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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Red Menace

While Republic Pictures' The Red Menace (RM) is in no way a science fiction film, it is surprisingly relevant to many 1950s sci-fi films. It was filmed and released (1949) when fears of communist subterfuge was ramping up. (more on this in the Notes section). Hollywood was criticized for making films that were soft on (if not favoring) communism. Several studios created anti-communist films. None of them were well regarded by the critics as being much more than B-grade propaganda (an easy epithet to sling around). RM is not a particularly deep film, and filled with preachy moments. Yet, an astute sci-fi fan can see the framework of later hidden-invader sci-fi films.

  Quick Plot Synopsis
The movie opens with Bill and Nina driving at night to escape someone. They stop for gas, but race off when they suspect the gas station attendant is tipping off one of "them." The narrator then takes the story into flashback. >> Bill Jones is a former G.I. complaining (angrily) to a bank employee about being swindled out of his GI bonus money by a shady real estate deal. He rants about the little guy being a victim, etc. A man named Jack overhears and befriends Bill, inviting him to a drink in a cozy bar he knows. The the bar are several operatives of the communist party, there to process recruits. A perky blonde named Molly moves in, inviting Bill up to her apartment. There is some talk of communism, but Bill is mostly keen on getting lucky. Playing the Party floozy upsets Henry, who has feelings for Molly. Molly's mother, then her priest, try to talk her out of her party loyalty and return home. She stands firm. Little by little, Bill lets himself get swept deeper into his new circle of friends' political agenda. He attends basement lectures and takes part in a demonstration outside a real estate office. Party zealot Yvonne urges the group to violence at a picket line. Bill, dismayed, is whisked away by Party veteran, Nina. Bill thinks he's going to get lucky again, but no. He gets slapped. Eventually, he and Nina slowly develop a bond as non-zealots. Yvonne, ever suspicious of any wavering in loyalty, gets frustrated Party poet, Henry in trouble for a poem that was not blindly, gushing about Marx. (In a nod to Orwell, Henry insisted on citing facts. The Party insisted on re-writing history.) Henry is outcast and ostracized. Molly gets in trouble for speaking to him. Henry kills himself by jumping out a window. Yvonne next gets Nina under a cloud of suspicion. The increasing violence and lies have both Bill and Nina questioning Party membership. Later, Molly decides to return to her church, where Father Leary and her mother welcome her back. Sam, the african-american copy writer for the communist newspaper (The Toiler), is urged by his father to come back home. He does. Yvonne is picked up by Immigration agents. Her stolen identity unravels. Her unhinged psyche does too, and she's taken away laughing maniacally that the revolution will get them all. Meanwhile, Bill talks Nina into running away with him that night. Two Party thugs watching her apartment try to stop them, but Bill beats them up. They drive away into the night. (Now the flashback has caught up to where the movie began.) They stop in a small (old-west style) town of Talbot, Texas to give themselves up. The ol' west sheriff listens to their tale, but tells them they're not criminals. Instead, they should settle down together and have good ol' American babies. Bill and Nina like the idea, agree to get married and share a long kiss. The End (with footage of the Statue of Liberty under a few lines of "My Country Tis of Thee")

  Insidious Invaders
The power of the story in RM is that "They" are among us, quietly converting normal citizens into one of Them. "They" are rising into positions of power. The insidious invaders seek to overthrow all that is normal and "good". In its place, they seek to install a cold and emotionless dictatorship, for the "good" of the people. This theme permeates many 50s and early 60s sci-fi films. In RM, you see it in openly political terms without the usual allegory.

  Cold War Spotlight
RM is not so much atomic angst as it is Commie Angst. At the time RM was in production, the USSR had not yet exploded its first atomic bomb. Yet, commie angst is the whole reason for atomic angst in the Cold War. The end of WWII did not usher in a new dawn of freedom. Many smaller nations, freed from the clutches of the Nazi empire, were immediately absorbed into the Soviet empire. The second "Red Scare" began. Could American freedom be the next to fall?

HUAC Attack -- RM exists as a film, primarily because of the congressional House Committee on Un-American Activities. The HUAC is famous (or infamous) for its "Black List" of Hollywood folk suspected of being communists. It's easy, from the vantage point of 60 years later, to ridicule the committee as paranoid vigilantes, but this ignores the zeitgeist of the era. The majority of Americans shared the committee's concerns. The HUAC accused Hollywood of producing subversive pro-soviet, or pro-communist films. Many studios sought to disprove the allegation by producing rampantly ANTI-communist films. Warner Bros. had Big Jim McLain. RKO had I Married a Communist, etc. RM was Republic Pictures' venture to prove they weren't tools of "Them."

  In Hiss' Shadow -- Validating fears of communist infiltration, were the Alger Hiss hearings and trials. In 1948, Alger Hiss, a State Department official, was called to testify before the HUAC. He was accused of being a communist and a spy for the Soviet Union. Later, he was convicted of perjury. His conviction seemed to prove that Communist spies really were among us, and out to get us!

  Ad Absurdum -- Senator Joe McCarthy was not on the HUAC, but operated independently. He pushed anti-communist rhetoric to a fever pitch, starting in February 1950. McCarthy claimed to have a list of 205 people in the State Department who are members of the Communist Party. Given HIss's recent conviction, the claim seemed plausible, even if it remained unsubstantiated. McCarthy's demagoguery pushed red fears and black listing to absurd lengths.

  Enemy Substitute -- It seems plausible that a major impetus behind 50s sci-fi was expressing commie-angst without being as flagrant as McCarthy. Middle class sensibilities were uncomfortable with McCarthyism's strident histrionics. But middle America was still worried about communists (both their spies and their nukes). Enter science fiction as an alternate form of expression of red fears. A careful watching of RM reveals many parallels to later sci-fi films. The most classic is Invasion of the Body Snatchers ('56). A parallel worth noting is how many good-guys in sci-fi films deliver moralizing speeches too. They defend peoples' right to a "normal" free life. They defy the alien powers' plans for a heartless, unfeeling world without love, (such as Claire's final rant to "It" in It Conquered the World ('56) ). They're very similar speeches to those in RM. Note how the commies in RM are cold-hearted and ruthless. No individuality is tolerated. No mercy is given. Many sci-fi heros fight to retain their human individuality. It's as if the movie industry, and indeed the movie watching public, continued to indulge in Red Fears, but did so via sci-fi, after Senator Joe had made it ridiculous to do so openly.

  Black List Irony -- Note how, in RM, the character of Henry is shunned by his fellow communists for leaving the Party. He is an outcast, denied contact with his former friends, even his love interest, Molly. He loses job after lob when his employers find out who he is. Henry's plight as an outcast former-communist is an ironic parallel to the many actors and screenwriters of that day, Black Listed for being (or suspected of being) members of the communist party.

 Bottom line? RM is not high cinematic art. It's talky at times, and flagrantly preachy about American freedom vs. the evils of communism. But look past that. See in RM's characterizations (good guys & bad guys) a pattern that would be repeated in many Golden Age sci-fi. The sci-fi films would swap out commies for aliens, but much of the format would be the same -- champions of humanity and freedom vs. the iron fist of heartless alien oppressors. RM is ideologically "thick", but it is a good window into the soul of Cold War feelings, both of the people who produced the film AND the people who bought tickets.

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