Directed in 1949 by R.G. Springsteen, a prolific director of westerns for both TV and cinema, and written by the equally prolific B-movie scribe Albert DeMond, The Red Menace introduces us to Bill Jones (Robert Rockwell) and Nina Petrovka (Hanne Axman), a couple on the run. From who or what they're on the run from, well, we don't know that yet, but they're definitely on the run. Thankfully the movie employs an unnamed narrator (Lloyd G. Davies) to fill us in on the details and guide us through a series of flashbacks that more or less flesh out the story for us.
As it would turn out, Bill has recently returned to American soil after a stint serving his country in the Second World War. With the G.I. Bill in full swing, Bill figures what better time than now to take advantage of that and build himself the house that he's always wanted. Unfortunately Bill falls in with a real estate developer of questionable morality and winds up being taken for a ride. Bill, being a man of principal and all, decides he's going to take this matter up at City Hall and see that justice is served, but just before he lights that fire he is approached by a member of the Communist Party who hopes to indoctrinate him in the ways of Marxism.
How does he do this? Well, first of all he talks to him but shortly after that he accompanies Bill to a bar chock full of Communists, not the least of whom are hotties Molly O'Flaherty (Barbra Fuller) and Yvonne Kraus (Betty Lou Gerson), the latter of whom seems particularly interested in Bill. Before you know it, Bill's been completely convinced that Communism is the way and he's out there passing out propaganda flyers to fellow returning soldiers as fast as they can be printed. When he later meets a beautiful Russian woman named Nina Petrovka (Hannelore Axman) who works as a schoolteacher, it would seem like there's no turning back for Bill, but soon he's starting to question things when he meets some party members who night want to split off from the group. But local party leader Earl Partridge (Lester Luther) sees it another way: he's going to see to it that all of those no good traitors are either behind bars or six feet underground.
Made during the height of the post World War II Cold War shortly before Senator Joseph McCarthy would do his best to purge America of the Red Menace, the movie's title card features a massively tentacle octopus whose eight arms reach over the continents in a wonderfully menacing way. From this subtle image, we're off and running through one of the wackiest films to ever tackle the subject, almost to the point where if you didn't know any better you might think that this was a parody. The story is simple enough - Bill returns home from serving his country only to find that the local government won't help him with his housing problem, which makes him an easy target for the commies. It works, for the most part, it's a fairly effective setup. Outside of that though, it gets pretty ridiculous pretty quickly.
In this film, the Communists hide in plain sight and spout off hardboiled rhetoric at every given opportunity. The movie is nicely shot but so completely drowning in over the top melodrama that it's impossible to take any of it seriously, though you've got to give full points to the cast and crew who seem to have been completely committed to the project. Though the film is at times at odds with itself (if the Communist Party members are out to increase their ranks under Partridge's leadership, why is he killing them off? A deterrent, one could argue, but hardly the most logical course of action or a good way to keep the secrecy of the Party under wraps), it is actually fairly well shot and makes nice use of shadow and light. It was made quickly and on a small budget, as is the case with most Republic pictures from this era, but it's paced well and plenty enjoyable for what it is.
For a movie made fast and cheap, Red Menace looks pretty good on Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.37.1. The image is nice and bright without looking artificially boosted and it shows very strong depth and detail throughout the duration of the movie. There's a nice amount of natural looking film grain present that results in a very film like presentation without the picture ever looking deteriorated or dirty because of it. Some print damage is noticeable in the opening few minutes but things get better as the movie plays out, with only mild specks and tiny scratches visible and even then only if you're actually looking for them. Texture is good and black levels are strong, with very nice shadow detail making the photography stand out here and giving the movie extra dramatic weight because of it. There are a few spots where the contrast looks too hot but this looks to be the way that the movie was shot and not a problem caused by the transfer itself. Not the best black and white transfer of an old movie we've seen hit the format but certainly a very respectable one.
The only audio option on the disc is a DTS-HD Mono track in the film's original English language, no alternate language or subtitle options or offered. The audio is clean and clear and easy to follow, the dialogue easily discernible and the score dramatically strong without overpowering anything. There are no issues here with hiss or distortion and the levels are properly balanced throughout the movie. Range is obviously limited by the age and format of the source material but the movie sounds just fine here.
Olive Films doesn't usually include any extras on their releases and this disc is no exception. Static menus offering chapter selection is all we get. The history behind this movie is no doubt a fascinating one - too bad Olive couldn't be bothered exploring that a bit.
The Red Menace is such a bizarre product of its time that it's hard not to have a lot of fun with it. So completely overwritten and overacted and so completely devoid of logic, it's a fast paced and fascinatingly paranoid little B-movie that, if nothing else, it's entertaining even if that's often for the wrong reasons. The Blu-ray from Olive Films presents the film in very nice condition and even if it's barebones, this comes recommended for fans of this type of thing.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.