The Whip Hand
I guess Howard Hughes wanted to go easy on Minnesota Nazis. William Cameron Menzies directs a Cold War thriller about an insidious germ warfare conspiracy — it’s an early paranoid suspense tale with apocalyptic consequences. But the story behind the movie’s making — and then remaking — is even more fantastic.
The Whip Hand
The Warner Archive Collection
1951 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 82 min. / Street Date February 16, 2016 / available through the WBshop / 18.59
Starring Elliott Reid, Raymond Burr, Carla Balenda, Edgar Barrier, Otto Waldis,
Michael Steele, Lurene Tuttle, Peter Brocco, Lewis Martin, Frank Darien, Olive Carey, George Chandler, Gregory Gaye.
Cinematography Nicholas Musuraca
Film Editor Robert Golden
Original Music Music by Paul Sawtell
Written by George Bricker, Frank L. Moss, Ray Hamilton
Produced by Louis J. Rachmil
Directed by William Cameron Menzies
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Film writers Bill Warren and Tom Weaver have reported extensively on the unusual production story behind the oddball anti-Commie movie The Whip Hand. I was able to get the background on the show firsthand when I interviewed its original producer about another movie, Decoy. The Whip Hand is one of the strangest of pictures to be warped (whipped?) by Cold War hysteria.
What better place to stage a sinister subversion of America, than in the lakes district of Minnesota? The movie we see begins with a stern sermon about the Communist threat, and then shows a group of Soviet spymasters gloating in Russian over a map of the United States. The speaker points to a place called Winoga, Minnesota. In a mountain stream near Winoga, magazine writer Matt Corbin (Elliott Reid) slips and bangs his head. Turned away by an unfriendly armed guard at a private residence, Matt drops by local doctor Edward Keller (Edgar Barrier) to be patched up, and meets the doctor’s nervous sister Janet (top-billed Carla Balenda). Deciding to rest at the town’s only inn, Matt is told that Winoga’s fish have all died. The over-solicitous innkeeper Steve Loomis (Raymond Burr), the garage man Chic (Michael Steele) and the nosy Nate Garr (Peter Brocco) assure Matt that better fishing can be had elsewhere. But Matt is perturbed by that gated Mystery Lodge owned by a mysterious man named Peterson. He also sees books on diseases on Dr. Keller’s shelf — all written by Dr. Wilhelm Bucholtz (Otto Waldis). Back in 1946, Matt wrote an article about Bucholtz, a notorious Nazi doctor now presumed to be working for Moscow. Matt presses further, despite Janet’s warning to leave immediately. After he’s caught snooping, Matt finds that the locals are no longer trying to shoo him away, but are playing tricks to keep him from leaving, or to communicate with the outside world. The giveaway is when he entreats the old hardware store man Luther Adams (Frank Darien) to send out a secret message. All of a sudden Matt finds himself invited to visit in person with the mysterious Peterson (Lewis Martin), who insists that he’s only a rich man trying to protect his privacy.
A review is supposed to be an aid for viewers to seek out movies they might like to see. I have associates that don’t think I should be relating synopses in as much detail as I do. But theser are really review essays that try to go a little further. For the sake of spoilers, if you really want to see The Whip Hand without knowing what’s going on, stop reading. But the film’s real point of interest is in its strange evolution, so everything from here on in is technically a
The Whip Hand was originally a different movie, with a different title. RKO writer-producer Stanley Rubin was on shaky ground, as was every creative person working under the aegis of Howard Hughes. In 1950 Rubin wrote and produced for RKO The Man He Found. Famed production designer William Cameron Menzies directed. The wild but not entirely impossible fantasy thriller is based on the idea that remnants of the German Third Reich are still up to major mischief, namely, preparing to wipe out America with a massive germ warfare attack through our water supply. The big surprise at the end of Rubin’s show is the hero’s discovery that Adolf Hitler is personally in charge of the evil lab of mass destruction. Half his face is scarred but he’s alive and well and waiting for his cue to return to power.
As Rubin found out, anti-Nazi movies were no longer being encouraged. The government wished to shift attention to the now- more topical Soviet threat. Meanwhile, with the sentencing of the Hollywood Ten, the studios felt safe to step up their purge against the industry’s outspoken liberals and pro-union activists. Several of the Hollywood Ten had worked at at RKO and Hughes’ detectives dug deeper to find out if he had any more subversive writers on the payroll. The mogul talked about reshooting the title sequences of RKO films to expunge ‘disloyal’ names from the credits. But there seemed to be no problem with The Man He Found Hughes okayed and green-lit the production and Rubin and Menzies filmed it. Only when it was finished and in the can did Hughes throw on the brakes. Along with a number of other RKO films the show was shelved, waiting for the mogul to decide what to do with it.
Stanley Rubin charged ahead with a second RKO production. The tense film noir thriller The Narrow Margin was also finished on schedule, but Hughes shelved it as well. This time Rubin knew why. In internal studio screenings the movie was considered so good that Hughes expressed vague plans to re-shoot it with bigger stars, even though Charles McGraw and Marie Windsor are perfect in the movie. The one print of Narrow Margin circulated to other studios, where it was received so well that Stanley Rubin, Richard Fleischer and writer Earl Felton received new work offers. Hughes didn’t re-shoot The Narrow Margin after all, but it was held up for release until May of 1952.
Hughes finally got back to Rubin on The Man He Found (TMHF) with the following instructions: change the villains in the picture from neo-Nazis to the new Soviet threat. Hitler was out, and Ivan was in. The evil germ warfare lab in the American heartland would now be part of the International Communist Conspiracy. Wanting nothing to do with feeding the fire of political hysteria, Rubin declined to change the film and quietly stepped down. It’s possible that the offers to work elsewhere, thanks to The Narrow Margin, were what made Rubin’s choice a practical one. He left RKO for 20th Fox, where his first producing assignment was the Robert Parrish movie My Pal Gus, with Richard Widmark, Joanne Dru and Audrey Totter.
Replacement producer Lewis Rachmil made the changes, which reportedly amounted to very little. Rubin estimated that 80% of the film was unchanged, but that figure may be high. Because the evil Dr. Bucholtz was already a German, his accent didn’t have to be re-looped. It’s possible that some the guards around Peterson’s compound in TMHF wore Nazi uniforms, requiring re-shoots. The opening Russian sequence is obviously new, as is a new concluding sequence. According to the Rubin and Elliott Reid interviews in Tom Weaver’s books, when Matt and Janet spy on the mysterious Lodge, they see Hitler walk out on the veranda. In The Whip Hand they instead see a patio with recovering patients, watched over by nurses. If Hitler was dealt with separately in the original cut, the concluding lab sequences might only have to be re-shot when Nazi Germany was a main part of the dialogue — the germ warfare scheme is unchanged.
With its logging-country setting and the evil villain’s lair referred to as “The Lodge,” The finished The Whip Hand plays like a goofy fantasy episode of Twin Peaks. The early suspense scenes is unfortunately dated, in that Paranoid Cinema would soon far outpace what we see. Considering the creepy behavior of the citizens of Winoga, Matt Corbin ought to have been more circumspect, much earlier. Raymond Burr’s attempts to be friendly come off as completely sinister, especially with William Cameron Menzies’ tight, anxious close-ups. The way sinister Peter Brocco (The Narrow Margin, Our Man Flint) noses in on everything Matt says and does should be a giveaway, too. Ever since Invasion of the Body Snatchers, even little kids know that events like one’s car suddenly not working, or the phone lines being inoperative, are never a harmless coincidence. But the screenplay acknowledges that average Americans in 1950 are likely to be both too complacent and too trusting. When the clueless hardware vendor in the big city gets Luther’s cryptic note to inform the authorities, he blows it entirely. He calls right back on the town’s only phone line, to basically say, “Gee Luther, do you really want me to inform the FBI in secret because you’re in big trouble there?”
William Cameron Menzies’ direction is less mannered than usual, but he gets in plenty of his tight compositions and choker close-ups. He doesn’t take a design credit on this show, which was partially filmed at San Bernardino County’s Big Bear Lake. It’s possibly the most naturalistic acting in any Menzies-directe film I’ve seen; the acting in Invaders from Mars is just fine, but in no way natural. The deep-cover Commies are a cool-headed lot. Raymond Burr is full of fake mirth, Michael Steele and Peter Brocco skulk around with a bad attitude, and Lurlene Tuttle is excellent as Winoga’s switchboard operator. Carla Balenda, formerly Sally Bliss, is a rather depressing heroine, and a dumb one too; she’s been in this nest of vipers for four years, and doesn’t suspect a thing. A really pessimistic variation on the story would see Janet helping Matt to escape, only to reveal that, as in The Suicide Club, she’s just taking him away to die somewhere where Winoga won’t be suspected.
Instead, when the bad guys go into action they’re like villains in a silent serial. Dr. Bucholtz is such a maniac fruticake that he expects Dr. Keller to kill his own sister for the sake of the Glorious International Revolution. This fits in with other, weaker anti-Commie movies that show the insidious Russki spies being so cruel to their minions, they naturally rebel: The Red Menace, The Woman on Pier 13, I Was a Communist for the F.B.I..
Lewis Martin (the preacher in The War of the Worlds) is a rather colorless main bad guy, with his bland invitation for Matt to come up to the lodge. It’s pretty absurd — the moment the locals aren’t offering to drive Matt to somewhere where he can phone home, they have no credibility. I think a particularly good touch is to use actress Olive Carey (above) against type, as a ‘plain American woman’ who turns out to be yet another Commie stooge. Now associated with John Ford movies, Ms. Carey had taken a break between 1935 and 1950 … but started acting with her husband Harry Carey way back in 1912. Was producer Rubin trying to be a little subversive, there?
The Whip Hand was once really obscure, but after so much genre discussion in the last twenty years or so science fiction fans now know it well. It’s a key film in the science fiction doomsday subgenre, subcategory Bio-Warfare. I spoke about the trend last year in my commentary for the Blu-ray of The Satan Bug. The only title more obscure may be the English thriller Counterblast. Its Nazi germ warfare expert cleverly infiltrates an English bio-warfare lab for the same purpose, to wipe out the Allies and allow for a Fourth Reich. Most of the plot points for Counterblast would be lifted by author Ian Stuart (Alistair MacLean) for his novel of The Satan Bug.
The visual of a room-ful of mad lab guinea pigs shuffling about seems rather odd — wouldn’t they be cross-infecting each other? The idea of a hospital ward packed with human guinea pigs showed up in two later medical horror movies, The Black Sleep and The Unearthly. The ending, with Dr. Bucholtz mobbed by his own maimed patients, is straight out of The Island of Lost Souls. If only real enemies were as stupid as the horrible Dr. Bucholtz — keeping the world safe from totalitarians would be a lot easier.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Whip Hand looks pristine. Most of the anti-Communist films of the early 1950s were non-performers at the box office, and the elements for this one were probably never touched except to make TV prints. The footage all looks original, which aligns with the assumption that The Man He Found was not preserved, but taken apart and used as the original material for this cut. The meticulous Howard Hughes almost certainly had whatever print had been struck of the first film destroyed; it’s possible that nobody saw it after a cast and crew screening.
Producer Stanley Rubin’s career outcome is one of the better RKO survival stories. Just over a year later he was producing Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum in River of No Return. Rubin eventually produced perhaps the best ‘sixties satire about polarized American politics, Theodore J. Flicker’s excellent James Coburn spy comedy, The President’s Analyst. He was a very generous man, the most open and forthcoming classic-era Hollywood personality I ever interviewed.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Whip Hand DVD-R rates:
Movie: Good – minus
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 31, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson