box-office in 1951, the high noon of McCarthyism). Journalist Matt Corbin (Elliott Reid) is on a solo fishing trip somewhere in northern Minnesota (probably not far from Jefty's Road House), when he conks his head. Seeking medical attention, he stumbles into a strange town where he's told to fish elsewhere, as a virus, or something, has wiped out all the fish. It's kind of like Bad Day at Black Rock, where a loner insists on solving a terrible secret despite the fact that the whole town is in on the conspiracy. He can't even get a message out, or, if he does.... A bearded Raymond Burr is an outwardly jovial innkeeper and the best actor in this curious film, which manages to generate some tension and suspense along the way.
A photo-journalist on vacation arrives at a small town in Mid America to
relax and do a little fishing. First, he finds that all the fish have
Next he finds the residents all paranoid and secretive, especially the
owner of the local lodge. When he accidentally trespasses on lodge
property, he is attacked by guard dogs, and threatened by armed
None of the local townsfolk will talk to him except the doctor's sister (read love interest) and the crusty old storekeeper. Little by little he comes to realize that the entire town is on a mission to develop germ and bacteria weapons which they intend to use to cripple America. I know - the plot is preposterous. But you ain't heard nothing yet. In the original story, all the bad guys were Nazi's and they even had Adolf Hitler hidden away at the lodge, but this movie was released in 1951 at the height of the McCarthy hearings and the Commie scare. So - all the bad guys became Communists.
Only in the movies.
I was 12 years old when I first learned of this film from reading John
Baxters chapter on William Cameron Menzies in his ground breaking book
"Science Fiction in The Cinema.' The plot concerning germ warfare and
Baxters praise of the film made me want to see it. I later learned from
other sources that this film was made from a finished film called THE MAN HE
FOUND, about Adolph Hitler being alive and well and living the USA. RKO
studio heads did not like the film and ordered a new story written and new
footage shot that would use as much footage from THE MAN HE FOUND as
possible. This made me want to see it even more. But for years this film
eluded me. It never showed up on TV, never shown as part of a Menzies
retrospective and never turned up officially on video. It then turned up in
the early 1990's late one night on TNT, where I taped it and have watched
several times since.
While I found the film of some interest, I can certainly say Baxter over praised this film. Its not a bad cold war era espionage thriller, but other than the plot, its nothing special either. It is no doubt the least interesting of Menzies fantastic films that he both designed and directed. The court yard where infected guinea pigs wander around like zombies and Otto Waldis's lab are of some visual interest, but over all there isn't much of Menzies design genius evident. To comment on his direction is pointless, because Menzies was never a good director of actors. The reshooting and incorporating old scenes with the new scenes is done fairly well. I noticed where new scenes were inserted, but only because I was looking for them. Note that this film uses a lot of close ups. Otto Waldis as the former Nazi scientist, now working for Russian Communists is a bit hard to take. He praises his new adopted ideology. While its true Nazism and Communism have more in common then with western style democracy, most of the Nazi scientists who went to work for the Commies after the war did so more out of pragmatic and mercenary reasons than ideological ones.
The man who directed and designed this film, William Cameron Menzies,
was one of the great unheralded geniuses in the history of film. More
than almost anyone he raised set and production design to the level of
art; and his sets for the silent Fairbanks Thief Of Baghdad are still
eye-popping. Menzies will probably be best-remembered as production
designer of Gone With the Wind, a film he largely molded visually, and
whose best scenes bear his unmistakable stamp. Alas, Menzies was never
a good director, though his films are often interesting to look at. A
good example is his 1953 Invaders From Mars. The Whip Hand, though, is
just awful; dreadful script, poor acting, no pace; and it doesn't even
have the Menzies 'look'. Yet as a period piece it is not without
interest. It starts beautifully, in a studio-designed rustic setting
(and the best set in the film); and then a rainstorm soaks a
vacationing fisherman, who proceeds to go into the local town and ask
for help in getting treatment for a head injury he sustained when he
fell against a rock. The townfolk turn out to be even harder than the
rock he hit his head against. They refuse to be more than perfunctorily
friendly (with the exception of a superficially outgoing and jokey
Raymond Burr), and are continually contradicting one another. It seems
that there are strange doings on a lodge across the lake; and nocturnal
visits to the lodge by the doctor, who doesn't want to talk about it.
As things turn out, Communists have taken over this Minnesota town and
turned it into a center for the study of germ warfare!
This movie could have been so good. I was rooting for it all the way; hoping against hope that it would get its act together and finally work,--dramatically, logically, thespically. But it never did. The heavy hand of Howard Hughes had a good deal to do with ruining what slight chance this movie had of being good, as it was originally supposed to be about Nazis, and he decided, as studio chief, that he knew better, so he ordered much of the film re-shot to make the villains Russian agents instead. I'm surprised he didn't put Jane Russell in it as well. Lang, Hitchcock or even Siodmak might have worked wonders with the material. Menzies himself might have done better had his employer showed better taste and judgment. The movie's worth seeing if only for the spectacle of gifted people making asses of themselves both in front of and behind the camera, as there are flashes of real talent here and there.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In these times of paranoia, it is often useful to look back to the nineteen fifties and see the effects of a similar period of right wing domination - The Mcarthyist era. The Whip Hand is a anti-communist propaganda film set in the US. A Nazi germ warfare scientist who was captured by the soviets after WWII is alive and well and living in middle America. A Journalist on a fishing holiday stumbles across a remote town previously well know for its trout fisheries, but a virus has recently wiped them out. injuring himself, he looks for help at a private estate only to be turned away. reaching the town, a doctor (who is really a bacteriologist) treats him, but his curiosity has been peaked by his brusque treatment at the estate amongst other things and he decides to investigate, despite the best efforts of the local commies. With the help of the doctor's sister and the owner of the general store, he uncovers a sinister soviet plot to unleash germ warfare upon the US. Quite why the doctor's sister doesn't realise that he is a communist is unclear, as is the reason a committed Nazi has turned to communism. Interstingly the bacteriologists name is Edward Keller - very similar to the name of a US atomic scientist Edward Teller who at this time was working on the H-bomb - a far greater threat! For any student of left wing politics, this will be a hoot, but for someone who sincerely subscribes to US propaganda, past and present, it will undoubtedly be a great embarrassment.
Atrocious. The first 20 minutes or so are competent, establishing the
normally reliable premise of a curious stranger stumbling upon a paranoid,
hostile town. But "Bad Day At Black Rock" this isn't. At a certain point,
the viewer develops the queasy feeling that the producers gave up and said
"Oh to hell with it. We don't know what we're doing here. What do you say we
just try to wrap things up and go bowling?" Bad performances abound,
especially from "leading man" Elliott Reid (sort of a poor man's Farley
Granger) who does everything except raise his eyebrow and stroke his chin
whenever he puts together another piece of the puzzle. Whoever plays the
pitiful old shopkeeper rather embarrassingly seems to break character a
couple times. The only person who leaves any kind of favorable impression is
Raymond Burr (playing a sleazy local). He hams it up entertainingly,
undoubtedly aware of how awful the whole thing is.
There is one incredibly weak exchange during a supposedly suspenseful chase towards the end. Reid and his cardboard love interest are trying to escape and he inquires "Are you wearing a watch?" She answers in the affirmative. His matter of fact reply? "Good." I half expected her to fire back with "Yes. Did you comb your hair?" At another point the love interest is in a reflective mode. "I can't believe my brother's a Communist" she states sadly. I want to say that Reid responds with "Yeah, tough break huh?" but it's hard to recall. I had lost a number of brain cells by that point.
The last ten minutes of this sorry excuse for a motion picture have to be seen to be believed. Just goes to show that clunkers were indeed made back then as well. Then again it is quite unintentionally funny if one watches it in the right frame of mind.
I first saw this film in 1952 and have seen several times since. It's
one of those movies I always get a kick out of. Critics are right to
argue that the plot has a couple of rather large holes. They are not
right in denouncing it as McCarthyist propaganda. These deep leftist
thinkers need to be reminded that the release of the Venona Papers
largely vindicate McCarthy investigations. Sneering leftists also need
reminding of the amount of communist aggression that the West was
facing. For example, the communists insurgencies in Greece and Malaya,
both backed by the Soviets. Then there was the takeover of Eastern
Europe followed by imprisonment, torture and execution of opponents.
Let us also not forget the 1948 Berlin Blockade, the Korean War, the
Berlin uprising in 1953 and the 1956 Hungarian uprising that the
Soviets ruthlessly crushed.
The Cold War was far from being cold and was the creation of an aggressive Soviet Union. Before any more mal-educated leftists decide to start sneering at this movie maybe they will tell us why they choose to ignore the 100,000,000, people that communist regimes murdered. (The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, Harvard University Press,1999). Read this book and you might start thinking that this movie wasn't too far out after all.
I hope that noted set designer William Cameron Menzies who occasionally
did direct such classics as Things To Come, had Howard Hughes's check
already clearing the bank before embarking on The Whip Hand. Such a
film could only have come out of the paranoid years of the beginning of
the Cold War. If Joe McCarthy could say there were 205 or 81 or 57 card
carrying Communists in the State Department, than why couldn't the Red
Menace takeover a town in the Land of a Thousand Lakes, Minnesota.
Magazine feature writer Elliott Reid gone to Minnesota for a fishing vacation goes to the town of Winnoga and finds all the fish in the lake are dead and most of the town gone. New people have arrived in the area and are very protective about their privacy. Of course Reid's reporter's instincts are aroused and pretty soon he's like Kevin McCarthy trying to get of the area before the Pod People get him.
Just like in Shack Out On 101 where the Communists have set up shop in a hash house near the atomic testing site, the Commies have set up in Minnesota. Reid's only friends are elderly Frank Darien and Carla Ballenda, the sister of one of the scientists working in a laboratory on an island in the middle of the lake.
From the fevered mind of Howard Hughes came this warning to the American movie-going public that not only do we have to worry about the Reds conducting germ warfare on Americans, but they're also polluting our streams. I'm sure the Sierra Club was grateful for this film.
Raymond Burr is one of the Communist thugs along with his sister Lurene Tuttle. Burr and Tuttle being the professionals they are play it completely straight.
All I can say is, WOW.
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