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Red Menace, The (Blu-ray Review)

18 Mar, 2013 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Robert Rockwell, Hannelore Axman, Barbara Fuller.

Republic Pictures wasn't the first studio to exploit the Red Scare in a flurry of follies that culminated with Warner's' Frank Lovejoy melodrama I Was a Communist for the FBI somehow getting an Oscar nomination for best feature documentary. But befitting Republic's status as a deft manufacturer of quickies — it once managed to get a big-screen tie-in called Pistol Packin' Mama into theaters while the song that inspired it was still popular — this not totally flairless 1949 cheapie was in the freshman or early sophomore class of movies that did.

Wags could have (and probably did) refer to Menace as “Mr. Bonyton Goes Commie,” given that its lead actor is Robert Rockwell, the subsequent semi-hunk target who spent all those CBS Sunday nights on TV tip-toeing around Eve Arden's romantic plotting on TV’s “Our Miss Brooks.” To a remarkable degree, Republic used to recycle the same supporting casts in movie after movie during the late ’40s and early ’50s, but this is an usual case where most of the players here (Rockwell aside) are not part of that stable of studio casting reliables that included, among others, Grant Withers, Forrest Tucker, Jim Davis, Taylor Holmes and (given her Czech background, perhaps a missed Soviet-bloc casting opportunity here) the diction-mangling Vera Ralston. This said, featured player Barbra Fuller (in real life, once the wife of cowboy deity Lash LaRue) did grace a few other Republics of her own. In Menace, Fuller plays a lapsed Catholic who uses her best barfly wiles to seduce vulnerable ex-G.I. Rockwell into supporting the Red cause after he gets all chapped over a shady real estate concern that's bilking war vets.

But more to his liking is a party member who’s in the U.S. under false papers and on the lam with Rockwell (eventually in Texas, of all places) as the flashback story begins. The actress is Hannelore Axman, who looks the exotic part and contributes to a veneer of ‘B’-movie eeriness that almost kind of works here on a comic book level if you’re in a charitable viewing mood. Some have described Menace as a cult movie, and it’s enough of an oddball to make that assertion credible. It's likely the screen’s only anti-Communist tract from a couple screenwriters who also toiled on Roy Rogers and Gene Autry Westerns; I’m also guessing that is one of the very few Republics of the era to feature a young African-American actor (Stepin Fetchit in John Ford’s The Sun Shines Bright doesn't count) in a fairly featured role. This would be Duke Williams as “Sam,” a guy always seen at a typewriter composing articles for the cell’s florid rag of a newspaper. You can't say this movie isn’t democratic: one black, one Jew and one Italian (all eventually oppressed or patronized by their superiors) figure in the action. The overweight string-puller in the cell comes off like a pushy ward heeler — which, come to think, probably isn't that far off the mark. The finale (back in Texas — but otherwise, no fair detailing) is a mind-melter even by standards of its rarefied genre.

Once again, Olive Films offers something I thought I'd never see: a Republic ‘B’ that was run to death on local television stations in scratchy 16mm prints a half-century or more ago to shape the so-called movie generation of young ’70s filmmakers and scholars who had lapped them up as kids in their living rooms. Menace’s director is R.G. Springsteen (as far as I know, no kin to you-know-who) — a Republic stalwart with maybe one standout credit to his name: 1956’s Come Next Spring, which is the last really good movie that studio released. An Ann Sheridan-Steve Cochran rural drama with no few admirers (Martin Scorsese included, it would make a good Olive candidate with its color Arkansas locations and a nice title tune by Tony Bennett.

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