The Whip Hand
There must be a sense of elation when a filmmaker hears his or her producer is taking such an interest in their project that the corporate wallet has been opened and oodles of money will soon be summoned forth. Not, however if that producer is Howard Hughes. Director Richard Fleischer gives a detailed account in his autobiography of the inexplicable one year shelving of Narrow Margin as well as the gargantuan budget spent on recasting and set building involved in His Kind of Woman, similar Hughes meddling dogged great films like Macao and not so great films like The Outlaw. You can detect his influence in The Whip Hand too, an otherwise excellent film let down by a somewhat soggy third act.
Matt Corbin is a reporter on a fishing vacation who injures himself in a fall and spends an unplanned night in the nearest town. It seems pleasant enough but there’s a creepy edge to it. The lake in which he’d hoped to get a catch has been polluted and empty for the last year, and the town has fallen on correspondingly hard times, with most residents having left. The rump that remain engage him with hardened smiles and cannot wait to see the back of him. This of course peaks his interest and, being a hack he thinks he will stay a few more days to write a story of ‘The Town that ran out of Fish’. Bad move, because he’s clearly stumbled on something so of course it’s downhill from there.
Director William Cameron Menzies had done a good job a few years previously with Invaders from Mars and he replicates the feeling of isolation and alienation here, not least in the scenes that see Corbin bottled up in his hotel, a smiling jailer appearing around each corner every time he makes a move to escape. He also keeps the source of the malignancy that has enveloped the town until late in the second act. So it’s a pity that a lot of online discussion, and to a lesser degree the official movie poster itself, give away who the bad guys are right from the off because watching The Whip Hand with an open mind, it’s fabulous trying to figure out just what has gone on in this increasingly Lovecraftian small town.
This is something of a forgotten film made during the dog days of RKO, and certainly seems to have been overlooked in favour of the Robert Mitchum noirs of the same period but it’s well worth a look, especially to see Raymond Burr thoroughly enjoying himself as a the town’s chief thug.
The Whip Hand – directed by William Cameron Menzies (1951)
A holidaying journalist happens upon a ghost town whose remaining residents show him a new meaning of the term ‘cold shoulder’. Intrigued he decides to stay and find out what secret they are all keeping.