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Tag Archives: Communism

The Red Menace (June 9, 1949)

The Red Menace
The Red Menace (1949)
Directed by R.G. Springsteen
Republic Pictures

The Red Menace was one of the first American postwar scaremongering films to explicitly name Communism as a threat. The structure and plotting of the film are similar to both Violence (1947) and Open Secret (1948), but those films dealt with cells of American fascists who used postwar housing and employment crises for their own anti-Semitic and xenophobic ends.

The Red Menace makes no bones about naming the most pervasive threat to America — it’s Communism, brother, and it’s everywhere.

When The Red Menace premiered, Herbert J. Yates, the president of Republic Pictures, released a brochure that explained his motivation for producing the film, and ended with the following cri de guerre:

Even though the picture was made behind closed doors, and there has been no public showing to date, Republic Studios and the Writer Have Already Been Attacked by the Daily People’s World, a Communist Paper Published in San Francisco, and the Daily Worker, A Communist Paper Published in New York.

The attack is more than an open threat. It is an effort to intimidate Republic Pictures and to stifle its right of freedom of speech. We accept the challenge of The Communist Party and its Fellow Travelers, and we declare that the Republic organization will do everything in its power, regardless of expense or tribulations, to make certain that “The Red Menace” Is Shown in Every City, Town and Village in The United States of America and Other Countries Not Under Communist Control.

I assume Yates liberally used initial caps for Extra Emphasis.

RedMenaceBluray

The Red Menace was directed by Republic Pictures mainstay R.G. Springsteen, who had mostly directed westerns for Republic, including several Red Ryder films. (Don’t let his name fool you, kids. Red Ryder was no Commie.)

I really enjoyed some of Springsteen’s westerns, so I was hoping for more from The Red Menace. The main problem with the film is that it’s not ludicrous enough to be truly entertaining, but it’s not realistic or incisive enough to be a great movie.

The opening is shadowy and atmospheric. A young couple are fleeing a pervasive and terrifying menace. They’re driving at night from Los Angeles through Arizona. Could the gas station attendant be part of the conspiracy? They can’t trust anyone.

Most of the rest of the film is told in flashback. Returning serviceman Bill Jones (Robert Rockwell, who would go on to play Mr. Boynton when Our Miss Brooks moved from radio to television) is fleeced of his savings by an unscrupulous real estate developer, and he’s not the only G.I. facing a housing crisis. His disillusionment is seized on by the local chapter of the Communist party, who play on his anger toward the system. He’s further lured in by the beautiful Nina Petrovka (played by German actress Hannelore Axman, who’s credited as “Hanne Axman”) and good-time girl Mollie O’Flaherty (Barbra Fuller). In The Red Menace, sex is the gateway drug to the philosophy of Marx and Engels.

The script is talky, and to its credit much of the back-and-forth debates are interesting. It’s also nice that the film acknowledges American discrimination against Jewish people and African-Americans, and there are two black men in the film who are not stereotypes (Duke Williams and Napoleon Simpson).

The film also correctly points out that Soviet bloc countries were far from paradises for writers, poets, and artists, who were forced to toe the party line or suffer the consequences. The film’s most tragic character is Henry Solomon (Shepard Menken), a Jewish poet who resigns from the Communist party when the party newspaper he works for tries to force him to retract true statements he has made about the evolution of Communist philosophy.

Not every character is three-dimensional, however. The Red Menace features accomplished radio actress Betty Lou Gerson (who would go on to voice Cruella De Vil in the Disney movie 101 Dalmations) as a Communist party leader whose final histrionics are so over-the-top that they are positively hilarious.

Axman

I think it’s easy to look back on the excesses of McCarthyism during 1950s America and see only madness. But let’s keep in mind that Soviet Russia was a totalitarian state in which dissent was met with imprisonment or execution. Millions died under Stalin’s reign of terror. Whatever Communism promised in theory, it miserably failed to deliver in practice.

But the United States was hardly a paradise for dissenters itself. The Red Menace ends with a kindly cowboy sheriff assuring our fleeing protagonists that the difference between the United States and the Soviet Union is that while in Russia there are no second chances, here in the U.S. we give people just as many second chances as they’re entitled to. But this isn’t even what the film itself has depicted, as the poet Henry Solomon was fired from one job after another and driven to suicide after his former Communist affiliations were revealed.

There is a world of difference between Socialism and Communism, but most Americans (including elected officials) could never see that. People who embraced Socialism in the 1930s because they perceived unfairness in the relationship between labor and management were driven out of their jobs and blacklisted in the 1950s because they refused to “name names.”

Despite some nuances here and there, films like this toed their own party lines. While it’s tempting to see a film like The Red Menace as a historical curiosity, fear and hatred are still the driving force behind much of our politics, and we forget that at our own peril.

The Iron Curtain (May 12, 1948)

The Iron Curtain
The Iron Curtain (1948)
Directed by William A. Wellman
20th Century-Fox

William A. Wellman’s The Iron Curtain was the first appearance of Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney together in a film since Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944). This really has no bearing on The Iron Curtain, but I love the movie Laura and Andrews and Tierney are one of my favorite screen couples, so it was fun to see them play completely different roles.

The Iron Curtain is the fictionalized tale of Igor Gouzenko, a Soviet code clerk who was stationed at the U.S.S.R. Embassy in Ottawa and discovered that American military secrets and other products of Soviet espionage were being transmitted through his office.

There is the obligatory text preceding the film that tells the viewer that all the documents presented appear exactly as they did in actual court records, as authenticated by the R.C.M.P.

This is a standard opening for a docudrama, which in the late ’40s was sort of a subgenre of film noir, with dramatic lighting, expressionistic camera angles, and subjective storytelling applied to true stories of espionage or miscarried justice, like The House on 92nd Street (1945), 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), Boomerang (1947), and Call Northside 777 (1948). These films used actual locations, documents, and occasionally even the actual participants in historical events to add sizzle to their “ripped from the headlines” plots.

When Gouzenko first arrives in Canada he’s the perfect apparatchik, devoted to Marxism and to the Communist Party. When one of his fellow Soviet embassy workers, Nina Karanova (June Havoc), shows him her spacious, well-decorated apartment, he berates her for her laxity and for being seduced by the trappings of Western decadence. But a chain of events conspires to force Gouzenko to experience some character development. His wife, Anna Gouzenko (Gene Tierney), joins him in Ottawa, and together they experience the friendliness and good hearts of their North American neighbors, and realize that they might have more in common with their “enemies” than they thought. At work, Gouzenko is haunted by the drunken recollections of Maj. Semyon Kulin (Eduard Franz), who murdered some of his own men to force others to “volunteer” for a mission during the war.

When Gouzenko discovers that he is passing classified information from the embassy back to Moscow — American nuclear secrets, the details of a supposedly secret meeting in Canada between FDR and Churchill, details of sleeper agents — he experiences a crisis of conscience, and has to decide if he should turn documents over to the Canadian Minister of Justice and put his life and the lives of his wife and child in danger.

The Iron Curtain is a slick, well-made thriller that doesn’t generate suspense through over-the-top elements like chases or shootouts, but rather through grounded, real-life elements like the threat of the NKVD, the Soviet Secret Police.

When the story of Igor Gouzenko was originally covered by the media in February 1946, it was the beginning of public awareness of the Cold War. The revelation that our former allies were running a spy ring in North America had a profound impact that would last for decades. The Iron Curtain is the earliest film I’ve seen to tackle the looming Soviet menace, and it’s more tasteful and factually accurate than some of the outré Red Scare flicks the ’50s would give us.