The 1949 film, The Red Menace, starts in the same manner as many film noirs.
It’s night. It’s dark. A car speeds through the desert. Inside the car are Bill Jones (Robert Rockwell) and Nina Petrovka (Hannelore Axman). When they stop at a gas station, the owner asks too many questions and gets a phone call. Bill and Nina get paranoid and speed off. What are they running from? we wonder.
We’re not the only ones wondering. Soon a narrator starts to speak. “What are they running from?” the narrator asks. The narration is supplied by Lloyd G. Davies, who was apparently a members of the Los Angeles city council at the time this film was made.
It’s flashback time! We discover that Bill is an ex-GI, recently returned from World War II. Haunted by the death and destruction that he saw in Europe, Bill is now questioning everything that he once believed about America. One day, a man overhears Bill yelling at a bureaucrat at the VA. The man approaches Bill and tells him that he can help. The man leads Bill to a hidden bar and introduces Bill to the sultry Mollie O’Flaherty (Barbara Fuller). Mollie invites Bill back to her apartment.
Are we in Double Indemnity territory? Is she going to convince him to murder her husband?
Are we heading down the same path that doomed Lawrence Tierney in The Hoodlum? Is Mollie going to trick Bill into serving as the fall guy for a bank robbery?
Or …. is she going to show him a book? In fact, not just one book but …. SEVERAL BOOKS!
Bill is actually quite shocked to discover that Mollie not only has a large collection of books but that she’s actually read some of them. He’s even more shocked when he discovers that most of them are books about communism! Mollie admits that yes, she is a communist. She goes on to explain that communism isn’t what Bill has been led to believe it to be. She argues that the communists just want the best for the workers and that the communists were the first group to fight for civil rights. Bill says that he doesn’t care about causes anymore but he soon starts to hang out with Mollie and the members of the local communist cell.
While Mollie may have been the one assigned to bring Bill into the cell, it’s Nina who is instructed to teach Bill about Marx. (Of course, she can’t just educate him at a school. Instead, she has to do stuff like speak to him while they’re going in circles on a ferris wheel.) At first, Bill is a happy communist, helping to organize labor protests and attending all of the right meetings. However it doesn’t take long before both Bill and Nina start to realize that not everything is perfect in the aspiring worker’s paradise. For one thing, the heads of the cell look, act, and speak more like gangsters than revolutionaries. Disagreeing with the party line can lead to everything from a beating to a murder to a denouncement in the local communist newspaper, The Toiler. Even the party’s commitment to civil rights turns out to be a lie as the party leaders curse the only black member of the cell behind his back.
When Mollie’s lover, the poet Henry Solomon (Shepard Menken), makes the mistake of writing a poem that suggests that Marx was inspired by Hegel, he’s told that the official party position is that no one inspired Marx but Marx. Henry is told to either denounce his poem or be cast out of the movement. After Henry tells off the leaders of the cell, he is denounced in The Toiler. Henry finds himself cast out by all of his friends, sentenced to wander the dark streets of Los Angeles alone. Even though Henry made a point of tearing up his communist membership card, it turns out that the party has several copies of every card. Whenever Henry gets a new job, his employer is mailed a copy of Henry’s card and Henry finds himself unemployed again. As for Mollie, she’s visited by not only her mother but also by her priest, all of whom tell her that the communists are no good. Can a trip back to church save Mollie’s soul?
Meanwhile, Bill and Nina find themselves being targeted by one of the leaders of the cell, Yvonne Kraus (Betty Lou Gerson). Yvonne is so evil that, when she’s confronted by U.S. immigration officers, she immediately launches into a bizarre and rather incoherent monologue. Drums start to play in the background as she speaks, letting us know that she’s totally sold her soul to the communists. It’s suggested that Yvonne wants Bill to herself but Bill has fallen in love with Nina and Nina with him. This is despite the fact that no one in the cell is allowed to all in love without prior permission.
Definitely a film of its time, The Red Menace takes all of the usual gangster film clichés and uses them to tell a story not about the Mafia but instead about the Marxists. Instead of greed, the film’s femme fatales are motivated by Das Kapital. Speaking of which, the film features a bit more ideology than you might expect. Mollie, Nina, and Solomon are all given scenes where they explain the philosophy behind communism and in which they explain why an otherwise decent American might turn against their own government. The film suggests that Yvonne and her cohorts are evil not so much because they believe in communism but because they’re hypocrites who don’t practice what they preach.
Which is not to say that The Red Menace is a particularly nuanced film. Especially when Gerson’s delivering her dialogue, The Red Menace is a frequently over-the-top melodrama. This is a movie in which Bill and Nina are fortunate enough to meet a folksy and patriotic sheriff named Sam. “We just call him Uncle Sam!” a nearby child cheerfully exclaims.
The Red Menace is a film that’s occasionally silly and occasionally effective. It can make for a disjointed viewing experience, as harrowing scenes of Henry being shunned by former comrades are followed up by scenes of folksy old Uncle Sam talkin’ about how everyone gets a second chance in ‘Merica. It’s a film that begins with a picture of an octopus with the face of Karl Marx and ends with a shot of the Statue of Liberty. The Left will hold the film up as being a campy document of American paranoia while the Right will just enjoy watching a bunch of commies get what they deserve.
And then there’s the unapologetic history nerds, like me. I enjoyed the movie. It’s a document of its time.