‘Walk East on Beacon’ or — Conventional, Conservative and Kinda Cool?
My expectations for ‘Walk East on Beacon’ (1952) were so low and miserable, so in the gutter you could have given them their own hangdog voice-over. It’s an anti-Communist propaganda film based on a Reader’s Digest piece “written” by J. Edgar Hoover and that’s so bad the Radio Times called the entire movie “inept”? Yep, much like a Red spy operating in Boston things weren’t looking too hopeful for ‘Walk East on Beacon’.
The opening minutes of the film confirm this trepidation as a stentorious narrator extols the virtues of the G-man along with the nefarious nature of the Communist infiltrator as some dry and inert FBI agents follow a man suspected of espionage by his wife (ratting on your spouse is, after all, the sign of a good citizen). Might there be a connection between this mysterious figure and the ‘Falcon’ project, a top secret research program headed by space-weapons scientist Professor Kafer and which is of special interest to Soviet intelligence? Hoover’s men will need to find out and find out quickly before any sensitive information is leaked.
However, it’s not just the FBI in a hurry as the man they’re following is sneakily replaced by a senior Communist spy sent specifically to the States to hurry up what’s viewed as an overly cautious approach to extracting Professor Kafer’s equations.
And so a race is on between the FBI and a Communist spy ring to see who will, ultimately, control the entire planet and whether or not we’ll have cool and groovy space stations next year.
So the story, tone and message are conventional and conservative in the extreme and where the only answer to the dangerous drug that is Communism is suicide. Plus the G-men themselves aren’t exactly the most exciting presences with characters as grey as their suits. Yet what is interesting are the demonstrations of surveillance, espionage and counter-espionage work as we see how both the FBI and spy ring operate. It’s a succession of hidden cameras, coded messages, sleeper agents, microfilms, radio networks, self-destruct devices, lab equipment, false passports and even lip reading so if you’re into technology meets intrigue (and let’s face it, it is fun) then you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.
Not only that but as the film goes on the plot becomes more engaging until by the time we get to the moment that gives the film its title I was pretty much hooked. And even though ‘Walk East on Beacon’ isn’t the most dynamically paced movie ever made it constantly crams new and interesting elements into its brisk 97 minute run time so it was always throwing up some little unexpected surprise every other minute. The film might start off as a stuffy procedural but after an hour or so we’re in the realm of anti-gravity devices and the possibility of America possessing a world-wide missile network with terrifying implications. Awesome!
At first I thought a lot of the vague scientific nonsense was, well… nonsense. And to be fair most of it is. After all, the movie couldn’t exactly show real atomic secrets or FBI techniques to the public at large. Yet it is obvious that a lot of what we’re shown was once pretty accurate. For example, Professor Kafer’s computer consists of vast walls of flashing lights and clacking switches. I thought it might be a load of electrical baloney but it turns out this computer actually existed! It was called the IBM Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator and it was the last electromechanical computer ever built and, by the time of the film’s release, obsolete. And it’s fantastic and adds to the authenticity of the movie, even if that authenticity is utterly inauthentic.
‘Walk East on Beacon’ is by no means a forgotten classic and its blatant propaganda could prove off-putting for some. Yet like most of these Red Scare movies we spend the majority of our time with the baddies (even the FBI know the baddies are more fun to watch) and the anti-Communist traffic isn’t all one way with the dialogue allowing the Communist agents to take some neat little swipes at the U.S.A. too.
The film is also packed with lots of little character flourishes and touches (I especially loved the grumpy old lady who snaps in anger when asked for directions for no apparent reason other than to add some unexpected colour and energy) and there’s loads of very nicely shot location work to marvel at. The film also contains some eye-catching compositions and camera work too with a really cool shot of a taxi interior where the occupants are only glimpsed in the rear-view mirror being a fun example.
The Radio Times were completely wrong. Sure, ‘Walk East on Beacon’ is typical Red Scare fluff with dodgy politics but it is engaging, fun and far from “inept”.