Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The 49th Man (Columbia, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a movie, the first in a batch of four Columbia “B”’s directed by Fred F. Sears I’d recently recorded to DVD off TCM: The 49th Man, a 1953 thriller based on the then-current issue of atom-bomb spying in which a sinister foreign power (never named, though as with a lot of movies of this period you don’t need two guesses to guess which country 1953 audiences would have assumed the threat was from!) is attempting to smuggle an atom bomb that’s been cut up and put into suitcases so it can be reassembled inside the U.S. and used as a terrorist weapon of mass destruction. The investigation kicks off when a hot-rodder speeding down a mountain road in New Mexico (a mountain road in New Mexico?) crashes and burns, and the mushroom cloud that comes up as his car explodes automatically suggests all this has something to do with nuclear weapons even though we later learn that nothing nuclear actually contributed to the explosion.

The person in charge of the inquiry is chief U.S. intelligence investigator Paul Reagan (the last name is prounounced “REE-gun,” not “RAY-gun,” by the way), played by hunky Richard Denning; he assigns agent John Williams (John Ireland) and Williams traces the bomb components and the suitcases themselves (unusual all-metal ones whose composition suggests European origin) to Marseilles, France, where Williams meets up with Pierre Neff, the man who made the unusual metal suitcases (and who’s the only person in the “French” scenes in this film who’s actually shown speaking French, though the cabaret scenes feature two numbers sung in French), and also visit a nice cabaret and hear a pretty good jazz band with an accordion-guitar-clarinet-bass lineup, at least two of whose members are American expatriates. Williams’ key interest in the cabaret is the band’s clarinetist, Buzz Olin (Richard Avonde), and two hangers-on at the club, Leo (Peter Marshall) and Margo (Suzanne Dalbert) Wayne. (One notes the coincidence that three of the characters in this film have the same last names as real-life Hollywood actors who were active in Right-wing politics.) Leo is an American expat and Margo is the Frenchwoman he married.

Williams traces a uranium shipment to a U.S. sub in Marseilles harbor, captained by Commander Jackson (Robert Foulk), and he realizes that one of the sub’s officers is in on the plot to smuggle enriched uranium into the U.S. by fastening it to the ship’s hull — and eventually Williams realizes that the man in charge of the plot is none other than Commander Jackson himself. What’s more, Jackson’s aide, Lt. Magrew (Touch Conners, who later changed his name to Mike Connors and starred in the private-eye TV series Mannix), overpowers Williams, drugs him and keeps him prisoner on the voyage back across the Atlantic. Then Magrew places a phone call to Paul Reagan and, just when we’re beginning to wonder just how far into the U.S. government the terrorist nuke plot extends and how far writers Ivan Tors (story) and Harry Essex (script) are going to indulge the radical-Right McCarthy-era fantasy that the government was honeycombed with anti-American Communists awaiting the signal from Moscow to bring the entire country down (a fantasy very much alive today in the form of talk-radio hosts and bloggers who continue to exist that Barack Obama is a sort of Muslim version of the Manchurian Candidate who’s running for President for the secret purpose of destroying America rather than actually governing it!), suddenly Tors and Essex heave their big plot twist at us with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer: the entire thing has been a U.S. military exercise, aimed at seeing if they could smuggle fake nuclear components into the U.S. to see how vigilant our security systems would be at catching a genuine attempt to sneak in a portable bomb. (This is such a transparently unbelievable story device I kept waiting for the revelation that they were all in on a genuine plot to commit nuclear terrorism and were just giving Williams a cock-and-bull story to get him to lay off.)

Only Williams explains to them that in addition to the 48 suitcases containing fake nuclear weapons components that were part of the exercise, Neff made four additional suitcases that went to genuine nuclear terrorists — and suspicion falls on Buzz Olin and the Waynes because Olin used a similar suitcase as a music case for his clarinet (the giveaway being that the box was much larger than a normal clarinet case). Things get even more bizarrely far-fetched in this movie than that, as Williams — once he’s convinced that his American colleagues are legit after all — and Reagan join forces to trace the three missing nuclear terrorists. Buzz Olin and Margo Wayne are both found murdered and they track Leo Wayne to San Francisco, where he builds and arms the bomb.

After a lot more tracking around, the agents run down Leo and arrest him, only when they find the bomb it’s already set to go off and Jackson, who in addition to being a submarine commander is apparently also a whiz at disarming nuclear devices, is unable to turn it off in time, so they fly it over the Nevada nuclear test site and drop it there, where it goes off in a series of stock shots of nuclear weapons tests familiar to anyone who’s seen a far better movie Columbia made about nuclear war 11 years later, Dr. Strangelove. (As I recognized the weapons-test footage I couldn’t help but break out singing, MST3K-style, “We’ll meet again/Don’t know where, don’t know when … ”).

As silly as some of the plot twists are, The 49th Man is actually a pretty good thriller, lacking a director with much of a sense of pace (once again one can’t help but wish that a proven master of low-budget filmmaking like Robert Florey or Edgar G. Ulmer had been picked to helm this one instead of a dull hack like Fred F. Sears) but at least avoiding the unsubtle propaganda of films like Big Jim McLain and avoiding the mistake John Wayne and his pet writer, James Edward Grant, had made of trying to squeeze in every bit of Right-wing paranoia about the Communists and their intentions to do us all in.

Instead this one, like The Atomic City (a similar but considerably better film), at least latches on to one dastardly Communist plot for Our Heroes to foil, and is the stronger for that even though, as usual with the anti-Red films of the early 1950’s, the evil is incredibly generic. Hollywood’s dastardly Reds of the 1950’s behaved exactly like their dastardly Nazis of the 1940’s, who in turn had behaved exactly like their dastardly gangsters of the 1930’s — as if American filmmakers had only one way to depict a criminal plot and resorted to it again and again and again regardless of the ideological point they were trying to make.

Still, The 49th Man is a reasonably entertaining film, not what it could have been with a stronger director and a more sensible script but one that uses the A-bomb plot merely as a MacGuffin and is more effective as propaganda precisely because it doesn’t keep hitting the audience over the head with how awful this all is — even though a line early on in the movie about how the evil enemy agents “consider it a privilege to die” couldn’t help but evoke inevitable comparisons to the similar “anti-terrorist” propaganda of today and the depiction in the Right-wing media of all Muslims as unsmiling fanatics whose bloodthirsty religion promises them all 72 virgins in heaven if they’ll take out a few thousand infidels for Allah.