BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE WHIP HAND (Warner Archives)

By • Feb 25th, 2016 •

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DVD review by Roy Frumkes

82 minutes. Always my favorite running time (REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, THE BLACK SLEEP, etc.). So I knew I was in for something.

But what I didn’t expect was that I would be watching an earlier version – a test run, you might say – of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, only this time the topical message was presented as text, not subtext. Many of the good moments and scenic structures of the Don Siegel film are here, and they’re pretty scary. (The two films would make a smart double-bill.) The only major plot point it doesn’t share with BODY SNATCHERS is the female lead changing into one of the enemy at the end, which was definitively unsettling in the sci-fi chiller.

Commies or pod-people, as these films demonstrate, our futures don’t look pretty…

An innocuous magazine writer comes to an out-of-the-way North Western forest area to fish for trout, finds none, then slips and hits his head on a rock. Seeking medical attention in a nearby town, he finds everything oddly ‘off,’ and decides to write a story about the town. His potentially lethal mistake is telling everyone at the local inn of his plans.

Raymond Burr, as one of the villains, is an absolute treat. He does this neat trick, over and over, of yokking it up with the clueless protagonist, only to switch emotions in an instant as soon as his back is turned. Alastair Sim was a master of that effect – check out THE GREEN MAN, if you can find it.

Director/Production Designer William Cameron Menzies must have had a thing for paranoid take-over plots. Consider INVADERS FROM MARS, made a year later. You never really know who your parents are, let alone having to run from those menacing aliens in their pajamas.

Hovering over the production is the specter of Howard Hughes. So right off we know two things: there was extensive re-writing, and subsequent re-shooting/editing. As originally filmed, the villains were Nazis, and Adolf even made a cameo. Hughes decided that Nazis were passé, and that commies were where it was at. All involved on a creative level despised Hughes’ switcheroo, but today the film is the more outrageous for it. Its aura of cultural hysteria is palpable, and it should be in all libraries as an example of how the motion picture industry gave in to government pressure, steering the public in a regrettable direction by tacitly supporting the black-list in its big screen fear-mongering efforts.

Can all the re-structuring by a different writer and director eliminate the case for this being a true auteurist work? Probably. Some of Menzies’ design sense is in evidence. The cost-cutting cleverness for which he was equally proud at this stage in his career – less so. The film gets only slight coverage in the recent book on his influential career – ‘William Cameron Menzies – The Shape of Films to Come,’ by James Curtis. Most of those still alive, who are interviewed, rail about Hughes’ skewed judgment. For what he did at the time, I would agree. But today, looking back at it as a juicy example of Communist-witch-hunting propaganda, it’s really quite grotesque and wonderful.

And what about that title? I’ve seen it twice already, and I still have no idea what THE WHIP HAND means. The original title, before Hughes got a hold of it, was THE MAN HE FOUND. Still not a great choice.

(Spoiler: By the way, the copy on the front cover gives away the third act revelation. Better if you don’t read it before seeing the film, if possible…)

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