The film noir era coincided with the beginnings of the Cold War. After the end of WWII the Soviet Union acquired the atomic bomb, sealed off Eastern Europe and challenged the West over access to Berlin. By the early 1950s the Communist had seized control of China and invaded South Korea. As American school children practiced “duck and cover” nuclear attack drills in the classroom there was a rising fear of the Red menace throughout the country. These fears were fueled by the hype of Sen. Joe McCarthy whose investigation alleged infiltration of Communist into the highest levels of the U.S. Government. The House Committee on Un-
With this in mind, films with anti-
The Commie villains in film noir faded as the country moved on from the McCarthy era. But a decade later Hollywood would reconstitute them in a more entertaining form. In 1963 Dr. No, the first of the James Bond films was released. Its popularity set in motion a wave of spy and espionage films which defined a new genre that is popular to this day. Like their predecessors of the 1950s, the new subversive villains were presented as killers, but they would be called secret agents and they came with slick gadgets in glamorous surroundings. The violence was homogenized to that of an arcade game and the good guys crack one-
PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET 1953 Twentieth Century Fox Director: Sam Fuller
Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Richard Kiley, Thelma Ritter, Willis Bouchey
Petty criminal Widmark snatches Peters purse. Little did he know she was a dupe courier for Commie agents and the purse contains stolen microfilm. Widmark ultimately discovers what he has and tries to sell it back to the Commies. Kiley plays the increasing desperate Commie who will kill anyone to get the microfilm back. To further vilify Kiley, we get to see him beat up Peters leaving her face a mess. There is an effort to make Widmark something of a hero at the end but it comes up short. Even with the Commies exposed, Widmark is still a lowlife. Irregardless of the Commie connection this is a first rate film noir.
5 STEPS TO DANGER 1957 Henry S. Kesler Productions (Released by United Artist) Director: Henry S. Kesler
Sterling Hayden, Ruth Roman, Warner Klemperer
After having car trouble Hayden is given a ride by Roman. Hayden soon learns that Roman is on the run and may be involved in a Los Angeles murder case. He thwarts an attempt by the cops to arrest them and then encounters a doctor (Klemperer of Hogan’s Hero fame) who wants to return Roman to a mental hospital. Hayden then discovers that Roman is needed by American agents to confirm the identity of a scientist who defected and is working on a secret project. Klemperer is exposed as a Commie agent as he and his henchmen try to “eliminate” Roman.
Interesting note that Hayden was once a member of the Communist Party but later downplayed his involvement as nothing more than a flirtation.
WALK A CROOKED MILE 1948 Columbia Pictures Director: Gordon Douglas
Dennis O’Keefe, Louis Hayward, Raymond Burr, Louise Allbritton
This is one of the earliest of the Commie themed noirs. O’Keefe is an FBI agent and Hayward from Scotland Yard. They team up to try and catch a group of Commies that are stealing secrets from a Los Angeles defense plant. Burr is a leader of the Commies and takes delight in his violent treatment of both Hayward and O’Keefe after they are exposed and captured. For good measure Burr beats up their landlord (Tamara Shayne) as she gives him a patriotic lecture. Big shootout at the end with all the traitors rounded up. Overall, works well as film noir.
This was directed by Gordon Douglas who had a long resume of low budget films including I Was A Communist For The F.B.I.
SHACK OUT ON 101 1955 Allied Artist Director: Edward Dein
Lee Marvin, Keenan Wynn, Frank Lovejoy, Terry Moore, Whit Bissell
The “shack” is a cheap diner near the beach run by Wynn. Marvin is his cook who is only called “Slob.” But as we learn, the lowly cook’s job is only a cover for the sly Marvin so he may coordinate espionage activities at a secret defense plant down the road. He also will kill anyone who he gets in his way. Lovejoy is a government agent and a regular customer of the shack all the while trying to infiltrate Marvin’s Commie group. Moore is a waitress at the shack and the love interest of all concerned.
This is an ultra low budget film with most of the action taking place inside the “shack.” There is a scene in which Marvin and Wynn are weightlifting and comparing their muscles. It is rather hilarious and one can only assume it was simply to fill time.
THE RED MENACE 1949 Republic Pictures Driector: R.G. Springsteen
Robert Rockwell, Betty Lou Gerson, Hannelore Axman
Republic’s entry into the Commie as bad guys derby was one of the first and they laid claim to the best title. Republic was low budget all the way and the no name cast reflects how cheap it really was. Rockwell in the lead role became best known as Eve Arden’s love interest in the television version of Our Miss Brooks.
Rockwell is a disillusioned vet who falls for the Commie line with a little help from seductress Axman. They both wise up when they witness a fellow member killed after challenging the leaders with a patriotic speech about the virtues of democracy. The message is you can never leave the Party as Rockwell and Axman both become targets and are hunted by Commie goons when they try to leave. The theme of loosing control of your life after a bad choice reoccurs throughout film noir and seems to be the warning here.
THE WHIP HAND 1951 RKO Director: William Cameron Menzies
Elliot Reid, Carla Balenda, Raymond Burr, Edgar Barrier
Reid is a journalist on fishing trip in the backwaters of Minnesota when car trouble forces him into a small out of the way hamlet. He soon realizes something strange is going on. What he discovers is a ring of Commies led by Burr who are running a biological laboratory and preparing to unleash germ warfare on America. Not only that, but they are using humans to test their concoctions and the captured Reid and Balenda will be their next victims.
With the helpless Balenda strapped to a table about to be made into a mutant and the hero Reid fighting to save her, this plays out like a Republic serial making it entertaining if nothing else. The story was originally written with ex-
WOMAN ON PIER 13 1949 RKO Director: Robert Stevenson
Robert Ryan, Thomas Gomez, Laraine Day, John Agar, Janet Carter, William Talman
Ryan is an executive with a San Francisco shipping firm who once belonged to the Communist Party. Party leader Gomez tries to extort Ryan with exposure in order to use him to foment labor unrest on the docks. As a backup, he uses Carter to try an seduce Ryan, all of which he is resist. Talman is the party hit man ready to kill anyone on Gomez’s orders. And not just any killing will do, bound victims are thrown off the pier while others are pushed out of a window and run down on the street.
This is by far the best of the Commie themed film noirs. Gomez could just as well be a mafia boss and it wouldn’t change the story. The dark atmosphere of Ryan’s predicament is captured by veteran noir cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. It’s pre-
I’LL GET YOU 1952 Lippert Pictures Director: Seymour Friedman
George Raft, Sally Gray
A foreign government is abducting scientist from the United States and England. FBI agent Raft goes undercover to England to follow up leads on an abducted American engineer. In London he is teamed with British agent Gray and together they zip around town in her cool looking Sunbeam Talbot following clues. It’s gets a little tedious with Raft not providing much emotion. The foreign agents are seen as cold blooded killers who turn on those that help them.
Raft, no longer a Hollywood commodity made this film for low budget producer Lippert Films. Shot on location in London adds to its appeal and the feeling of a more expensive film.
A BULLET FOR JOEY 1955 United Artist Director: Lewis Allen
Edward G. Robinson, George Raft, Audrey Totter, Toni Gerry, Steven Geray, George Dolenz
Raft in familiar role as a gangster who is hired by a “foreign power” to kidnap a nuclear scientist (Dolenz) and smuggle him out of Canada. Raft enlist the services of former girlfriend Totter to seduce Dolenz. Robinson is a Canadian police detective keeping an eye on Raft’s activities. As you might predict the invariable clash between the two includes Robinson appealing to Raft’s patriotic loyalties. It’s interesting to note that the subversive agents were never identified as communist but the inference was clear.
The most redeeming thing about this film is having Raft and Robinson together. Both were near the end of their careers so this serves as something of time warp. Robinson shows he could still deliver while Raft was still Raft. Raft , who was never much of a screen lover, has very awkward clinch with Totter, who was also getting past her prime.
BIG JIM McLAIN 1952 Warner Bros. Director: Edward Ludwig
John Wayne, Nancy Olson, James Arness, Alan Napier
This is an odd film. OK, it’s not film noir but it’s about as close as the Duke ever came to one. Wayne and Arness are government investigators who travel to Hawaii to check on Commie activity in the islands. Soon after arriving Wayne strikes up a romance with Olson and before you know it they are engaged. While the two of them enjoy all that Hawaii has to offer, Arness is abducted and killed by a Commie quack doctor trying to get information from him. As one might expect there is a big fight scene with Wayne punching out a bunch of Commies who are rounded up. The Commies all invoke the Fifth Amendment when called to a hearing and are set free.
One would expect a thorough demonizing of Communism in a film starring Wayne. But this one is pretty mild by comparison. It could easily be described as a Wayne-
I WAS A COMMUNIST FOR THE F.B.I. 1951 Warner Bros. Director: Gordon Douglas
Frank Lovejoy, Dorothy Hart, Philip Carey, James Millican
Based loosely on a true story, Lovejoy is an F.B.I. agent who goes undercover to infiltrate the Communist Party in Pittsburgh. The Commies are are depicted more for their self-
CAPTAIN SCARFACE 1953 Lincoln Productions Director: Paul Guilfoyle
Barton MacLane, Leif Erickson, Virginia Grey
The Soviets sink a freighter and kill all aboard so they can substitute their own ship with MacLane as Captain. MacLane and his crew of dedicated Commies have a nuclear bomb on board an plan to explode it as they transit the Panama Canal. Erickson stumbles on to the plot after assuming a dead agent’s identity to get passage. He and other passengers attempt to foil the scheme.
This was the one and only film produced by Lincoln Productions which apparently sought to capitalize on the Red scare with this far reaching tale. The cast, with MacLane (whose accent is at first laughable and then becomes annoying) in the title role forewarns how cheap this film was made. While the storey may have played well during the early Cold War era, did anyone stop to ask what the Soviet Union had to gain by blowing up the Canal. And what about that title.