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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Whip Hand

Sustained fear can lead to paranoia. The Soviets had The Bomb too. Senator McCarthy burst on the scene in 1950, waving his piece of paper purported to have the names of 200 State Department employees who were members of the communist party. In addition to worries about incoming bombers, America began to fear enemy agents inside the country. Many 50s sci-fi films were expressions of this "enemy within" angst. The Whip Hand (WH) was one of the early spies-at-home movies. It is a noteworthy hybrid in that it has some scifi ( a mad scientist attempting germ warfare), commies, and conformist "pod people" (of a sort). Add to all this, that it was directed (and designed) by William Cameron Menzies who gave us Things to Come ('36) and would give us Invaders From Mars ('53), and there is notable sci-fi connections.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Matt Corbin, magazine journalist, is in Minnesota on vacation. While fishing, a rain storm brews up. He slips on a wet rock and cuts his forehead. He gets lost trying to drive back to town. Instead he arrives a gated compound, is told (at gunpoint) to go away. Once in town, residents act strange and nervous when he asks about the compound. A virus killed off all of Winnoga's fish years ago, so it's little but a ghost town now. Matt was ready to leave, but the peculiar townsfolk have him asking more questions and getting peculiar answers. Smelling a story, the keeps poking around. He sneaks into the compound property and sees patients in wheelchairs and a doctor he recognizes. Guards catch him. He says he was just hiking. Back in town, his car won't start and he can't call out. Matt convinces the general store owner, Luther, to help him by smuggling out a message. Luther does, by hiding the message in the delivery driver's clipboard. When the wholesaler calls Luther to ask what the message was all about, Loomis (the inn owner and chief thug) knows. Luther is killed by lethal injection from Ed, the town doctor (and in on the conspiracy). Tensions rise. The mystery man from the compound, Mr. Peterson, meets Matt at the inn. Peterson tries to reassure Matt that nothing is going on and invites him to tour his compound in the morning. Matt agrees, but sneaks out of his room that night. He gets Janet, who was on her way to her brother Ed, with a vial of heart drug. Matt tells her they plan to kill her for helping him. They slip out of town in a canoe and cross the lake to the compound. Matt peeks in a window and overhears the discussions about germ warfare to be unleashed on America. He and Janet planned to slip away into the night, but Janet's absence is noticed. All the bad guys are on alert, looking for them. Matt and Janet overturn the canoe to evade the boat with a search light. Armed me watch points along the shore. Matt creeps up behind the meanest one and strangles him. Matt and Janet trek through the pine woods a long way. They finally come to a cabin. The old woman inside offers to drive them to the next town. All seems to be getting better, until she drives them up to Loomis and his men. She was one of them! Matt and Janet are taken to the compound. In the compound is Dr. Bucholtz, a former Nazi germ expert now working for the communists. He plans to experiment on Matt and Janet too. Ed, unable to give his sister a lethal injection, pulls out a gun and shoots Peterson, who also shoots Ed. Just then, two car loads of G-men with machine guns come storming in. Matt's message to his editor worked. Bucholtz, in a room with bulletproof glass, threatens to blow up the whole compound, spreading his germs anyway. Matt sneaks up behind him, breaks the wires, then knocks him down. Bucholtz is surrounded by sick and disfigured victims of his experiments, and is pummeled to death. Everything is fine now. The story is out. The plot is stopped. Matt and Janet smile and kiss. The End.

Insidious Infiltrators
The grabby theme of WH is that evil communist agents, plotting the downfall of the United States, could be working secretly in remote locations. WH plays up the paranoia of not knowing who you can trust. Enemy agents can look and sound like regular people. They could be friends or even family! The most famous of this genre of sci-fi is Invasion of the Body Snatchers (56). Many other films took up the alien-takeover theme too. The taken-over become conformists, obedient subjects to the will of their authoritarian masters, even to the point of betraying loved ones.

Impact on Sci-fi
Menzies does a good job of working the unknown traitor angle. The best of these is Molly, whom Matt and Janet talk into driving them to a larger town for help. She plays along, but drives them back to Winnoga. She was "one of them" all along. This theme of "becoming one of them," would get used many times in classic sci-fi. The most famous example of this is: Invasion of the Body Snatchers ('56), but there are many other alien-takeover films. All of them convey via metaphor, that Cold War angst that enemy agents could be right beside us.

A Tale of Two Films -- Several sources say that WH started out as a different movie. Menzies shot a film entitled "The Man He Found," The "Cambridge companion to science fiction," by Edward James, says the original movie was completed in 1950. In it, the vacationing reporter discovers a compound of Nazis hiding the not-dead-after-all Adolf Hitler. That movie was completed and awaiting release. Howard Hughes, the head of RKO Radio Pictures, wanted it reworked so that the enemies were communist agents. Menzies shot new footage, inserted it and cut out the too-nazi parts. It's said there was a brief scene (cut) in which Matt spots Hitler on a balcony in the compound. Others have written that all the scenes with Bucholtz (played by Otto Waldis) were new. Supposedly, the reworked second version started out with Russian leaders in the Kremlin pointing to spots on a US map. The version I saw (taped from TV) did not have this scene. Perhaps it was cut to shorten run time. Bad dubbing of the guards shouting to find Matt and Janet, suggest a post-production dialogue change.

Cast of Regulars -- The screenplay of WH contains several of the usual movie character roles. There is the dashing young hero, who happens to be single. There is the pretty and unattached love interest who needs rescued. Bucholtz is a blend of Evil Villain and Mad Scientist who suffers the typical fate: killed by his creation. In this case, the victims of his germ experiments. Ed plays the repentant traitor who atones for his sins by being killed by the bad guys. The G-men play the role of cavalry, rescuing the situation in an almost Dies ex Machina sort of way.

Silly Red Fears? -- It is all too easy for folks raised well after the Cold War fear had subsided, to look with smug derision on the whole Red Scare phase of American history. But, swap out Al Queda for Commies and the fear doesn't seem as silly. Spy Fear has been a cultural foible that phases in and out of remission from time to time. Back during World War One, the angst was over (presumed) German spies. Novels such as, "The Spies of the Kaiser" and "The 39 Steps" were popular, even if the actual amount of German intrigue was tiny.

Rocky Details -- Having lived in northern Minnesota, "Two hours from Duluth" as Matt's editor said. it was amusing to see the big craggy rocky landscapes in WH. Actually, the lakes country is mostly flat, sometimes mild hills. What rocks there are, tend to be shoebox sized, round and loose in the soil. Now, it turns out there is a Winnoga Resort, on Lac Seull in Ontario, about 4 hours drive north of Duluth. That lake does have some craggy rock shores. Trouble was, for a commie-spies-in-America story, that lake is in Canada. Oh well.

Bottom line? WH is an interesting blend of Red Scare and sci-fi. It is also a good example of the people-acting-strangely trope which forms the core of many old sci-fi movies. As a B-grade noir "thriller", it's okay, if populated by stereotypic characters. Raymond Burr actually does a nice job of the fake-jovial, insidious schemer Loomis. WH can be harder to find, but instructive for the roots of 50s sci-fi.

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