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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Whip Hand
The Whip Hand
Warner Archives // Unrated // February 16, 2016 // Region 0
List Price: $21.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted April 6, 2016 | E-mail the Author
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The Whip Hand (1951) is a movie famous for its behind-the-scenes meddling on orders from its multi-millionaire (later billionaire) studio head, Howard Hughes. Cinematically there's not much there, despite the production design and direction of William Cameron Menzies, a great talent.

Hughes gained control of the struggling RKO Studios in 1948 and all but destroyed the company within a few years. A paranoid anticommunist, he first shut down production studio-wide for six months after firing three-fourths of its workforce in order to personally investigate the loyalties of those who remained. He produced many anticommunist propaganda thrillers that few movie-going capitalists had any interest in seeing. He notoriously put dozens of young women under contract with little interest in actually showcasing their talents. He was, however, very interested in showcasing the assets of buxom talent like Janet Leigh, Terry Moore, and Jane Russell, obsessing over the designs of their brassieres.

At great, unjustifiable expense he spent many millions tinkering with completed films, delaying their release, sometimes by years, to reshoot scenes, sometimes with new directors and cast members. Probably the most radical example of these, at least during Hughes's RKO years, was His Kind of Woman (1951), a film noir and part-comedy with Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, and Vincent Price. Richard Fleischer replaced John Farrow and Fleischer's memoirs, Just Tell Me When to Cry, provide a hilarious account of Hughes's insane obsessiveness.

The story of The Whip Hand isn't as colorful, but still intrigues. The movie began shooting in May 1950 as The Man He Found, about Nazi war criminals hiding out in rural Minnesota after World War II. Eventually the story's hero, a vacationing photojournalist, learns a startling secret: among these fugitives from justice is none other than Adolph Hitler himself! (Frequent Hitler impersonator Bobby Watson played him, in this case with makeup suggesting severe facial burns, Hitler having survived the fire in The Bunker.)

Hughes saw the finished film in November 1950 and was unimpressed, ordering significant portions of the movie reshot. Instead of Nazi war criminals hiding der Führer, the revamped movie would, per his instructions, instead revolve around Russians and Fifth Columnists plotting America's destruction using germ warfare. New writers were brought in, and while 80% of the picture remained more or less intact (with a stray line here and there redubbed), new scenes were shot between June 1950 and May 1951, some eleven months. According to the film's star, Elliott Reid, The Man He Found was a taut and unusual little B-movie, while The Whip Hand was "totally destroyed by Howard Hughes." The original cut, The Man He Found, is presumably lost to the ages.

The Whip Hand opens in the Kremlin, with a silly/startling image: a map of the United States with seemingly random place names spelled in Cyrillic script (at least one incorrectly). From here the movie cuts to Matt Corbin (Elliott Reid), a photojournalist on a fishing trip. The premise is rather illogical. Corbin slips on a rock, resulting in a severe cut on his forehead requiring medical attention, but Corbin apparently began fishing in a stream without any idea where he was, and without first checking in at a the nearest hotel.

He manages to drive himself to "the lodge," but a hostile guard refuses to admit him. He drives some more until he reaches the small town of Winnoga, now virtually a ghost town after a strange virus killed all the trout. Tourism there evaporated and strangers moved in. Dr. Edward Keller (Edgar Barrier), aided by his pretty sister, Janet (Carla Balenda, curiously billed over Reid despite her much smaller part), nervously sees to Corbin's wound. He checks into the Winnoga Inn, where friendly and garrulous Steve Loomis (Raymond Burr) welcomes Corbin, filling him in about the town's fate.

Attracted to Janet and his curiosity aroused by the strange behavior of Winnoga's residents, alternately friendly and guarded when not outright hostile, Corbin decides to stick around for a few days, not a good idea.

At this point in his career, Reid resembled a young Henry Fonda, and his character here has the same mixture of naïve curiosity and later determination and/or stubbornness Fonda often played in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Despite a few good roles (notably as Jane Russell's love interest in Gentleman Prefer Blondes), Reid became soon typed in comic roles, often playing bland and boorish antagonists offsetting the real star, exemplified by a funny performance in The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), the first of several roles for Disney.

Both Reid and Balenda are interesting casting choices in that they weren't well known in 1950-51 and thus more credible in this mostly incredible story, but their imaginative casting is greatly offset by the prolific use of actors typecast during the 1950s as Russian agents or Fifth Columnists, and/or Nazis before that: hammy Otto Waldis, Peter Brocco (ironically blacklisted himself soon after this), and Raymond Burr, then in his heavy-heavy, pre-Perry Mason days. (Burr's hair is unconvincingly dyed gray-white, as it would again in Rear Window.)

(Spoilers) The only interesting, semi-surprise among this cast of commies is Olive Carey, the widow of Western star Harry Carey, and who usually appeared in that genre, typically as grandmotherly homesteaders (as in John Ford's The Searchers). To see her cast as an enemy agent certainly raises an eyebrow or two.

The movie runs its course generating mild interest through it becomes increasingly preposterous, finally going overboard toward the end. It also asks its audience to accept Corbin's character shift from total rube to man-of-action hero inside its 82-minute running time. In early scenes, he's constantly spotting suspicious activity that the American Communists dismiss as something else, resulting in lines by Corbin like, "Well, that's funny. I would have sworn . . ." Later, once Corbin has pretty much figured out that Winnoga has been taken over by commies, he foolishly spills the beans to bad guys on their turf, even accusing them of murder, as if they were going to let him go undisturbed.

William Cameron Menzies was one of the greatest production designers in cinema history. Occasionally he directed films he designed as well, notably the British-made Things to Come (1936). The Whip Hand, unlike most of the other films he directed, isn't particularly striking design-wise, and it's possible he had nothing to do with some of the sets (like the chemical weapons laboratory) since at least some of the reshot scenes were supervised by other hands. Certainly nothing in The Whip Hand is as striking as the two features he directed after, both low budget but visually striking: Invaders from Mars and The Maze (both 1953, the former in color and the latter in 3-D).

Video & Audio

In its original 1.37:1 standard format, the black-and-white The Whip Hand looks okay. As with many other RKO titles, it appears that the original camera negative no longer survives and the film elements used in the video master here seem derived from inconsistent, secondary sources. Still, I'm glad this Warner Archive release is available at all. The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono is adequate, and the disc is region-free. No Extra Features.

Final Thoughts

A real curiosity given its history, The Whip Hand deserves to be seen, if only as examples of Howard Hughes's reckless meddling at RKO and for its hysterical anticommunism. Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His new documentary and latest audio commentary, for the British Film Institute's Blu-ray of Rashomon, is now available.

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