18 Days of Paranoia #17: Walk East On Beacon! (dir by Alfred L. Werker)


From 1952 comes Walk East On Beacon, a mix of spy thriller and film noir that highlights the efforts of the FBI to expose and take down a communist sleeper cell working right in the United States of America!  (Cue the dramatic music.)

One need only check out the opening credits to see what type of film Walk East On Beacon is going to be.  We’re told early on that the film was “suggested” by a Reader’s Digest article that was written by none other than the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. The title of that article was “The Crime of the Century: The Case of A-Bomb Spies” and it dealt with the FBI investigation that led to the arrest, conviction, and controversial execution of two Russian spies, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.  I haven’t read the article but judging by the fact that it was written by Hoover and published in Reader’s Digest, I think it’s fairly safe to guess that it wasn’t particularly concerned with things like protecting the First Amendment, civil rights, or the freedom to hold any ideological belief regardless of how unpopular it may be with the general public.  (Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t also point out that most historians now agree that, despite what many on the Left claimed over the decades, the Rosenbergs were indeed guilty of being spies and they played a very central role in the Russians discovering the secret to making atomic bombs.)

In the film, George Murphy plays an FBI agent named Jim Belden.  According to J. Hoberman’s book, An Army of Phantoms, the FBI specifically requested that Murphy be cast in the lead role because Murphy was an outspoken anti-communist.  (Murphy would also later be elected to the U.S. Senate.)  Project Falcon, a super-secret U.S. program, has been infiltrated by spies and Belden has been assigned to track down and capture their ringleader.  He does this by using a number of techniques that were probably considered pretty high tech back in 1952, stuff like hidden cameras and secret microphones.  He even brings in a group of lip readers to watch silent footage of two possible spies speaking so that they can tell him what the spies are talking about.  You don’t have to worry about a thing with Jim Belden on the case!

As for the members of the spy ring, they’re a mixed bunch.  Some of them are just bad people who have betrayed their country just because it’s the evil thing to do.  Others are people who idealistically joined the Communist Party years ago because they wanted to help their fellow man and, instead, they’ve now found themselves forced to spy against their country.  Prof. Albert Kafer (Finlay Currie) doesn’t want to betray America but he’s been told that his son will be executed if he doesn’t cooperate.  Kafer goes to the FBI.

As you can probably guess, this is not a particularly subtle film.  The communists are all evil and the FBI is doing its best to protect the loyal citizens of America and, if you’re going to question the legality or the ethics of their methods …. well, why don’t you just move to Russia and tell Stalin about it, okay!?  Interestingly enough, the film is shot like a film noir, with an emphasis on shadows and dark streets and desperate men trying to escape their fate.  But it has none of the moral ambiguity that one usually expects to find in a film noir.  Instead, it presents a thoroughly black-and-white view of the world.  All of the communists are either neurotic or cruelly evil while the FBI is professional, bland, and rather humorless.  There’s really only one moment — where a blackmailed spy admits to his wife that he’s been trapped into betraying his country — where the film seems to come to life.  Otherwise, this is a rather dry film, one that even comes with officious voice over narration.

While the film may not work as a thriller, it is somewhat fascinating as a historical document.  The film was shot on location in Boston and, while I realize this may just be the history nerd in me talking, it’s still somewhat interesting to see what an major American city looked like in 1952.  (It looks remarkably clean.)  As well, the film really delves into the minutia of stuff that today seems mundane but which probably took audiences by surprise in 1952, stuff like wiretapping, drop points, and how even a condolence card could be used to send a secret message.  If nothing else, the film’s portrait of a world where anyone — from a cab driver to an atomic scientist — could be a spy certainly provides a interesting snapshot of 1950s paranoia.

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 
  10. The Quiller Memorandum
  11. Betrayed
  12. Best Seller
  13. They Call Me Mister Tibbs
  14. The Organization
  15. Marie: A True Story
  16. Lost Girls