Monday, February 01, 2010

Death-Germ Plot Menaces Millions

One of the strangest thrillers of the Red Scare era was both directed and production-designed by the legendary William Cameron Menzies, an Oscar-winning (GONE WITH THE WIND) art director who also occasionally wrote, produced, and performed second-unit duties. Rarely seen since its 1951 release, THE WHIP HAND is a lurid though fun slice of postwar paranoia.

Elliott Reid, an amiable sort better known for his work in light comedies, plays Matt Corbin, whom we first see fishing during a thunderstorm. It’s clear that thunder and lightning are all around him, yet when the torrential downpour begins, Corbin looks around him in surprised annoyance. When the clumsy oaf runs smack into a tree on his scurry back to his car, cutting his forehead, it becomes clear we might have trouble rooting for the big lug.

After taking a wrong turn and being rudely run off by a gun-toting security guard roaming the walls of a barbed-wire-surrounded estate in the wilderness, Corbin finally makes it into sleepy little Winnoga, Minnesota, one of those Hollywood small towns in which everyone acts suspiciously and strangers aren’t to be trusted. Landing a room for the night at the hotel owned by jovial Steve Loomis (Raymond Burr), Corbin is surprised to learn that Winnoga has become a ghost town after all the fish in the nearby lake died of a strange virus.

Thinking there might be a story in Winnoga--Corbin is a journalist for a LIFE-like magazine--he decides to stick around for a few days, much to the chagrin of Loomis; Dr. Koller (Edgar Barrier), the local physician who sewed up Corbin’s cut; Janet (top-billed Carla Balenda), the doctor’s pretty sister; and local goons Chick (Michael Steele) and Garr (Peter Brocco).

It soon becomes clear to Corbin that Winnoga houses a massive conspiracy, and, with Hardy Boys-like skill, begins investigating the mysterious guarded estate. Imagine his surprise when he discovers the lodge is headquartering a former Nazi scientist, Dr. Wilhelm Bucholtz (Otto Waldis), and Winnoga, with only a few exceptions (including Janet), is populated with Communist spies who plan to destroy the U.S. population with diabolical germ warfare being developed by Dr. Bucholtz. Unable to leave town and constantly spied upon by Commie eyes, Corbin fights to discover a way to contact his New York editor for help and to destroy the Commies’ plans for world domination.

Considering that THE WHIP HAND was a troubled production, it may be surprising that it turned out as well as it did. According to Bill Warren’s excellent KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES, it was originally made as THE MAN HE FOUND, and, instead of Bucholtz, the mysterious villain residing in the remote compound was none other than Adolf Hitler! RKO head Howard Hughes, after the film had been completed, decided to replace Hitler with a Communist threat, and ordered new scenes shot and old ones cut or restructured.

The skill of Menzies as a filmmaker is evident in that THE WHIP HAND doesn’t appear confusing or truncated, and the additional material flows quite nicely with the old. Although the final scenes more closely resemble a Dr. Doom comic book story in dialogue and approach than the noirish material before, THE WHIP HAND is a well-performed entertainment that works in spite of (or perhaps because of) its heavy-handed approach. Reid is a likable sort, although he plays Corbin as kind of a dolt, always (unwisely, it seems) talking trash to his opponents instead of staying cool. Burr is very good as the sinister innkeeper, who bounces between glaring evil and outgoing jocularity with alarming ease.

I may be displaying a shocking ignorance of history, but, not having lived during the Red Scare, I don’t know what a “whip hand” refers to.


Max Allan Collins said...

"Whip hand" simply refers to the hand of the dictator, the master who controls his slaves.

Where did you see this rare film? Was it on TCM?

Marty McKee said...

Thanks, Max. Yeah, TCM runs it every few years, but not often enough. It's not on DVD, and I don't think it was ever on VHS, so TCM is about the only place you can find it. I've seen it twice there.