Thursday, January 28, 2016

Whip appeal

This month's TCM Spotlight on production designer William Cameron Menzies concludes tonight, with the night's lineup including a strange little movie that he directed as well as doing the production design on: The Whip Hand, at 11:30 PM.

Elliott Reid plays Matt Corbin, a journalist who is on vacation in some small town in the northern part of Wisconsin, which you might think is an odd place to go for a vacation, until you realize that some people want to do things like fish and go in the great outdoors for their vacation. This particular town is supposedly one of the best around for fishing. Except there's one small problem: the fish aren't biting. Well, that's the immediate problem. The real problem is that all of those fish have died, as Matt learns when he goes to the local hotel, managed by Steve Loomis (Raymond Burr). Now, if you're watching a movie of this vintage, you should know that the casting of Raymond Burr means Something Is Wrong. Loomis helpfully informs Corbin that all of the fish have died, and that the town seems to be dying along with the fish. So if Corbin wants to go fishing, he'd be better off spending his vacation somewhere else.

But Corbin is a journalist. When he finds that something has killed all the fish in town, his first instinct is to investigate! As we've seen with the recent story of the government screwing up the water supply in Flint, MI, when a man-made disaster hits a town like this, it's a big human interest story. So, naturally, Matt starts poking around. Big mistake. A lot of people are just giving him a wide berth, or else politely but evasively suggesting that he get out of town. The only one who isn't is the doctor's kid sister (Carla Balenda). Worse, when Matt gets close to the big estate out in the middle of the forest, he raises the ire of its security system, something which threatens to get him killed.

And that's just for starters. Matt tries to telegraph his boss, but the lines suddenly go down. And the one other person who seems to be enough of an old-timer, and uncomfortable enough about what's happened to the town to tell Matt what's really going on, suddenly dies just before he gets the chance to tell Matt. So what is going on out that house out in the forest? Well, I'm not going to give it all away, but the next paragraph does include a spoiler, so beware.

The Whip Hand is decidedly B material, made interesting thanks to a decision from RKO boss Howard Hughes. The movie was originally conceived in the late 1940s with the Nazis being the evil people in the house out in the forest. But then anti-communism became a thing, and Howard Hughes suddenly decided that the baddies shouldn't be Nazis, but Communists. This was after principal shooting had been done, forcing a fair bit of reshooting. There's also an opening sequence tacked on that gives the game away that the bad guys are communists, but not what it is they're doing.

I've stated several times before that if you want to look at whether an anti-communist movie really is as bad as the anti-anti-communists might have you believe, a good way to analyze this is to make the bad guys either Nazis or the mob depending on which one fits the plot better. The Whip Hand, then, offers us an intriguing opportunity to test that hypothesis. I tend to think that the movie wouldn't be that much better if the bad guys were Nazis. It might be a little more coherent in that they wouldn't have had to do any reshooting, but if the movie had been conceived with the Communists being the villains, it would have been just about as good: a B movie that's bizarrely entertaining at times, but overall just a B movie.

I don't think The Whip Hand has received a DVD release, so you're going to have to catch the TCM showing.

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