Tuesday, October 08, 2019


Nothing satisfies like a hard-boiled Cold War-era espionage/crime film, and when it’s directed by Alfred Werker of HE WALKS BY NIGHT fame and it’s based on a magazine article by J. Edgar Hoover himself AND it’s shot on location in Boston, you know you are in for a quality time, a grim, atmospheric film chock full of document drops, code names, communist “sleepers” blackmailed into continued service, random-looking meetings on park benches during crowded periods, local shops used as fronts for the Party, relatives held hostage by the East Germans, lip-reading from clandestinely-shot 16mm films, etc. etc.—and all of this happening on the fascinating early 50’s black and white streets of Boston, full of small shops and local particulars now long gone, but thankfully documented in the crisp monochrome photography that Columbia Pictures did so well in its B-crime films. You want local Boston atmosphere? In one scene near the waterfront in Cambridge, FBI agents keeping an eye on a suspicious Polish freighter have a cover as ice-cream men in a Howard Johnson’s ice-cream truck. When they apprehend the suspect (actually, someone wearing the clothes of and looking vaguely like the person they were after, used as a decoy in a red switcheroo) a minute later, they take him down while still wearing their white ice-cream man uniforms! There was even a Fawcett comic book adaptation done of the film, which I hope to read in the near future.

The film is an extensive how-to catalogue of 1952 cold war espionage—who would have known that microfilm could be put under a sticker promoting the beauty of flowers affixed to the front of envelopes coming and going from a florist shop, or that the names of fictitious people paged at an airport could be a code for what locker the hot package is located in, or what kind of flower or plant was shipped out on which particular day of the week would provide coded information, hiding in plain sight.

The cast here does what they need to do without calling attention to themselves, since the agents and the spies both need to be discreet and anonymous. Former 30’s song and dance man George Murphy (in his last feature film), later Senator from California, is the lead FBI operative and has the worn-down professionalism and gravitas such a role needs; Scottish actor Finlay Currie is the European-American scientist working on a secret government project who is approached by the Reds to trade secrets in return for the release of his son from an East German jail (he of course reports the offer to the FBI, while pretending to play along with the party operatives) and gives an emotional, Orson Welles-style bravura performance, his Scottish burr only slipping in a few times when he’s at his most agitated and emotional; Czech actor Karel Stepanek, who spent much of his career working in the UK, is convincing as the conscience-less party enforcer. There is more than one femme fatale here, one of whom (the glamourous one) is played by Virginia Gilmore, who’d previously worked with such great directors as Jean Renoir and Fritz Lang and who was at the time married to Yul Brynner!

In one of the film’s climactic scenes, a party operative who manages to avoid getting picked up along with his colleagues runs to a pay phone to make a call containing a coded message about a condolence card for his nephew, and the phone booth is lit in such a way and shot from such an angle that it looks downright sinister, something from a 20’s Fritz Lang Dr. Mabuse film. Director Alfred Werker, despite the Germanic-sounding name, was born in Deadwood, South Dakota and came up through the ranks of genre films, his first film as full director (after working as an assistant director) being a 1925 Fred Thomson silent western. However, anyone who has seen THEY WALK BY NIGHT knows that the man can make the commonplace urban streets look like something full of dread and danger, and even manages that here in a more restrained form, while conforming to the flat, matter-of-fact house style at Columbia Pictures for their B-crime films, a style responsible for these films holding up so well today.

Producer Louis De Rochemont, who receives auteur billing at the film’s beginning and end, was a Bostonian himself, coming from Chelsea, and was not only responsible for the long-running MARCH OF TIME documentary newsreel shorts, but also such 40’s noir-crime classics as 13 RUE MADELEINE and THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET. He brings the clipped, staccato rhythm of the former and the brooding atmosphere of the latter to this project.

WALK EAST ON BEACON is available on one of Columbia-Sony’s Film Noir boxsets, but it’s also available on You Tube (at least it was, as of this writing) for your viewing pleasure in a fine quality print. It’s even more entertaining than reading the de-classified files from Soviet and East German intelligence agencies, identifying what Americans were compromised, how they were “worked,” and what methods were used to pass information, because here those dry facts come off the page and into hard-boiled, three-dimensional life on the screen in front of you. Another gem from the golden age of Cold War crime/spy programmers.

1 comment:

MoeLarryAndJesus said...

Found it on Youtube. This was great. The actress who played Prof. Kafer's wife was the woman in Casablanca who was trying to sell her diamonds to escape the Nazis. She also appeared in Marathon Man as a woman who had diamonds stolen from her. And the old Boston/etc. footage is cool to see. Look what they done to my town, Ma!