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Walk East on Beacon
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Walk East on Beacon

Although made fifty years before the events of that terrible day, it might be instructive to view maverick producer Louis De Rochemont's anti-Communist docudrama Walk East on Beacon as a 9/11 movie. Produced by Louis De Rochemont, the film was a follow-up to his 1945 production The House on 92nd Street, a quasi-documentary of Nazi spies and the US agents running them to ground. Hollywood had developed a yen for location shooting after the example of Roger Touhy, Gangster (1944). Directed by Robert Florey for Twentieth Century Fox, the film made atmospheric use of Illinois locations (including Joliet State Prison) for the backdrop of its fact-based chronicle of a Chicago bootlegger who, charged with kidnapping, led the FBI on a merry chase in the autumn of 1942. The case was an embarrassment for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which denied the film its seal of approval. (Touhy successfully sued Fox for defamation of character and his original conviction is now regarded as a frame-up.)

FBI head J. Edgar Hoover had been shopping for a filmmaker for years to tell the story of the Bureau in documentary form. He had disowned Warner Brothers' earlier 'G'-Men (1935), which told of the organization's early years as a satellite branch of the Justice Department, when federal agents were not allowed to carry firearms or to cross state lines. (Hoover later had a change of heart and a 1949 re-release bore a new prologue in which 'G'-Men is shown as an FBI training film!) With De Rochemont, Hoover felt he had found his man.

Born in Chelsea, Massachusetts in 1899, De Rochemont had built a movie camera from a plan published in Popular Science magazine and made his first newsreel by the time he was 12 years old. Shooting silent in 35mm on the streets of his hometown, De Rochemont convinced a local movie theater to show his films, attracting patrons with the promise of potentially seeing themselves on the big screen. The use of actual locations and real people was an aesthetic of which De Rochemont would never tire. A flinty New Englander with no particular taste for Tinseltown, he later set up camp among the mill towns of New Hampshire, and shot three films there or near there (among them, the controversial race drama Lost Boundaries, 1949).

From 1935 to 1951, De Rochemont directed the monthly March of Time newsreels that kept American moviegoers abreast of current events. Hired by Twentieth Century Fox, he brought movie cameras aboard the US aircraft carrier Yorktown during the Second World War to shoot The Fighting Lady (1944), which won the 1945 Academy Award® for "Best Documentary." Hoover no doubt saw in De Rochemont the perfect combination of patriotism, pluck and a penchant for factuality. Its wartime track record had emboldened the normally tight-lipped Bureau to share some of its surveillance secrets: the midget cameras and microphones, the wiretaps and forensic sciences that allowed agents to keep tabs on persons of interest and to trace physical evidence back to the guilty parties. These details and gadgets would be ported over to Walk East on Beacon. The 1952 production began with an article, "Crime of the Century," penned by J. Edgar Hoover and published by Reader's Digest in May 1951. De Rochemont paid Hoover $15,000 for the rights to the story (an account of the leaking of Manhattan Project secrets to the Soviets). With an adaptation by Look magazine writer Leo Rosten, Leonard Heideman (who had written wartime short subjects for the Department of Defense) and his wife, Virginia Shaler, De Rochemont assigned the production to Alfred L. Werker (who helmed De Rochemont's Lost Boundaries and the 1948 docu-noir He Walked by Night).

Shooting over the course of 14 weeks in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and the District of Columbia, Werker and his crew moved 70 times between the various locations. De Rochefort again indulged his preference for unfamiliar performers, apart from the central casting of George Murphy as the FBI man safeguarding Domestic Intelligence. (The New Haven-born actor and future Governor of California was known primarily as a dancer and light comedian until he played an undercover cop who dies –horrifically – in the line of duty in Anthony Mann's Border Incident in 1949.) Imported from the United Kingdom, Finlay Currie plays another of his patented dodderers, this time out a vaguely Einsteinish physicist blackmailed by Soviet agents into turning over secrets connected to the fictional "Project Falcon."

Future film director George Roy Hill appears in a small role as a government scientist unwittingly wed to a Soviet mole (Louisa Horton, his real-wife at the time). Hill would, of course, go on to greater glory as an Emmy award winning TV writer (A Night to Remember) and a director for Broadway (Look Homeward, Angel, Period of Adjustment) and Hollywood (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid [1969], The Sting [1973]). J. Edgar Hoover appears as himself. Critical notices for Walk East on Beacon were decidedly mixed, with The New York Times riding the middle road by proclaiming it "swiftly paced" but "something less than awesome." In The Nation, Manny Farber cracked wise about Finlay Currie's emigrant egghead: "Looking like a huge Edam cheese topped by a flowing Jean Harlow hair-do, the scientist fits the De Rochemont formula for heroes in that he is pure and innocent and spends his time lifting the lids from high-powered machines and reading numbers from them with a mysteriously joyous tone." Who knows what the average moviegoer thought of this piece of nationalist agitprop back in the day but now it's tempting to regard Walk East on Beacon as a bit of patriotic camp... or perhaps a cautionary tale. The internal flaws, the hubris, the disregard for constitutionality and the questionable ethics plaguing the Bureau to this day, which hindered its anticipation of and response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, are hinted at here, as is the sin of self-satisfaction.

On a purely critical level, Walk East on Beacon makes the mistake of etching its Soviet nogoodniks as far more interesting than J. Edgar Hoover's legion of Brylcreamed Eddie Attaboys. Led by the granite-faced Karel Stepanek (who looks like the love child of Conrad Veidt and Eddie Constantine), the Soviet spies exchange halves of torn photographs and trade cool passwords ("How do you get to Trinity Church?") to identify one another and hide microfilm under innocuous-looking postage stamps. However patently evil these men may be, they come off as inventive, resourceful and (with a couple of exceptions) fearless. Even more compelling is that their interactions with female spies (namely Horton and Virginia Gilmore) feels charged with a palpable sexual energy all too lacking on the side of the angels. It's amazing Walk East on Beacon, for all its dire stentorian warnings about the Soviet Union's schemes to subvert democracy, didn't convert thousands of horny American teenage boys to the sexy cause of Communism.

Producer: Louis De Rochemont
Director: Alfred L. Werker
Screenplay: Emmett Murphy, Leo Rosten; Leonard Heideman, Virginia Shaler (dialogue); J. Edgar Hoover (article "The Crime of the Century")
Cinematography: Joseph C. Brun
Art Direction: Herbert Andrews
Music: Louis Applebaum
Film Editing: Angelo Ross
Cast: George Murphy (Inspector James 'Jim' Belden), Finlay Currie (Prof. Albert Kafer), Virginia Gilmore (Millie aka Teresa Zalenko), Karel Stepanek (Alexi Laschenkov aka Gregory Anders), Louisa Horton (Mrs. Elaine Wilben), Peter Capell (Chris Zalenko aka Gino), Bruno Wick (Luther Danzig), Jack Manning (Melvin Foss aka Vincent).
BW-98m.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
Crime Movies: An Illustrated History by Carlos Clarens
Portrait of Louis De Rochemont by Borden Mace
A New History of Documentary Film by Jack C. Ellis and Betsy A. McLane
The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy During the Cold War by David Caute
J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets by Curt Gentry

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