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The Red Menace
Savant Blu-ray Review

The Red Menace
Olive Films
1949 / B&W / 1:37 Flat Academy / 81 min. / Fathoms Deep / Underground Spy / Street Date February 26, 2013 / 29.95
Starring Robert Rockwell, Hanne (Hannelore) Axman, Betty Lou Gerson, Lester Luther, William Lally, Barbra Fuller, Shepard Menken, Duke Williams, James Harrington, Lloyd G. Davies.
John MacBurnie
Film Editor Harry Keller
Original Music Nathan Scott
Special Effects Howard and Theodore Lydecker
Written by Gerald Geraghty, Albert DeMond from his story
Directed by R.G. Springsteen

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Winston Churchill gave his famous Iron Curtain speech in 1946. The Cold War officially began a year later when statesmen and orators adopted the term (coined by George Orwell, it is claimed) to describe the military-ideological standoff between the U.S and the U.S.S.R.. The Hollywood response to this new threat to world peace didn't take long to materialize -- by 1949 every studio was making movies with Soviet villains. Pictures expressing pacifist aims, or reminding viewers that Fascism had not been entirely eliminated, were soon discouraged. Their liberal sentiments were forgotten as new battle lines were drawn. In Jacques Tourneur's 1948 Berlin Express, an American agronomist and a Soviet soldier help capture a nest of surviving Nazis. Fritz Lang's 1946 thriller Cloak and Dagger emphasizes the continuing Nazi threat while warning that the spread of nuclear weapons cannot not be halted. The movie's controversial final reel was removed before release, a move that suggests that government pressure was brought to bear. (Cloak and Dagger has been announced for Blu-ray by Olive Films.)

The studios naturally cooperated with the government and gladly made films with patriotic themes. As the Germans were our new allies, between 1947 and 1949 the new Communist threat replaced Fascism in topical thrillers. Congressional investigations once again questioned the loyalty of film artists that been anti-Fascist before the war.

Few of the Hollywood features to directly address the Soviet threat found wide audiences. Studio heads produced them out of personal patriotism combined with a desire to stay on the safe side of the political fence. William Wellman directed The Iron Curtain, a low-key and realistic depiction of a Russian couple that defect in Canada. MGM made pictures about lovers separated by cruel Eastern Bloc policies. But other propaganda exposés tended toward hysterical excess while preaching anti-Soviet rhetoric, inflaming an old streak of anti-foreigner, anti-intellectual hatred. Warners' I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. sold its true story far too cartoonishly. John Wayne starred in the genuinely insulting Big Jim McClain, cleaning up a nest of Commie knaves in Honolulu with little more than his two fists. In his over-baked My Son John, Leo McCarey condemned Communism as a monstrous conspiracy to destroy God, Mom and apple pie. RKO's Howard Hughes used his project The Woman on Pier 13 aka I Married a Communist as a litmus test -- any director that turned down the assignment might find himself suspected of disloyalty.

Over at his Republic Pictures, Herbert J. Yates got on the bandwagon relatively early with The Red Menace, an exposé thriller about the American Communist Party's nefarious tactics. All the conventions of fifth column subversion are here in the crudest terms possible. It's no wonder that the film has seen relatively little Television exposure, as it presents a Communist cell so incompetent that their scurrilous activities would soon be put to a stop. Although the movie takes itself entirely seriously, it now plays as an outrageous jaw-dropper, so silly that an "Airplane" - like spoof would be pointlessly redundant. After seeing this film, Harvard's National Lampoon satires on populist anti-Commie propaganda now seem pointless... it's all here, and better.

The story begins with a flashback, as two lovers flee evil assassins. Disgruntled veteran Bill Jones (Robert Rockwell of Our Miss Brooks) gravitated to a Communist group after losing his savings in an own-your-own-home swindle. Sinister organizer Earl Partridge (Lester Luther) uses attractive date-bait femme comrades to lure suckers into the cell: refugee Eastern European Nina Petrovka, the jealous and vindictive German Yvonne Kraus and the unhappy Irish immigrant Mollie O'Flaherty (Hannelore Axman, Betty Lou Gerson & Barbra Fuller). Bill doesn't mind being pulled in by fast-talking Jack Tyler (William T. Lally), as he meets the beautiful and soulful Nina. Several members desperately want out: Mollie is in love with Henry Solomon (Shepard Menken), a Jewish poet that has new misgivings about the Party. Bill's political innocence moves Nina, yet she is convinced that she will never be allowed to quit the Party. African-American Sam Wright (Duke Williams) is a writer for the Party newspaper The Toiler. When Henry is treated badly Sam becomes disillusioned as well. Partridge's thugs murder an Italian-American who threatens to go to the authorities after attending a meeting, and Yvonne informs on Henry and Nina. Henry tears up his card, and is badgered and hounded so badly that he considers suicide. Partridge initially refuses to believe that Nina, who grew up as a Communist, could be disloyal. But he readily agrees that any Party member is expendable.

The Red Menace will deliver quite a jolt to complacent liberals that expect older Hollywood films to handle political controversy with a measure of tact. The Communist cell in this picture makes no sense whatsoever. Supposedly directed straight from Moscow, the most disruption it can inflict on the American system is a pathetic picket outside a real estate office. The film assumes that good Americans are happiest when ignorant of anything political. Bill Jones calmly listens to traitorous four-paragraph spiels about Marxist aims that would have any ex-G.I. reaching for the nearest gun. Almost all of the Cell's 'subversive' efforts are directed toward keeping their rank & file members in line. The recruits have been duped out of idealism, but none can express what they like about the Party besides its positive stance against racists and Fascists. Mollie apparently sleeps with anybody that comes along, and has an ill-defined love for the loser-poet Henry; both characters seem to have migrated over from Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim. We can't tell what appeal the Party holds for slick salesman Jack Tyler. He hooks veterans like an efficient used car salesman, but there's no payoff. The nasty Earl Partridge openly boasts to his associates about the scam he's running on the new recruits. His snide attitude and insinuated threats surely aren't going to nurture any long-term Party loyalists. Partridge apparently intends to get rid of all of them as soon as their usefulness is ended.

The storyline is a catalog of Commie evils. Many Party members (they carry cards) lied about their political affiliations on their immigration papers. Partridge controls them with the threat of exposure to the authorities. Should Nina give him trouble, she can be deported in a flash. No mention is made of the fact that the deportees could likewise inform on Partridge. The sociopath Yvonne suffers fits of jealousy because Mollie and Nina get all the good-looking recruits. She works out her sexual frustration by spying on her fellow comrades, and denouncing them to Partridge.

And there is plenty of talk. Early on a character says, "I'm not going to make a speech" but delivers one anyway. Every scene contains at least one position speech -- the Commies bleat out their noxious beliefs, and the representatives of good dispense benign wisdom. A big effort is made to undermine the Red claim that Communism respects all races and creeds. The Italian protester is called a "Mussolini Wop" and Henry is disparaged as a Jew. The bosses patronize the black comrade Sam. As if on cue, Sam's wise father and Mollie's parish priest arrive to deliver homilies about the wrong path they have taken. Mollie is reunited with her mother in a church, while Sam and his dad take off to have a beer together. Another character ends up throwing himself out a window. Subtleties, apparently, are for liberals and other fellow travelers.

Part of the appeal of The Red Menace is its high production polish. Director R.G. Springsteen is known mostly for modest Republic westerns, but his work here is more than adequate. The sets are decent and the lighting better than average for Republic feature. All things considered, the unfamiliar cast does great work with a script that alternates decently written dialogue with howler concepts. It's fun watching Duke Williams' Sam remain blissfully unaware of the gross traitor-speak and obvious intrigues all around him in the office. Barbra Fuller is pathetic as the "fallen woman" Mollie -- the movie implies that a loss of self-respect is the first step toward ideological doom. Betty Lou Gerson's manically overplayed Yvonne is hugely enjoyable. Cornered by the G-Men, she delivers an outrageous "I'm going insane while you watch" psychotic fit complete with cackling laughter. Viewers with sharp ears may recognize Gerson's voice from Disney's 101 Dalmatians: she provided the voice of Cruella De Vil.

Robert Rockwell looks like a morph between Wendell Corey and Rock Hudson -- good looking, but at all times slightly perplexed. His Bill Jones calmly under-reacts to all the crazy happenings. He's just in love with Nina, it seems. The film's most attractive actor is Hannelore Axman as Nina. She's dressed and coiffed almost exactly as was Greta Garbo in Ninotchka. Her character also doesn't make sense, as she's simultaneously a suave "agent of an alien power" (an oft-repeated phrase) and a terrified innocent in love. In this context, such inconsistencies hardly matter.

The Red baiting anti-Commie propaganda subgenre is, to quote a more poetic writer, "a heaping pot of steaming sociology." They make great entertainment for liberals (who, me?) looking for cinematic proof that the Red Scare was a bogus, hysteria-ridden political aberration. That indeed is an apt description of The Red Menace, which begins with an image of a Soviet octopus strangling the globe with its tentacles, and ends with a shot of the Statue of Liberty. Republic Pictures fans will fall out of their chairs at the final scene, which suddenly transplants the movie to a familiar western setting. Nina and Bill awaken a Texas lawman in the middle of the night to confess their sins. Even though Nina looks like Natasha Fatale from Rocky and Bullwinkle, this right-thinking but gentle galoot assures them that America is kind and forgiving. Why, the solution to their problems is to get married. I have a feeling that those insidious Commies would agree with the sheriff: Nina might more easily avoid deportation if she's married to an American citizen.

Olive Films' Blu-ray of The Red Menace is a beauty. The polished B&W image is almost entirely without flaws. Nathan Scott's appropriately overstated score sounds great on the sharp soundtrack. Before Olive's disc releases we never would have believed that Republic Pictures' films were so well made. We hope that the two surviving cast members of The Red Menace find out about this Olive disc and get a chance to see themselves again after all these years -- all of the actors can be proud of their work.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Red Menace Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Subtitles: none
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 14, 2013

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2013 Glenn Erickson

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