If 1950's Mystery Street is a good example of the post-WWII location thriller coming to Boston, 1952's Walk East on Beacon! is its not-so-good counterpart. While the first brings a foreboding film noir tone to the city, the second just uses it for some hysterical anti-Communist fear-mongering (I guess the exclamation point in the title is a dead giveaway). Ironically, though, Walk East offers a better peek at the city because it has more daylight action (and it lacks the skill to create a mood through use of darkness)--for instance, it's the only Hollywood movie that shot in Scollay Square. It's also never come out on home video, so it's certainly worth checking out if you ever get the chance.
1952. Directed by Alfred Werker. Written by Leo Rosten and Emmett Murphy. Based on Crime of the Century by J. Edgar Hoover. With George Murphy, Finlay Currie, Virginia Gilmore and Karel Stepanek. Cinematography by Joseph C. Brun.
CHELSEA NATIVE LOUIS de Rochemont was one of the producers behind the post-World War II wave of docudrama thrillers that includes Mystery Street and this 1952 Boston movie. Some of these movies take creative inspiration from Italian neorealism, Jules Dassin’s The Naked City or Anthony Mann’s T-Men. But de Rochemont’s inspiration wasn’t fictional entertainment, it was his own career producing the March of Time newsreels. At the tail end of WWII, he wed the heavy narration and real locations of newsreels with a ripped-from-the-headlines plot in the Manhattan-set The House on 92nd Street, in which an FBI agent infiltrates a Nazi spy ring.
Seven years later, he came home for Walk East on Beacon! There’s no infiltration in this overheated Cold War drama, but there is a spy ring and the FBI to crack it, led by the agent played by future politician George Murphy. The movie adapts an article written by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (or by whoever ghostwrote it for him), and it starts and ends with much flag-waving on behalf of the Bureau and the fine, upstanding men who keep America safe from its “hidden enemies.”
Although Walk East is painless enough to sit through, a more expressive story might have better paid tribute to law enforcement than the anti-Communist message movie we get. Whatever legitimate threat there was from Soviet espionage after WWII was clearly exploited by Hoover into a menace that allowed him to position himself as America’s watch dog, and the movie eagerly plays Hoover’s enabler. After all, what can you say when a character who lost two children in a concentration camp tells an FBI agent, “I survived Buchenwald, Inspector. I know many Communists and how they work.” That, of all people, this survivor should know better than to shift Nazi blame? That the screenwriters ought to be ashamed of themselves?
But that’s the kind of hysteria Walk East seeks to inspire. The story itself is a rather routine investigative thriller lacking much emotion and mood. If it has any style, it’s an anti-style. But since this was made at a time when shadowy, visually expressive film noir was in full swing, such anti-style seems flat by comparison. When there actually is a scene of human emotion—when the Commie-aiding cab driver (Jack Manning) confesses to his wife about being trapped into helping them—you momentarily see what the movie is missing. But that’s the only taste you get of such human drama.
The value of the movie’s real Boston footage in the early 1950s is much greater than that of its FBI cheerleading, stock characters (like pipe-smoking intellectuals) and forensic gadgetry (Mystery Street integrated the last into a thriller much better). Action takes place in the Public Garden, Louisburg Square, South Station, Longfellow Bridge, Storrow Drive and the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial across from the State House, among other places, while there are incidental shots of Harvard Square, Memorial Drive, the Mystic River (Tobin) Bridge, the old Ritz (now the Taj), pre-makeover Faneuil Hall and the corner of Park and Tremont streets, with a nice shot of a Dorothy Muriel’s bakery. And that’s legendary Scollay Square where we see the amazing sign for Jack’s Lighthouse, as well as a tattoo parlor and The Tasty (any relation to the one in Harvard Square seen in Love Story and Good Will Hunting?).
►Locations: Charlestown, Back Bay, South Station, East Boston, Scollay Square, Beacon Hill, West End, Boston.
►Accents: Full of FBI agents from all over the country, spies who’ve come to Boston to hide their real identities and immigrants, the story doesn’t have much call for local accents. But it seems that many of the bit parts—lower-lever agents, dispatchers, etc.—were cast with local non-professionals (probably guys who did those real jobs everyday). So every so often you’ll get a real Bostonian talking.
►Local color: Although some of the movie was shot in New Hampshire and beyond—the huuuge mainframe computer seen was the Selective Service Electronic Calculator at IBM in New York—this is the one category where Walk East outdoes Mystery Street. The latter is a much better movie, because its dark mood summons the danger Walk East does not, but that darkness obscures the shooting locations. Walk East isn’t a quarter as creative, but its preponderance of broad daylight shots in public places is just great for playing “Where’s that?” and seeing how certain spots have changed in 50-plus years.