Thursday, April 24, 2014

Book him, Duke-o

As part of TCM's salute to Star of the Month John Wayne, they're showing the oft-panned Big Jim McLain, tomorrow afternoon (April 25) at 3:45 PM. Although it has a critical reputation as a terrible film, it's one you ought to watch once and judge for yourself.

Unsurprisingly, it's John Wayne who plays Jim McLain, who at the start of the movie is working in Washington DC as a lawyer for the House Un-American Activities Committee. Those evil Communists are all asserting their right under the Fifth Amendment not to answer questions on the grounds that the answers may incriminate themselves, which naturally infuriates the oh-so-totally virtuous folks working for HUAC. (A Man For All Seasons hadn't been written yet, so nobody could have given them Thomas More's lines to William Roper about giving the Devil the benefit of the law.) Ah, but there are filthy Commies everywhere, such as in Hawaii where the scuttlebutt is that they're trying to take over the shipping unions, as opposed to the mob that took them over in On the Waterfront. The feds obviously had jurisdiction in Hawaii since it was still a territory at the time and not a state, so it's off to Hawaii for Jim and his colleague Mal Baxter (James Arness).

The search for the members of the communist cell quickly centers on one Mr. Nomaka, who had been the treasurer for the cell, but has since gone missing, with whispers that he's in a sanitarium or something. As part of the search, Jim plies information from secretary Nancy Vallon (Nancy Olson), who eventually shows up from time to time as a sort of love interest for Jim. The search for Nomaka eventually leads to a club run by a Mr. Sturak (Alan Napier). Nomaka isn't there, but a couple of Sturak's employees had been seen taking a trunk out of Nomaka's former apartment and then going to see Sturak! Aha, we have a solid lead!

Mal eventually finds Nomaka at the sanitarium, but he's of no real value. Sturak's the guy they really want, although there's others too. McLain deals with preternatuarlly evil communists who would be willing to murder anybody, as well as virtuous Americans who believe that truth, justice, and the American way means turning in anybody who might be a communist, even if it's your own son. There's eventually a climactic showdown at Sturak's place, and everything is more or less resolved, with several twists along the way.

I went into Big Jim McLain knowing that it had a reputation of being an incredibly bad movie, not only one of John Wayne's worst A movies, but bad regardless of who had made it. As I watched the movie, however, I got rather a diferent impression. As I said back in October, 2011 when I mentioned the movie The Woman on Pier 13 (aka I Married a Communist), I find a good way to judge the anti-communist movies of the early 1950s is to try to imagine them with the communists being either Nazis or the Mob, whichever would make more sense in the plot. In the case of Big Jim McLain, we not only have something like the aforementioned On the Waterfront to compare it too; the plot could just as easily have had Jim and Mal working for the Kefauver Committee without too much change to the plot.

In that regard, Big Jim McLain would still be a misfire of a movie. In addition to thinking about comparisons between the Communists and the Mob while watching the movie, I also found myself thinking of the later TV series Hawaii Five-O. Old episodes of the Jack Lord version have been showing up on on one of the nostalgia TV digital subchannels, with some of them being fairly good, some of them not all that good, and a general atmosphere of being workmanlike -- they had to put out a lot of content to make two dozen one-hour shows a season. Big Jim McLain feels like a more subpar episode, with the characters being almost cardboard in that it's so obvious who the bad guys are and who the good guys are, and not much development. But Big Jim McLain isn't the "Oh my God this is the worst thing ever!" type of movie that those who pan it seem to believe; I'm convinced that that attitude is down to the movie being an unabashedly anti-Communist film made during the post-WWII Red Scare.

As I said at the beginning, though, watch it and judge for yourself. If you miss tomorrow's showing, it is available on DVD and as of this writing on sale at the TCM Shop.

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