Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Walk a Crooked Mile (1948): The FBI Versus Communists

I first heard of Walk a Crooked Mile about the same time that I heard of another film noir: Walk East on Beacon! Both have similar titles, both are semidocumentaries with a voice-over narrator, and both are postwar stories about the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) battling communist spy rings trying to steal scientific secrets from U.S. government laboratories. These similarities are probably not a coincidence. I saw the two films, one right after the other, and I expect to write about Walk East on Beacon! in my next blog article.

After World War II, the nation was in the grip of the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union. Peace and prosperity were accompanied by Soviet aggression and the threat of nuclear war, immediate death from nuclear fallout, and radiation sickness for survivors. I found this film, Walk a Crooked Mile, a bit dry at first, even though I have an interest in U.S. history and the postwar period in particular. These types of films often contain a lot of expository material about FBI procedures and techniques and about the latest scientific discoveries that were both brand new and a bit frightening for postwar audiences; however, the expository information was probably more like an education for viewers in 1948. The opening credits in Walk a Crooked Mile appear over a still shot of the FBI building in Washington, DC, followed by this text:

This picture is meant to acquaint the people of the United States with the problems of our Federal Agents, to whom is entrusted the safeguarding of our Nation’s top secrets---and the character of our enemies, who “walk their crooked miles” along the highways and byways of free America.

Even before the narrative starts, the film reassures viewers about what they are about to see. The film’s title, taken from the opening text about people who wish to do harm to Americans, seems to indicate that the film will be told from the enemy’s side, which wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary for a film noir. But the film’s narrative does everything possible to counter any doubt on the part of viewers. The subjects covered in the film may be new and frightening to many Americans in the postwar period, but the film tries to make clear that they have strong government institutions like the FBI to turn to.

Walk a Crooked Mile is in the public domain. Click here to watch a free online version at the Internet Archive.

The narrative starts with shots of Lakeview, California, and the Lakeview Research Laboratory of Nuclear Physics. A voice-over narrator explains what viewers are seeing and fills in details that they might miss or are not included in the visual shots. An FBI agent, Jimmy Colton, in Lakeville contacts FBI agent Daniel F. O’Hara to talk about some alarming intelligence that he has uncovered. Before he has a chance to mention any details, he is shot and killed. The investigation of his murder leads to the start of another investigation into the theft of nuclear secrets from the Lakeview Research Laboratory.

(This article about Walk a Crooked Mile contains some spoilers.)

Anton Radchek is considered a suspect by the FBI in Colton’s murder. Agent O’Hara already has his file because Radchek is a Communist Party member, which automatically puts him under suspicion (the postwar period was also the time of the Second Red Scare and McCarthyism). Agents O’Hara and Allison tail Radchek to San Francisco and put him under surveillance there. Radchek has taken a room in a boarding house that has only one phone, which is now wiretapped by the FBI.

Radchek suddenly changes his routine, and no one has seen him for a few days. O’Hara and Allison investigate at the boarding house and discover that Radchek was killed in his room, with a knife to the heart. Through surveillance tapes collected previously, agents determine that a visiting clergyman, or someone dressed as one, is Radchek’s killer.

Agent O’Hara is summoned to G. W. Hunter’s office, where he meets Philip Grayson (aka Scotty) from Scotland Yard. Grayson has some information that might be evidence connected to O’Hara’s case: photos of a painting of a street scene in San Francisco and a complex mathematical formula that was discovered under the paint. Hunter, O’Hara, and Grayson decide that Grayson should work with O’Hara on the case that now ties the murder of FBI agent Colton near the Lakeview Research Laboratory to a possible spy ring.

FBI agents determine the location shown in the photo of the painting that Grayson brought to the FBI and narrow down to the artist who painted it: Igor Braun. Once they find him, they recognize him as the clergyman who visited Radchek and very likely is the one who killed him. Braun is now under FBI surveillance.

The time that the FBI agents spend in San Francisco was filmed on location in San Francisco. Click here to visit “Reel SF: San Francisco movie locations from classic films” for comparisons (then and now) of various location shots for Walk a Crooked Mile. The Reel SF website offers “then and now” shots of locations from several films noir.

Walk a Crooked Mile spends a lot of time explaining the workings of the FBI, the background of the fictitious case, and the technology available for investigative work at the time. But the film isn’t a snoozer. It has some action that keeps viewers interested. The car chase and shootout are certainly eye-popping: more like a gangster film than a semidocumentay about the FBI and the daily routine of spy work.

Dennis O’Keefe is great in the role of Agent O’Hara. He has the right combination of good looks and swagger to make anyone believe that he can save the day. The shots of him from below on occasion emphasize the importance of his role and the work that his character is doing for the FBI. Louis Hayward is also great in his role as Scotty Grayson. Because he is from England and thus an outsider (and he is not the star), his position is not quite as glamorous as O’Hara’s: He gets to go undercover in a steamy laundry and sweat at manual labor while trying to discover the identity of all the members of the spy ring. Raymond Burr is perfect as communist spy Krebs. Burr is a favorite for the role of heavy in many films noir, and he delivers in Walk a Crooked Mile. He almost loses the trust of the ringleader Igor Braun, who subjects him to the kind of interrogation and treatment Burr usually delivers himself in his many film noir roles when he is the one playing the criminal. And yes, that is him seated in the photo above. He is almost unrecognizable in this particular role, and it’s hard to imagine him as the future Perry Mason.

But viewers in the postwar period could be reassured that their country is doing everything possible to keep them safe. According to Walk a Crooked Mile, the FBI is prepared to find communist spies before they have a chance to destroy the American way of life.

September 2, 1948, release date    Directed by Gordon Douglas    Screenplay by George Bruce    Based on a story by Bertram Millhauser    Music by Paul Sawtell    Edited by James E. Newcom    Cinematography by Edward Colman, George Robinson

Louis Hayward as Scotland Yard detective Philip (Scotty) Grayson    Dennis O’Keefe as FBI agent Daniel F. O’Hara    Louise Allbritton as Dr. Anastasia (aka Toni) Neva    Carl Esmond as Dr. Ritter von Stolb    Onslow Stevens as Igor Braun    Raymond Burr as Krebs    Art Baker as Dr. Frederick Townsend    Lowell Gilmore as Dr. William Forrest    Philip Van Zandt as Anton Radchek   Charles Evans as Dr. Homer Allen    Frank Ferguson as Carl Bemish    John Hamilton as G. W. Hunter    Jimmy Lloyd as FBI Agent Alison    Arthur Space as Mr. North    Paul Bryar as Ivan    Reed Hadley as the narrator

Distributed by Columbia Pictures    Produced by Edward Small Productions