Pinko Paranoia

Only two years after WW2 officially ended on September 2, 1945, relations between the United States and the USSR cooled and became frosty, ushering in The Cold War era, which lasted until the dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991. Hollywood was quick to capitalize on this disturbing new reality by producing and releasing a string of anti-communist dramas, adventures and spy thrillers, many of them grade A productions with major stars from the top studios. One of the earliest releases was The Iron Curtain (1948) from 20th-Century-Fox, which was directed by William A. Wellman and reunited Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney from Laura in a true life story about a Soviet defector in Canada. Many others followed such as The Red Danube (1949) and Conspirator (1949) from MGM, Diplomatic Courier (1952) with Tyrone Power battling Soviet agents in post-war Europe and Leo McCarey’s infamous red scare melodrama, My Son John (1952). Even John Wayne got on the patriotic bandwagon and sounded off against the commies in Big Jim McLain (1952) from United Artists, Blood Alley (1955) from Warner Brothers, and Jet Pilot (1957) from RKO. All of these, however, were high profile releases compared to 5 Steps to Danger (1957),  a modest but highly entertaining indie feature from Grand Productions (distributed by United Artists), which teamed up Sterling Hayden and Ruth Roman.

You could classify it as a road movie, at least for the first two thirds, as well as an espionage thriller, a Cold War time capsule, a screwball romance played straight and, for a brief stretch of the road, a homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. It’s also my idea of the perfect B movie which isn’t the same thing as a perfect film.

Ruth Roman and Sterling Hayden in a publicity photo from the Cold War thriller 5 STEPS TO DANGER (1957).

In other words, 5 Steps to Danger is fast and loose and often messy. It has more subplots and storyline twists than it can handle, most of them completely absurd. Some of the supporting actors are noticeably ill at ease or awkward on camera. And the continuity is uneven with various characters and situations simply dropped with no closure or payoff. All of which only makes the film more interesting and fun than a prestigious A picture…and it’s only 80 minutes long.

John Emmett (Sterling Hayden) and Ann Nicholson (Ruth Roman) are strangers who end up on an unexpected road trip chased by communist agents and the FBI in 5 STEPS TO DANGER (1957).

It starts with an amusing pre-credit introduction of our two stars. First we see Ruth Roman at the wheel of a convertible, speeding down a stretch of highway somewhere in the American Southwest. As she passes Sterling Hayden’s car, he tips his hat to her and then the camera pulls back to reveal his vehicle is being pulled by a tow truck. Once he gets to a local gas station he decides to sell his car to the garage owner rather than wait on some expensive repairs. Suddenly Ruth Roman pulls into the station with a steaming radiator and in their “meet cute” encounter, the snappy exchange between our two main characters – Mrs. Ann Nicholson and John Emmett – goes like this:

Ann: “It keeps heating up.”

John: “Lady, you think you have trouble. This thing won’t even run.” (referring to his car…duh!)

Ann: “I’m sorry. I thought you were the mechanic.”

John: “Well, I’ll speak to my tailor about that when I get back into town.”

Before I go any further, readers who haven’t seen 5 Steps to Danger and are particularly miffed by movie spoilers should leave now, watch the movie and return here to compare notes. One of the first revelations that things aren’t exactly as they appear occurs shortly after Ann and John’s first meeting. She follows him into a truck stop diner, is greeted by whistles from the truck drivers and asks John if she can join him, adding nervously, “Please keep talking to me. I don’t want these people to think I came in here to pick you up.” “Well,” he responds awkwardly, “They’re just thinking how lucky I am to have such a pretty girl.” At which point, a borderline surly waitress brings them menus and delivers the devastating news, “We’re all out of ham!” Hardly, in view of what transpires.

Ann Nicholson (Ruth Roman) has a secret agenda in the espionage thriller 5 STEPS TO DANGER (1957).

Ann, who reveals she’s married, makes a proposition to John that is strictly business. She’s in a rush to get to Santa Fe, New Mexico and needs someone to help her with the non-stop driving. He’s going that direction anyway to spend some time hunting and fishing at a nearby lodge. They set off together and drive through the night but soon realize they are being followed.

A blonde (Jeanne Cooper), claiming to be Ann’s nurse, corners John at a diner and claims that Ann is actually a wealthy widow and is recovering from a nervous breakdown.  Once the nurse learns that the couple are headed to Santa Fe, she reassures John that she and Ann’s psychiatrist, Dr. Frederick Simmons (Werner Klemperer), will meet them there and take responsibility for Ann. Of course, that’s only partly the truth. Ann is actually a courier, carrying a steel makeup mirror encoded with top secret information smuggled out of East Berlin which Communist agents will kill to get.

Helen Bethke (Jeanne Cooper) claims to be a nurse but who is she really? A scene from the 1957 Cold War espionage thriller 5 STEPS TO DANGER.

Then, breaking news announces the discovery of a murdered CIA agent at Ann’s apartment in Los Angeles and she’s the suspect. Pretty soon the New Mexico police, CIA, FBI and commies are combing the desert for the fugitive couple who head toward a rendezvous with Dr. Reinhardt Kissel (Karl Lindt) at the Numa Test Center (obviously meant to be a stand-in for the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico). It is there that Ann is supposed to hand off the top secret compact mirror to Kissel except that – guess what? – the Germany refugee scientist is a fake; the real one has been murdered. Time to introduce yet another MacGuffin.

FIVE STEPS TO DANGER, Sterling Hayden, Ruth Roman, 1957

5 Steps to Danger is that kind of movie. Cliches are often inverted or blown up and the ripe dialogue occasionally achieves a pulp fiction poetry. Which makes total sense when you realize the film is based on the Donald Hamilton novel The Steel Mirror which was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in 1948.

Pulp fiction writer Donald Hamilton

Hamilton, who died in November 2006, was one of the most popular and successful fiction writers in the thriller genre. He was in the same revered group of 20th century stylists as Mickey Spillane, John D. MacDonald, Donald Westlake (aka Richard Stark) and Kenneth Miller (aka Ross Macdonald). Many of his novels were adapted to the screen, including Smoky Valley, which became the film The Violent Men (1955), and The Big Country, which director William Wyler brought to the screen in 1958.

Unfortunately, Hamilton is probably best known to moviegoers for the lowbrow Matt Helm series, based on his novels, which starred Dean Martin; the titles included The Silencers (1966), Murderers’ Row (1966), The Ambushers (1967), The Wrecking Crew (1968) and a TV series in 1975. Hamilton’s Matt Helm novels were hard-boiled and violent and nothing like the Dean Martin spy parodies that were infantile sexist fantasies. They probably look even worse now except for the curiosity value of seeing gorgeous actresses like Ann-Margret, Stella Stevens, Sharon Tate, Elke Sommer, Senta Berger and others flirting with Dino.

So, in terms of Hamilton’s film legacy, The Violent Men is probably the most faithful to his style and vision. 5 Steps to Danger, on the other hand, is a bastardization of the novel The Steel Mirror, adapted for the screen by screenwriter/director Henry S. Kesler. It’s still far superior to the Matt Helm films and an entertaining hybrid of noir elements and the standard chase thriller.

John Emmett (Sterling Hayden) and Ann Nicholson (Ruth Roman) are stopped by guards at a high security facility in 5 STEPS TO DANGER (1957).

Part of why 5 Steps to Danger works most of the time is due to the curious chemistry of Sterling Hayden and Ruth Roman. Physically they’re a good match but dramatically they waver from scene to scene, occasionally finding the perfect groove and just as often falling out of it. The sizzle/sputter nature of it becomes fascinating. Like Joan Crawford, Roman has a formidable screen presence that could overwhelm and dominate her leading man like she did with Farley Granger in Strangers on a Train. This is not the case with Hayden in 5 Steps to Danger or Kirk Douglas in Champion. Roman was actually near the end of her career as a leading lady when she made this. She starred in Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory with Richard Burton right after this but then began working almost exclusively in television for the rest of her life except for occasional forays into odd character parts and offbeat exploitation films such as The Killing Kind (1973), The Baby (1973), A Knife for the Ladies (1974) and Impulse (1974), featuring William Shatner as a genuine lady killer.

Hayden, however, was already damaged goods in terms of his reputation in Hollywood when he made 5 Steps to Danger. Because of his testimony as a “friendly witness” at the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings on communist infiltrators in the movie industry, many people in the business didn’t want to work with him. In his own words in an interview with author Gerald Peary, Hayden said, “I wasn’t seeing my old left-wing friends. The head of Paramount said, “I’m proud of you and I’m going to be the first to offer you a job.” I went off and did a picture in 1952 called “The Denver and Rio Grande” shot somewhere in Arizona or Colorado, and then I began to work on a very low level of “B” pictures as often as I felt like it. I sank down into a morass.”

John Emmett (Sterling Hayden, left) just wanted a quiet fishing trip but got dragged into an espionage plot in the 1957 Cold War thriller 5 STEPS TO DANGER.

Unlike Roman, though, Hayden would see a resurgence in his career, thanks to Stanley Kubrick, who had cast him in The Killing in 1956, and would revive his stock with Dr. Strangelove in 1964. After that, Hayden would appear in other great films – Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973), Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976) and the box office hit Nine to Five (1980).

Actor Sterling Hayden at his favorite pasttime – sailing.

Hayden never got over his personal shame and disgust though for his actions before HUAC. He had only been a member of the Communist Party for four months before deciding it wasn’t for him but his past connection to it was enough for the FBI to hound him relentlessly during the communist witch hunt in Hollywood. Hayden later commented, “I decided right away it wasn’t for me…My first thought was, “Fuck the Revolution, what about my date with Charlene?”…I wasn’t committed. Also, I couldn’t read dialectic and historical materialism, though I tried.”

Werner Klemperer and Jeanne Cooper star in the 1957 Cold War espionage thriller 5 STEPS TO DANGER.

In an ironic way, 5 Steps to Danger is some kind of weird payback for those dark days. In this picture Hayden gets to play the gruff, no-nonsense American hero, who outwits the devious Red spies, impresses the CIA and FBI, wins the girl (who’s loaded with dough and not crazy after all) and return to life’s simple pleasures. Yet John Emmett remains a complete enigma right up to the final fadeout. Who is this guy anyway? All we ever really learn about him is that he is on vacation for an entire month and is slowly working his way toward a family reunion in Texas while doing some fishing and hunting along the way. Regardless of who he’s supposed to be, Hayden has some wonderfully odd and unexpected moments in this movie but none as hilariously implausible as the scene where he lays out for Ann a fool-the-commie-game plan that dovetails into this sudden exchange:

John: “I’ve been thinking of asking you to marry me.”

Ann: “Marry you?”

John: “Yes, I can’t tell you all of the reasons but one of them was last night, as tired as I was, I couldn’t sleep a wink for worry of thinking about you.”

Ann: “You think if you marry me Dr. Simmons can’t take me away, is that it?”

John: “Well, that is a reason. The main thing is I love you Ann. I really do. There’s no waiting in Mexico. And if we’re married, they’ll be no arresting me and they can’t take you away without my signature.”

John Emmett (Sterling Hayden) and Ann Nicholson (Ruth Roman) become unexpected road trip companions in the 1957 spy thriller 5 STEPS TO DANGER.

It’s the movie’s pink-elephant-in-the-room scene and comes completely out of nowhere; there’s been no indication of a serious romance between them. It’s also so completely unlikely considering Hayden’s terse character and screen persona, it might make you jump out of your chair and yell at the screen, ‘WHAT?’

Two police officers present a problem for a couple on the run in the 1957 thriller 5 STEPS TO DANGER.

Another favorite moment occurs when John and Ann, handcuffed together after an unfortunate encounter with some highway patrolmen, hide out from the law in a roadside motor court. With a trenchcoat over their arms to hide the handcuffs (that’s not conspicuous at all), the couple orders coffee, sandwiches, a newspaper – and a hacksaw – from the motel’s handyman, telling him they need to saw off the lock on their suitcase because they lost the key. This is AFTER an all-points bulletin on the runaway couple has been widely distributed.

Sterling Hayden and Ruth Roman are on the run from commie spies in the desert of New Mexico in 5 STEPS TO DANGER (1957).

Apart from the quirky pairing of Hayden and Roman, 5 Steps to Danger offers a myriad of diversions. For one thing, a major portion of the picture is shot outdoors, unlike most B movies. The landscape looks convincingly Southwestern (though it was probably filmed in the California desert) and adds the necessary atmosphere for this specific road trip. In a crucial flashback sequence, the film even transports us to Berlin; an interior set of Ann’s boarding house room is all we ever see of it where a mini-espionage drama is played out in its dingy halls.

Werner Klemperer in his famous TV role in the series HOGAN’S HEROES.

It’s also fun spotting familiar faces in the supporting cast. Werner Klemperer, for instance, as Ann’s controlling doctor. Trading one stereotype for another, Klemperer is not a nasty Nazi like he was in Operation Eichmann (1961) or a comical inept one as in the TV series Hogan’s Heroes. Instead, he’s an undercover commie agent, one of many moles planted in the U.S. to ferret out the secret in Ann’s handbag. Paranoia of communist infiltration suffuses the film with a nervous undercurrent and not one of the villainous Reds are allowed any subtle shadings or complexity. The movie is clearly a reflection of its Cold War era and served a dual purpose as an anti-Russkie propaganda film in the same way that the Humphrey Bogart film All Through the Night (1941) made mincemeat of the Nazi menace in America.

In addition to Klemperer, look for Robert Mitchum’s younger brother, John, in a minor role as a sheriff’s deputy named Bud. He gets pushed down a sand dune by a hysterical Ruth Roman and can’t seem to climb back up in probably the lamest action sequence in the movie. John never rose to his brother’s level of fame but enjoyed a prolific film and TV career nonetheless playing bit parts and minor roles. Characters identified in the credits as “Bar patron” or “jury member” or “POW” or “Janitor” were typical roles for him but occasionally he’d get a juicy part such as his Inspector Frank DiGiorgio in The Enforcer (1976) opposite Clint Eastwood.

John Mitchum (right) appeared in a supporting role in the Clint Eastwood film THE ENFORCER (1976).

And yes, that’s Ken Curtis, former singing cowboy star, Western veteran (The Searchers) and horror producer (The Killer Shrews, The Giant Gila Monster) as gung ho FBI agent Jim Anderson. Also, in the credits for 5 Steps to Danger, you may recognize the name of Paul Sawtell, one of the film’s musical composers, if only for the fact that he’s scored more than 300 movies including The Fly (1958) and The Lost World (1960)! At the other end of the spectrum is writer/director Henry S. Kesler, who only directed three features (this was his final movie) before concentrating on a television career.

Most of what happens in 5 Steps to Danger would never fly in an “A” picture. But the stakes are always much lower in a “B” movie allowing for more experimentation, goofy mistakes, and unexpected surprises. 5 Steps to Danger was a film I saw frequently on Channel 12 (WRVA) in Richmond, Virginia during my high school years. It was one of several movies in heavy rotation (they must have bought an unlimited run movie package) that included Love Slaves of the Amazon (1957), The Secret Mark of D’Artagnan (1962), Fire Maidens of Outer Space (1956), Drango (1957), a Jeff Chandler western, and Night of the Quarter Moon (1959), a trashy melodrama about miscegenation.

Because of that 5 Steps to Danger is imprinted on my brain, even individual scenes like the closing shot of a fishing rod being knocked off a dock and sinking into the lake. That partly explains my fondness for the film and my desire to revisit it again in the future. Who knows what I might have become if the heavy rotation films had been Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Wild Strawberries and The General instead?

A scene from the 1957 road trip espionage thriller 5 STEPS TO DANGER starring Sterling Hayden (left) and Ruth Roman.

For many years your best bet for seeing 5 Steps to Danger was on Turner Classic Movies where it popped up occasionally but in April 2018 ClassicFlix released it on DVD and Blu-ray where it was restored from the original camera negative and presented in its original 1.18:1 original aspect ratio (no extra features included).

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