The Whip Hand (1951)
At times, the underrated The Whip Hand (1951, RKO) reminds me of Orson Welles’ film noir thriller The Stranger (1946), where all is not what it seems in rural Americana. We’ve seen this in several outstanding films —Bad Day at Bad Rock (1955), Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) all come to mind. In The Stranger, Edward G. Robinson is tracking down a Nazi war criminal (guess who) with a penchant for restoring old clocks. In The Whip Hand, a journalist (Elliot Reid) stumbles upon an insulated community in rural Minnesota, where all the fish have died in the local lake and the folks don’t talk.
Both films feature good stories, taught direction, great casts with quintessential villains, and superb acting. With weaker direction, The Whip Hand would have probably fallen off the planet (I still had never heard of it), but with legendary art director William Cameron Menzies (Gone with the Wind, Things to Come, The Thief of Bagdad, Invaders from Mars and other visually stunning films) at the helm we get a minor film-noir gem and a fresh DVD release from Warner Bros. Archive Collection.
By comparison, another red menace film from the same period Red Planet Mars (1952), and helmed by a capable director Harry Horner (Beware, My Lovely, 1952) is just dreadful.
The film stars beautiful Carla Balenda, who mostly worked in television, as the love interest Janet Keller, Elliott Reid (The Absent Minded Professor, 1961) as “American View” journalist/photographer Matt Corbin, Raymond Burr as the primary antagonist Steve Loomis (Burr made a fine villain), Edgar Barrier (Phantom of the Opera, 1943) as Dr. Keller (Janet’s brother), Michael Steele as one of the toadies, and Lewis Martin as one of the heavies (you’ll recognize him immediately as the pastor in War of the Worlds, 1953).
Below: Peter Brocco harrasses Frank Darien and Elliot Reid at the general store, but Reid is a savy journalist and will have none of that.
The Whip Hand is chock full of colorful characters. The film is a bit of a cross-over with crime, thriller, and film-noir elements. The film was lensed by cinematographer and Tourneur affiliate Nicholas Musuraca (Out of the Past, 1947; Cat People, 1942), and it shows with luminous settings, shadows and tight closeups. I doubt Carla Balenda ever looked better.
Olive Carey (The Searchers, 1956, Billy the Kid versus Dracula, 1966 and a zillion other westerns), wife of Harry Carey, has an amusing role that I didn’t see coming. You can always recognize her by that distinct voice. She was about 55 years old in this film.
Below: Raymond Burr, Peter Brocco and Michael Steele give the journalist the fish eye.
It’s no secret this film is about commies trying to infiltrate the USA. The Whip Hand is described as a “red menace” film, and it is, but it is surprisingly accurate in its depiction of Nazi scientists potentially working under the helm of communism. After WWII the United States claimed several prominent and some dubious German scientists under Operation Paperclip. In this film the communists have recruited a warped genius using biological warfare to contaminate drinking water and air inhaltation pathways. Several years later, in film, we witness Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper expound upon the evils of communist fluoridation of drinking water (Dr. Strangelove, 1964) and a maniac spreading a virulent virus in The Satan Bug (1965).
The Whip Hand was ahead of the curve in depicting weapons of mass destruction. We had seen mad scientists with death rays and harnessing of radioactive and poisonous menaces (Universal’s The Invisible Ray, 1936), but I would think in 1951 the notion of contaminating our surface waters was pretty scary and believable material.
A few years later the menace evolved into fiction with giant reptiles and arthropods and other atomic mutated monsters. Maybe the evils presented in The Whip Hand were too scary for the general public and real threats were toned down for metaphorical ones.
This shot reminds me of a famous image of Dana Wynter and Kevin McCarthy in Invasion of the Body Snathers (1956).