Walk East on Beacon! (1952)
Directed by Alfred L. Werker
Produced by Louis de Rochemont
Screenplay by Laurence Heath and Emmett Murphy
Based on a Reader’s Digest article by J. Edgar Hoover
Music by Louis Applebaum
Edited by Angelo Ross
Cinematography by Joseph C. Brun
Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics IV DVD (1:38)
The House on 92nd Street (1945) was the first of the semi-documentary crime pictures that made audiences feel they were right there on the cutting edge of law enforcement’s efforts in tracking down and capturing the bad guys. Produced by Louis de Rochemont and directed by Henry Hathaway,The House on 92nd Street was based on a real case and was shot (as much as possible) on actual locations. Other such films followed a similar template. In the case of The House on 92nd Street, it was the FBI hunting down Nazi spies; with Walk East on Beacon!, it was Communist spies. (Hereafter, I’m losing the exclamation point from the title. It’s just too difficult to sustain that much excitement about an instruction in walking…)
FBI Inspector James “Jim” Belden (George Murphy) is hot on the trail of a Communist spy ring, although the trail is growing cold. Someone at Project Falcon, a U.S. government defense project, is leaking information to the Russians. Falcon’s top mathematician, Dr. Albert Kafer (Finley Currie, above right) discovers that his son has been kidnapped by the Communists and will be released only after Kafer has given up the project’s findings. Kafer wants to cooperate with the FBI, but is also desperate to save his son.
Even in 1952 such a scenario was familiar territory, handled much better in the aforementioned House on 92nd Street. By comparison, Walk East on Beacon is plodding, overlong, and often unnecessarily convoluted, but I can’t help admiring many of its components, the first of which is Finley Currie.
You’ve probably seen the Scottish actor in a number of films including British titles such as 49th Parallel (1941), I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), and Great Expectations (above left, 1946), but he also appeared in such films as Quo Vadis (1951), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Ben-Hur (color photo above, 1959), and one of my personal favorite performances as the doll maker in Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965). In Walk East on Beacon, Currie plays Dr. Kafer as a man trapped, desperately trying to right by both the FBI and his son. Truth be told, he’s probably the only character in the film we really care about.
If you’ve seen any of these quasi-documentary movies from this era, you know what you’re going to get: voiceover narration, an obligatory shot of J. Edgar, hidden cameras, and plenty of guys in lab coats milling around, looking into microscopes, enlarging documents, pointing to spots on maps… But occasionally you’ll see something very interesting, if not totally believable.
In one scene, FBI agents have secretly filmed two suspected Communists meeting in a park. They don’t have audio and aren’t even sure what language the men are speaking. The agents assemble a group of people who watch the film, tell them what language the men are speaking, and try to lip-read the conversation. I’m not sure such techniques were ever actually used, but it’s a fun scene nonetheless.
You could do a lot better than Walk East on Beacon, but you could also do a lot worse. If you enjoy the procedural aspects of crime films, I’d recommend you check it out. The film is available on the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics IV DVD set which also includes the previously discussed film So Dark the Night (1946).
Photos: Zontar of Venus, DVD Beaver, Find a Grave Memorial, Telegraph