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Big Jim McLain (1952) starts with a bang a bang of thunder, accompanied by bolts of lightning through the darkened sky and a howling gale that literally blows the credits off the screen. Something wicked this way comes, and with John Wayne in the starring role, it's not surprising when we learn what kind of wickedness it is: communism, which numerous pictures of the 1950s took pleasure in depicting, exposing, and condemning. Few movies did this with more monomaniacal zeal than Big Jim McLain, and few movie stars pitched into the effort with more single-minded ardor than Wayne, who kept up his personal anti-Red crusade through the Vietnam era and beyond.
Wayne once remarked that his main purpose was entertaining the public, but "if at the same time, I can strike a blow for liberty, then I'll stick one in." His associates at Wayne-Fellows Productions stuck quite a few into Big Jim McLain. As soon as the storm has blown the credits off the screen, a manly voice starts quoting from Stephen Vincent Bent's popular 1937 story "The Devil and Daniel Webster," in which the nineteenth-century statesman asks about the state of the union from beyond the grave; if he gets an answer he doesn't like, the story says, "he's liable to rear right out of the ground." With these words the camera pans to the hearing room of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, better known as HUAC, the Congressional equivalent of Daniel Webster's ghost. And now an off-screen narrator chimes in, telling us that we owe these congressmen a great debt because they have staunchly pursued "their stated belief that anyone who continued to be a communist after 1945 is guilty of high treason." This is an interesting belief for congressmen to have, since the Communist Party was a perfectly legal organization. But to patriots like Big Jim, this is a technicality. He works for the committee, and his investigations provide the evidence that's used when suspects are interrogated under oath. The most frequent question in those interrogations was extremely famous in the 1940s and '50s, especially in Hollywood, where the committee hunted subversives with particular gusto: "Are you now or have you even been a member of the Communist Party?"
A congressman is asking that very question as the story of Big Jim McLain finally gets under way. But the committee isn't having much success, since every witness chants the same refrain, invoking the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent if an answer would be self-incriminating. Jim tells us in a voiceover how angry he gets when all these obvious communists get away with high treason, such as the teacher who's just wiggled off the hook. "The good Dr. Carter would go right back to his well-paid chair as a full professor of economics at the university," says Jim, "to contaminate more kids." His fellow investigator Mal Baxter is even madder, since he holds every communist responsible for shooting at him in the Korean war.
Leaving the committee room in a huff, Jim and Mal get word of their next assignment visiting Hawaii to track down the members of a communist cell. They fly to Honolulu, take on phony names, and start poking around for signs of un-American activity. It's slow going at first, but Jim gets lucky in another way snooping on a subversive psychiatrist, he meets Nancy Vallon, a psychologist-in-training who works in the bad doctor's office, unaware that her boss is guilty of high treason. There's not a communist bone in Nancy's body, so Jim falls immediately in love, and even their quarrels have a funny, romantic flavor. Jim has his limits, though, and when Nancy starts psychoanalyzing the communist mentality, he puts his foot down. "I've heard all the jive," he thunders. "This one's a communist because mamma won't tuck him in at night, and that one because girls wouldn't welcome him with open arms. I don't know the why. The what I do know." We all know what the `what' is by now, and at the end of this speech Nancy knows too. No more psychoanalysis for her, at least when Jim's common sense is available.
As directed by Edward Ludwig from a screenplay credited to three writers, Big Jim McLain is too preachy and polemical for today, when the cold war and HUAC are long gone. Even in 1952, it's hard to imagine how audiences could have applauded when a pair of parents turn in their communist son to Jim and Mal, automatically assuming that he's better off in prison than hanging out with his pinko friends. What the movie lacks in political power, though, it makes up in unexpected twists. The most harrowing comes near the end, when a particularly contemptible commie hurls a racial slur in Big Jim's presence, and Big Jim finally gets into the fistfight he's been avoiding (and itching for) all through the picture. The most amusing is a meeting Jim and Mal have with a one-time communist who's lost whatever wits he ever had and lives in a fog of strange delusions believing he's invented a secret weapon, for instance, that will somehow end war by making everybody on earth look exactly like everybody else. It's a witty episode, thanks largely to Hans Conried's excellent acting, and it's also a fascinating precursor of Don Siegel's classic 1956 thriller Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which uses universal likeness as a metaphor for Soviet-style groupthink and capitalist conformity. Sharp-eyed viewers will spot echoes and anticipations of numerous other Red-scare movies as well, including My Son John (1952), another drama where patriotic parents send their son to the slammer, and Red Planet Mars (1952), a science-fiction oddity so obsessed with communism that it puts "Red" right into the title. Those pictures also debuted in 1952, a banner year for cold-war paranoia and Hollywood-style groupthink.
The cast does as well as can be expected with their uneven material. Wayne is laid back and likable as Jim, and the film never lets you forget how big he is people keep mentioning it, and a secondary character nicknames him Seventy-Six, which is his height in inches. Nancy Olson is nicely impish as Nancy Vallon, and James Arness, whose nickname could be Seventy-Nine, plays Mal with undertones of simmering rage at commies everywhere. Other standouts include Conried as the demented inventor, Veda Ann Borg as the female informant, and Madame Soo Yong as a reformed Marxist who's atoning for her sins by working in a leper colony where Jim visits her. Big Jim McLain occasionally takes time out for Hawaiian music, and Archie Stout's cinematography makes the region look alluring without turning it into a merely exotic postcard. His restraint is one of the picture's most quietly effective assets.
Producer: Robert Fellows
Director: Edward Ludwig
Screenplay: James Edward Grant, Richard English, Eric Taylor
Cinematographer: Archie Stout
Film Editing: Jack Murray
Art Direction: Al Ybarra
Music: Emil Newman, Arthur Lange, Paul Dunlap
With: John Wayne (Jim McLain), Nancy Olson (Nancy Vallon), James Arness (Mal Baxter), Alan Napier (Sturak), Veda Ann Borg (Madge), Hans Conried (Robert Henried), Hal Baylor (Poke), Gayne Whitman (Dr. Gelster), Gordon Jones (Olaf), Robert Keys (Edwin White), John Hubbard (Lt. Cmdr. Clint Grey), Madame Soo Yong (Mrs. Namaka), Honolulu Chief of Police Dan Liu (Dan Liu, Honolulu Chief of Police), Red McQueen (Phil Briggs)
by David Sterritt