There are many ways a film can become outdated. Our increasingly advancing world of technological wonders has made countless science fiction films archaic. Obsessions with keeping fit have resulted in reanimated individuals with rigor mortis able to run in zombie movies. Shifting political and economic winds have turned allies into enemies in stories of war. But of all the things which date a motion picture, none has the ability to alienate quite as much as employing a current trend or popular saying in a feature. Mullets may have been “in” at one fashionably challenged point in time (see: hipsters) ‒ as was the phenomenon of Pac-Man shortly before ‒ but we all chuckle at the sight of them when we see them at full force in classic movies today.
And while the reminder that everything is dust in the wind (thank you, Kerry Livgren) may give some sort of solace to “old folks” who will never understand the strange allure of generational things like Slender Man or Pokémon Go, it does unfortunately make us wonder why some movies from the past bear what appear to be bizarrely inappropriate titles. In the case of the 1951 RKO feature The Whip Hand, those of us actively roaming the face of the planet today ‒ be they in search of imaginary animated critters we have to squeeze into balls or otherwise ‒ must first figure just what the heck a whip hand is in the first place. I mean, it sounds like a taut western drama set in the wide open spaces of Wyoming or something, right?
In actuality, The Whip Hand is actually a Cold War paranoia flick about those darned Communists, whereas the antiquated term “whip hand” (which originates from horse riding, and not BDSM as I was disappointed to discover) was once synonymous with one having the upper hand in a situation. And with that bit of useless information out of the way, the situation of The Whip Hand deserves some serious exploration ‒ especially in contemporary America, where we have once again become a nation of paranoiacs who tremble at the sight of our own neighbor’s shadows. But since there are no school shootings, moments of police brutality, or drone strikes here, receiving The Whip Hand suddenly sounds like a much better arrangement.
Here, former Orson Welles colleague Elliott Reid is Matt Corbin, a magazine writer with a whole vacation to waste on fishing (because he’s a red-blooded American, you see). Unfortunately, the little Minnesota town Matt has picked out ‒ once nationally revered for its trout ‒ has become little more than a ghost town since the war; an economical shift brought about by a weird germ that has killed all of the fish. Only a few businesses remain open now, most of which are run by recent transplants to the community, all of whom seem as friendly as can be at first. Until Matt mentions he wound up asking for help at a mysterious house by the lake after receiving taking a bad step on the slippery rocks, that is. Then everyone acts a little differently.
Of course, Matt’s journalistic qualities get the better of him, and soon he discovers the horrible truth about the town and its dangerously devoted population. Originally conceived and written as The Man He Found, the film centered around a secret postwar Nazi sect run by the still-living Führer himself (!). Uncredited, paranoid producer Howard Hughes ordered reshoots, however, turning the baddies into the free world’s current “in” crowd of villains: the Commies. An evil Nazi scientist was thrown in for good measure, played by Otto Waldis. All in all, the transformation was probably for the best, considering most filmed attempts at bringing Hitler back from the dead became the laughing stock of the motion picture industry (see: They Saved Hitler’s Brain).
Carla Balenda, best remembered as Mickey Rooney’s love interest on his short-lived Mickey Rooney Show, receives top-billing here as the innocent sister of the town’s brainwashed doctor (Edgar Barrier), who sympathizes with her handsome co-star’s plight. Rear Window heavy Raymond Burr is at his pre-Perry Mason best here as the local innkeeper, with Lurene Tuttle (Psycho) as his wife. Peter Brocco and Lewis Martin (not Martin and Lewis) are local undercover rats, while kindly old Frank Darien (in his final role) is given a nice supporting role as the only original native of the community, who may very well be our hero’s only hope to issue a message for help.
A number of other familiar faces, including oater regular Milton Kibbee, can be spotted in uncredited roles here. The most notable of them all, however, is the titular antagonist of Robot Monster himself, George Barrows, who has a minor bit part as an agent. Filmed mostly at Big Bear Lake, The Whip Hand‘s grip at the box office was anything but, and this fun Red Scare outing from iconic fantasy filmmaker William Cameron Menzies (who hit the nail more precisely a few years later with Invaders from Mars) flopped about like a germ-infested trout out of water before being doomed to a life of late night television obscurity alongside They Saved Hitler’s Brain and Robot Monster.
Of course, the difference between The Whip Hand and the aforementioned turkeys (which have gone on to become cult classics) is The Whip Hand isn’t really bad. Yes, it bombed at the box office, but I suppose that’s what you get for calling your movie The Whip Hand (also see: Fresh Horses). Thankfully, the Warner Archive Collection has enabled us to switch off our present-day irrational fears and engage in the trepidations of the past by uncovering this movie with a plot to thrill about uncovering a Reddish plot to kill. And while it is unlikely the original version of the film, The Man He Found ‒ which has an equally odd-sounding title by today’s standards ‒ will ever rise from the depths of the germed-out lake, this barebones MOD will more than suffice.
Good night and good luck.