This tense little 1951 thriller by William Cameron Menzies explored the idea that Hitler would have hidden in a US fishing village. RKO owner Howard Hughes wanted the Commies to be the bad guys instead, so it was reshot with Red Scare hysterics. Still, the genius of the original shines through. 7/10.
The Whip Hand. 1951, USA. Director & Production designer: William Cameron Menzies. Written by Stanley Rubin, George Bricker, Carl Moss. Starring; Elliott Reid, Carla Balenda, Edgar Barrier, Raymond Burr, Otto Waldis, Michael Steele. Produced by Stanley Rubin & Lewis J. Rachmil. IMDb: 6/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
Journalist Matt Corbin (Elliott Reid) is on fishing trip in Minnesota, and stumbles upon a small town called Winnoga, where both the fish and most of the people have disappeared, and been replaced by mysterious new inhabitants who have all moved in about four years ago (the film was released in 1951). One of the new inhabitants is Janet Keller (Carla Balenda), sister of physician Dr. Keller (Edgar Barrier), who, along with most other people in town seem to have some strange goings-on involving a heavily guarded, remote mansion in the mountains. When the hotel manager Steve Loomis (Raymond Burr) and his steely-eyed bell boy Chick (Michael Steele) seem to be anxious for him to move on as fast as possible, and the phone lines conveniently dies when he tries to contact his editor, Corbin smells a news story, and decides to investigate further — with risk for his life. The plot thickens as he finds books on germ warfare by a former Nazi scientist (Otto Waldis) at the office of Dr. Keller. Soon Corbin finds himself in the middle of a Communist plot to annihilate all Americans by poisoning the water supplies, and with the help of Janet and the only original inhabitant left in town, grocer Luther (Frank Darien), Corbin must try and get a message to the US authorities before he is captured and subjected to horrible medical experiments.
A rather obscure, but not at all bad, red scare spy-fi thriller, The Whip Hand has a somewhat convoluted story. RKO Studios bought the screen story from Roy Hamilton in 1949 — Hamilton is perhaps best known to genre fans for writing the screenplay for Cat-Women of the Moon (1953, review). In the original script, written by Stanley Rubin, it wasn’t a Communist plot featured in the film, but rather a Nazi plot (the new inhabitants of the town moved in “four years ago”; meaning four years before 1949, meaning 1945). The original film had a final climax where Corbin and Janet are ehiding outside the mansion in a canoe — and the mysterious “Peterson” who is said to reside there is revealed — as Adolf Hitler appears on a balcony, with his face scarred from the fire in his bunker in Berlin in 1945. The original title was “The Man He Found”. Hitler was played by Bobby Watson, a vaudevillian who specialised in Hitler imitations, and can be seen in many films as the Führer. Famed production designer and director William Cameron Menzies directed the film, and according to Elliott Reid, everyone involved felt they were making a really good little B-movie with a very good script and great visuals from Menzies.
However, eccentric aviation mogul Howard Hughes, who bought RKO in1948, saw the film in November 1950, and thought that the Nazis were old hat. The war was over, and the US had a new enemy, the Reds. This was the time Hollywood was starting to produce a slew of anti-communist films, and Sen. McCarthy’s witch hunt for communist sympathisers in the movie business, and elsewhere, was rolled out. Hughes demanded the film be partially re-shot with a new Communist plot. George Bricker and Frank L. Moss were brought in to finish the new script. All Nazi references were cut, the actors were called in for re-shoots and a Otto Waldis’ character was written in as the new villain of the piece. The film now instead climaxed in a scene in Waldis’ lab where he keeps the deformed victims of his medical experiments, and he delivers a Bela Lugosi-style speech about destroying America and conquering the vorld, somewhat at odds with the sober atmosphere of the rest of the film. The film, now called The Whip Hand, was finally released in October 1951, to depressing box office results. The film wasn’t even able to make back half its cost of around 400,000 dollars, a budget that naturally ballooned due to Hughes’ insistence the film had to be reshot. Stanley Rubin was so mad over the new script that he left the project and took his name off the movie. In an interview with Tom Weaver, Rubin says that he didn’t want to add to the anti-communist hysteria rife within Hollywood. He was replaces by Lewis J. Rachmil.
Elliott Reid never seems to have forgiven Hughes for “traducing, trampling on and totally destroying” the film. Reid tells Weaver that Otto Waldis — a Austrian actor — felt terribly guilty for doing the part of the crazy Communist scientist, as he didn’t want to add to the red scare either. To be fair, the film is not half as bad as Reid makes it sound like, even if the ending is quite cringe-worthy. In fact, the rest of the movie works quite well, and it doesn’t really matter — in hindsight — if the villains are Nazis or Commies. In truth, the idea that Adolf Hitler would have been hiding in a mountain lodge in Minnesota in 1951 planning his comeback seems just as plausible as a Commie scientist setting up a secret lab to plan the poisoning of the American population. But of course, back in the day it must have been terrible for the actors to suddenly find themselves bound by contract to finish a Red Scare movie they had no intentions of appearing in originally.
Taking into account the troubled production history, it seems unfair to take pot shots at the inadequacies of the script. But like it or not, the audience sees what it sees, regardless of how the result came to be. I do like very much the first half of the film, where Matt Corbin stumbles into the little town, where everyone’s superficially friendly and jovial, but whose smiles turn to ice just as soon as Corbin is out of sight, and who all clearly are involved in some meticulously rehearsed charade, hiding som terrible secret. Menzies’ beautiful composition, angled shots and lingering camera heighten the surreal atmosphere of mystery and threat — much like in his two films from 1953: Invaders from Mars and The Maze. I’d say there’s little doubt that The Whip Hand inspired Don Siegel’s direction of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, review). But the film struggles with some unanswered questions and loose ends. For example, it’s clear that some of the new inhabitants are going along with the Communist plot reluctantly. Why they have gotten involved in the first place, and why they continue to do so is never made clear. And it is made clear that Janet Keller has been kept in the dark about everything during the four years she has lived in the town. Just what exactly has she been thinking has been going on for four years, and how on Earth she hasn’t figured out that her brother that she lives with, and all the people in the town she sees everyday, are Communists working on a secret plot, is beyond my comprehension. And the last part of the film does feel like it has been edited in from a completely different movie, which, basically, it has. Another problem is that the new producer has tacked on a prologue from a Russian command centre, where a Soviet general explains the whole plot, thus robbing the film of all its mystery. A terrible decision, as script was originally written as to keep the viewer guessing at the mystery along with Corbin. Now it becomes one of those films in which we sit around waiting for the characters to catch up.
Despite its box office disappointment, The Whip Hand got a few very good reviews in the contemporary press. Daily Variety called it “a near masterpiece of suspense” and “perhaps the best modestly produced melodrama of the season”. Newsweek said it was “a fast-moving, often scarifying film … true nightmare material”. Not all were impressed, though. Hollywood Reporter noted that it “quickly falls into a pattern of clichés” and Monthly Film Bulletin called it “boringly and rather pretentiously made”.
Today, the The Whip Hand’s reputation is mixed, and it is quite obscure, not being available for streaming on any service and only available on DVD and Blu-ray at specialist webshops. It has a 6.0/10 rating on IMDb, but no Rotten Tomatoes consensus. TV Guide gives it 2/5 stars, writing: “only a workmanlike effort by Menzies made this a decent picture despite the decrepit material”. AllMovie has no review, but a 1.5/5 rating. On the other hand, Time Out likes it, giving it a B+ or 7/10 rating: “The delicious, delirious whirlwind of a plot affords sufficient uniquely ’50s black’n’white fun to make recognition of the auteurist hand of William Cameron Menzies a decided bonus. Here Hollywood’s most versatile art director/production designer manages a Hitchcockian playfulness with back-projection and wooden actors, even with the budget tying one hand behind his back.”
In the blogosphere, The Whip Hand’s modern critics tend toward the mixed-to-positive, although Derek Winnert does not like it, giving it a 1/5 star rating and calling it a “silly, unconvincing, muddle bore with a tacky, rather violent finale”. However, there’s a slew of critics giving it 3/5 stars. Andy Webb at The Movie Scene thinks it is “not the most enthralling of movies”, and that it is “a time filler, an okay movie if you are fond of old movies but lacking anything special to make it memorable and demanding of a second viewing”. Kevin Lyons at EOFFTV writes: “The Whip Hand is rather better than most of its ilk thanks to brisk, stylish direction from William Cameron Menzies and a decent turn as one of the villains by an unkempt Raymond Burr. It’s less hysterical than some of the later entries in the the cycle and at least one scene, wherein we get to see the first victims of the work of mad bacteriologist Dr Wilhelm Bucholtz, Communist “volunteers” infected with disfiguring bacteria he plans to use to attack America’s water supplies, is as good as anything Menzies ever shot.”
Allen Eyles at The Radio Times likes the movie well, also giving it 3/5 stars, writing: “This taut thriller may lack star names, but it is masterfully directed and designed by William Cameron Menzies. […] It is a testament to the skill of Menzies that the film still works despite the disruption of extensive reshooting.” Richard Scheib at Moria notes that The Whip Hand is basically the archetype the fifties Red Scare movies that deal with the paranoia and neighbour surveillance linked to an imagined Communist infiltration, calling it “an important and interesting entry in the genre”; “William Cameron Menzies directs with the customary sense of style he brought to all his works. He is strongly reliant upon film noir stylistic effects – the generation of a world of shadowy paranoia and perpetual suspicion and distrust. The frame is always filled with threatening ambiguity, of sinister foregrounded faces meaningfully staring at one another.” James Travers at French Films goes one further, giving The Whip Hand 4/5 stars. Travers calls it “a tense B-movie thriller with a totally chilling premise, which perfectly encapsulates prevailing fears (soon to become paranoia) over the threat posed by Communist Russia”.
Despite its flaws, I like this film. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve been watching so many bad movies lately, but as soon as I see Menzies’ beautiful photography, I let out a sigh of relief. And in the first scene where Elliott Reid has lines, I want to do cart-wheels realising that there’s an actual actor playing the lead. When the film was made and released, some considered Reid miscast. Reid didn’t match the typical male hero mold of the early fifties. This was an era in which heros were supposed to be broad-shouldered and square-jawed gruffs who let their fists do the talking. The slender Reid was a soft-spoken and jovial man, looking more like a librarian than a brawler. In fact, he was primarily a comedian. Today, when we are used to seeing “softer”, more intelligent heroes on screen, we perhaps don’t think too much about the fact that the hero of this movie actually looks like a journalist, rather than a beefy actor playing a journalist. But back then, even Stanley Rubin, who cast him in the role, thought he was wrong. Reid says to Weaver that he read for he role while happening to be in Los Angeles, in front of Rubin, and Rubin had liked him very well, although he did not know Reid. According to Reid, Rubin wanted a second opinion on his acting, and Reid pointed him to actor John Houseman, who was working for RKO at the time, and who knew Reid from their days at Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre. According to Reid, it was Houseman who ultimately got him the role. Rubin said in another interview with Weaver that he was sort of “fooled” by Reid giving such a great reading — “because that’s what radio actors do: they give great readings”. Whatever the case, Reid is one of the best things about The Whip Hand.
Elliott Reid knew he wanted to become an actor ever since starring as Scrooge in his first school play. As a kid he started appearing on the radio, and by 16 he had a regular job on the show The March of Time, with another young actor called Orson Welles. By 17 he did his first stage play, Julius Caesar, with The Mercury Theatre (which people tend to forget was a stage company as well as a radio play troupe). And with that, he was a part of one of the most famous theatre companies in the world, along with actors like Welles, John Houseman, Vincent Price, Joseph Cotten, Norman Lloyd, Agnes Moorehead and William Alland, who later became one of the great horror and SF producers of the fifties.
Still living in New York, Reid happened to be in Los Angeles in 1949, when he auditioned for The Whip Hand. While not his typical role, Reid tells Weaver he had no reservations, he was 30 and used to taking on any role that was presented to him; “it was only when we were actually filming that some of it made me feel a bit uncomfortable […] but it was only once or twice on that picture. Stanley told me that it wasn’t ’til he was putting together the picture that he realized that I wasn’t really ‘tough’. And that’s right — I’m not a ‘tough guy’, I’m a comedian, really, and a character actor. A ‘Robert Mitchum toughness’, I think, was a quality that Stanley would have liked, but that’s not my persona I don’t have that quality. I think I’m OK in this, and people who see me in the picture don’t say ‘Why in hell is that man playing that part?’ — at least I don’t think so!”
Reid’s movie career didn’t quite take off in the fifties, although he did have a second lead opposite Charles Coburn and Marilyn Monroe in Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1953, but he was rather seen on stage and heard on the radio, and became a staple as a guest star on TV shows. What he will always be remembered for, though, are his outings as the obnoxious Prof. Shelby Ashton in Disney’s classic nutty professor movies The Absent Minded Professor (1961) and Son of Flubber (1963). According to Reid, it was a lucky shot he got the part in the first place. He was performing in a “terrible” show in New York, when he got the call from his agent, who said Disney were interested in him for The Absent Minded Professor. As it happened, the show luckily got cancelled the weekend before he was supposed to be in Los Angeles on a Tuesday. Of course, The Absent Minded Professor became a great hit, and Flubber after that, and that sort of re-started Reid’s movie career, with among other things, two featured roles with Doris Day in 1963; The Thrill of It All and Movie Over, Darling. While never a big marquee name, and sometimes hidden in bit-parts, Reid continued acting in films and TV on the side of his stage career. He can be seen in TV series like The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy, The Munsters and The Wild Wild West, as well as movies like Inherit the Wind (1960) and Young Einstein (1988).
Stanley Rubin, the writer/producer of “The Man He Found” (although not really The Whip Hand), was a new face at RKO, and “The Man He Found” was his first job at the studio as writer/producer. As he tells it to Tom Weaver, he bluntly refused to reshoot the picture the way Howard Hughes wanted to do it: “This was about 1951 and there was a lot of anti-Communist hysteria going around the country and particularly in Hollywood at that time. The anti-Communist hysterics in Hollywood, as led by John Wayne, Ward Bond, Hedda Hopper, etc., were extreme. I didn’t want to add to that hysteria. I had bought an anti-Nazi story and that’s what I wanted to make. When I was asked to change this into an anti-Communist story, I didn’t want to do that.”
On Elliott Reid, Rubin says, that while not necessarily the “right” actor for the part, “he’s still a nice guy, and I’m not unhappy that I cast him. However — in looking back on the picture, I didn’t think it was the smartes casting I’d ever done. He did lack a certain “toughness”, a toughness in his character, that I think would have made him more believable as the story went on. […] None of that should reflect on Elliott Reid. If Elliott Reid was in any way wrong in that picture, it was my fault, not his. […] I don’t think that miscasting was terminal.” According to Rubin the interiors of the film were shot at RKO’s studios and the exteriors at Big Bear Lake in California. Rubin went on to have a successful career as a producer of both TV and film, despite his mishap with The Whip Hand.
Lead actress Carla Balenda is first-billed in The Whip Hand, although she was not a marquee name either, even if she was somewhat better advertised by RKO, having recently starred opposite Claude Rains and Dana Andrews in the romantic maritime drama Sealed Cargo (1951). Balenda was born Sally Bliss in Carthage, New York in 1925, and is still alive in November 2020, although I can’t find any record of her activities or whereabouts after her retirement from Hollywood acting in 1966. Something of an up-and-comer in the early fifties, she hit her career highlight playing Mickey Rooney’s girlfriend in The Mickey Rooney Show (1954-1955) and had the female lead in the short-lived TV series The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu (1954). She also had a small recurring role on Lassie between 1958 and 1963. Otherwise she seems to have done around one guest spot on TV each year. She changed her stage name to Carla Balenda in 1950, apparently because, “Sally Bliss was just too cute. And I’m not cute at all. That name would type me, probably in ingenue roles — and I’m not the type.” This from a trade news clipping from 1950. However, Hollywood Sights and Sounds reports that it was Howard Hughes that told Bliss to change her name, suggesting it sounded like “a blonde girl in pigtails”. The publication writs that it was Bliss who chose the name “Carla” and Hughes who came up with “Balenda”, for some reason because it sounded like “Belinda”. Bliss must not have liked it very much, as she changed back to her real name in 1957. Her last role was as an uncredited nurse in the splendid John Frankenheimer SF Seconds (1966).
Edgar Barrier is another one of the pleasures of The Whip Hand, playing Dr. Keller. Barrier was another Mercury Theatre actor, and best at home in villainous roles in period pieces. He was The Voice of Terror opposite Basil Rathbone in the Sherlock Holmes film with the same name in 1942, and in 1943 he played police officer Raoul Daubert in the Claude Rains version of The Phantom of the Opera. He appeared in Orson Welles’ Journey Into Fear (1943) and excelled as Banquo in Welles’ 1948 adaptation of Macbeth. And in 1950 he was Cardinal Richelieu in the José Ferrer vehicle Cyrano de Bergerac. His film career took a bit of a down-turn in the fifties and he moved into TV, but he did have time for the occasional movie bit-part, for example as a scientist in The War of the Worlds (1953, review) and a larger supporting role as Dr. Noymann in The Giant Claw (1957). In radio he was known as of the actors to play The Saint (1945), and is memorable on TV for a number of guest spots as Don Corelio Esperon in Disney’s Zorro (1959). Barrier passed away in 1964.
Raymon Burr is absolutely wonderful as the villain Loomis in The Whip Hand, switching in the blink of an eye from burly, jovial inn-keep to ice-cold murderer. Burr’s life and career are too rich to fit into a short description, but suffice to say that this extraordinary man later had a triumphant career in television, first as the legendary criminal defense lawyer Perry Mason (1957-1966), and then as the wheelchair-bound Ironside (1967-1975). Mason brought him two Emmy wins and Ironside no less than six nominations. Both roles got him nominated for Golden Globes. Burr returned as Perry Mason in a string of TV movies between 1985 and 1993. In 1996 TV Guide ranked him as N:o 44 of the 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time.
While Burr is remembered for his impressive TV career as a lawman, he has a somewhat interesting connection to SF as well. While not SF as such, Burr’s first starring role came around the time that The Whip Hand premiered, as he played opposite Lon Chaney, Jr. in Curt Siodmak’s Bride of the Gorilla, and followed up with Gorilla at Large (1954). His lauded performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window opened up new career opportunities for him, although before TV fame, he still managed to squeeze in another low-budget performance. With the American release of Gojira in 1956, as Godzilla: King of the Monsters!, Embassy Pictures added new footage and a voice-over with Raymond Burr in order to better appeal to US audiences. While he sticks out like a sore thumb, he is not bad in the role. Funnily enough, his character’s name is Steve Martin. Little did Burr anticipate then that Steve Martin would make a comeback in 1985, in the big-budget movie Godzilla 1985, marking the 30th anniversary of the classic kaiju movie. Burr was now first-billed in this Japanese movie, even if his character was of little consequence for the plot. He also appeared in the low-budget movie The Return (1980) and Airplane II: The Sequel (1982).
While his film career suffered, partly from the fact that he was so recognisable from his TV work, Raymond Burr wasn’t exactly poor and forgotten. In a loving relationship with longtime partner Robert Benevides, Burr amassed a fortune on his TV work, started a chain of orchid retailers, started a vineyard, and bought and sold an island in Fiji. His one tragedy was perhaps that he had to remain deeply closeted for years in Hollywood, despite living with the same male partner for over 30 years. While he did have a short marriage to a woman in the early fifties, he also concocted wild lies about his past, including two dead ex-wives and a son that never existed, in order to cover up his homosexuality. Burr passed away from liver cancer in 1993.
Wedged into the story by the hand of Howard Hughes was Austrian theatrical actor, director and photographer Otto Waldis who came to the US in 1940. A renowned stage presence in Vienna, he relocated to Birmingham, Alabama, where he worked as a professional photographer, before moving to Los Angeles and starting work in movies in 1947. One can of course wonder why he took on the role as he crazy Communist villain in The Whip Hand, if he loathed it so much. But at the time, while working somewhat steadily, he was offered mainly small supporting or bit parts, and a man’s gotta eat. He had few moments to shine in his movie career, but had small parts in big movies like Max Ophüls’ Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), Henry Koster‘s The Robe (1953) and Stanley Kramer’s Judgement at Nuremberg (1961). He had a substantial part in the main cast of the hollow Earth movie Unknown World (1951, review), as one of the scientists looking for an underground world for mankind to shelter from nuclear war in. He appeared uncredited in The Night the World Exploded (1957) and had a supporting role as Prof. von Loeb in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958).
A small but delicious role as Loomis’ wife, the guardian of the village’s phone switch, is played by character actress extraordinaire Lurene Tuttle, fondly remembered as the matriarch in Life with Father (1953) opposite Leon Ames and as the crusty senior nurse on the Diahann Carroll series Julia (1968) — and naturally as the machine gun toting mobster title character of Ma Barker’s Killer Brood (1960). A prolific bit-part and supporting actress, she has over 180 credits on IMDb, and also worked extensively on stage and in radio — when she was not coaching other actors, like Red Skelton, Milton Berle and Orson Welles. Her SF track record is not long, but she did appear in small roles in The Manitou (1978) and The Clonus Horror (1979).
George Barrows can be seen as a federal agent in the finale of the movie. Barrows, of course, is known to friends of genre films, as one of the great gorilla actors, appearing in his distinctive ape suit in movies from Tarzan and His Mate (1934) to the TV series The Incredible Hulk (1978). From the thirties to the fifties he appeared uncredited as burly gangsters, bouncers and policemen, and he even had a role in Mark of the Gorilla (1950) where he didn’t play the gorilla (that was Steve Calvert). Barrows seems to have constructed his famous suit in the early fifties, as this is when he started appearing regularly in film and TV with it. It’s first outing actually came without a gorilla head, in the wonderfully bad classic Robot Monster (1953), where Barrows plays Ro-Man, the ape-like alien in a fishbowl helmet who has come to destroy the world. After this he would go ape in films such as Gorilla at Large (1954), Buruuba (1955), Black Zoo (1962), The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966) and Hillbillies in a Haunted House, as well as on numerous TV shows. He had multiple appearances on The Lucy Show, Beverly Hillbillies and The Red Skelton Show. Two of his most memorable gorilla outings were as Gorgo the Gorilla in an episode of The Addams Family and as Elliott the gorilla in The Incredible Hulk. For more on Barrows, check out the amazing blog Hollywood Gorilla Men.
The Whip Hand. 1951, USA. Director & Production designer: William Cameron Menzies. Written by Stanley Rubin, George Bricker, Carl Moss. Starring; Elliott Reid, Carla Balenda, Edgar Barrier, Raymond Burr, Otto Waldis, Michael Steele, Lurene Tuttle, Peter Brocco, Lewis Martin, Frank Darien, Olive Carey, George Barrows. Music: Paul Sawtell. Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca. Editing: Robert Golden. Sound: Clem Portman, Earl Wolcott. Produced by Stanley Rubin & Lewis J. Rachmil for RKO.