The Whip Hand (1951)

William Cameron Menzies didn’t direct many films.

He was the man for whom the term “production design” was invented.  It wasn’t just that he designed good sets or models, but that he would create a whole visual world in which the films he worked on took place, and he worked on quite a few highly regarded films, such as the original silent version of The Thief of Bagdad.

However, the handful of movies he directed himself aren’t quite as distinguished.  He made a few interesting thriller films in the Thirties like The Spider and Chandu the Magician, while in the Fifties his television efforts also produced the classic Invaders from Mars and the goofy shaggy dog story, The Maze.  His greatest success — and the one film in which he really put his design skills to their best use — was Things To Come (1936), with its incredible visions of the future, stunning miniatures and epic scale.  True, the story is a bit silly, and it is very uncomfortable watching troopers in black leather uniforms and jackboots taking over a country by force because it won’t join their peaceful scientific new world order (and, I’ll note, in a film made only three years before World War II officially began).  But it remains one of the most remarkable Science Fiction films made with analog effects.

The Whip Hand, however, is a rather smaller film.

A magazine writer, Matt Corbin, comes to a small town on a fishing trip, only to learn that all the fish have died in their once-legendary lake.

Yet there is something even stranger going on in town: he’s met with hostility and everyone seems eager to get rid of him. But odd things keep happening and he suspects that there is something going on at the wilderness lodge a new resident just bought.

Something that needs to get reported — and soon.

Now considering that most of this film takes place deep in the woods, in a sleepy little Wisconsin town, much of the film was apparently shot in the studio or backlot.  With Menzies, a lot of his seemingly simple and straightforward sets were constructed to set up a particular shot or shots, often using forced perspective or other tricks — I think of the shell hole at the beginning of Two Arabian Knights, which exists to frame a shot looking up out of it, where gun barrels appear all around the circle, or the curious staircase in an alley later in the same film, which allows someone to eavesdrop from hiding and yet remain in the same shot.

Here the standout are the shots of the lodge from a distance: it’s perched on top of a hill and dominates the landscape, and yet our hero can still watch from a higher vantage point.

[Spoilers Ahead]

The idea of biological warfare was one of those things that show up in a few films from the Fifties and Sixties — offhand, Counterblast in 1948 and The Satan Bug (1965) come to mind.  RKO bought the original script in 1949, at a time when World War II was over and a lot of the secret German research was just coming out, and it comes as no real surprise that originally the Nazi villains of the film were just plain old Nazis.

However, Howard Hughes, who owned RKO at the time didn’t think Nazis could be villains anymore, so he ordered some major reshoots and made them former Nazis who were now working for the Soviet Union.

It seems a shame, although the final product is still quite good.

But I would still have loved to see the missing moment when Matt sees Adolf Hitler standing on a balcony.

However, for all that this is a post-War thriller which takes itself quite seriously, with a lot of solid thrills and action along the way, when Matt finally reaches his destination, he finds your basic mad scientist lab, complete with the familiar cage full of victims and the ending we’ve been expecting as soon as we see it.

Yeah, it’s Cold War serious, the Reds and their Nazi buddies plan to destroy most of the world with their research sort of stuff.

But it is still a mad scientist film.

It’s great stuff, nonetheless:  it moves nicely, there’s a fairly complex mystery, a lot of suspense once the bad guys realize Matt is a threat, and even a subdued but interesting romance.  It’s one of the better Red Scare films of the era, and comes complete with a great cast, including radio stars Edgar Barrier and Lurene Tuttle, with Raymond Burr as one of the main villains.

Hey, he played a lot of those before he became a big star with Perry Mason.

It’s a little hard to find these days.  But then a lot of interesting films are.  You can still find it on DVD if you look, and it’s even up on the Internet Archive.  It’s worth a look, particularly for those of you who love the films of the Fifties.

Just try not to see that man on the balcony.  Howard Hughes might not be happy if you do…

(My thanks to the incomparable Janne Wass for steering me towards yet another interesting film!)

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