Whittaker Chambers’ Witness is a masterpiece of American memoir, but it is rarely granted the respect it deserves, because it is too honest. It is like the Cold War equivalent of the Confessions of St. Augustine, wherein Chambers chronicles his work as a propagandist for the US Communist Party and as a spy for the GRU. Indeed, Chambers made it clear (and subsequent archival documents confirmed) there was little functional distinction between the legal party and the clandestine Soviet espionage services. That is why it is an incredible opportunity when Herbert Philbrick has a chance to get his hands on the party membership rolls, including the secret, non-card-carrying members. There is also a very good chance he is being set up in “Baited Trap,” our next episode of the I Led 3 Lives binge, which is findable online and on Alpha Video’s non-chronological I Led 3 Lives, Volume 3.
It is always a hassle when Philbrick is summoned to Party headquarters, because he must get off on the wrong floor and then take the stairs. His new assignment is largely clerical in nature, but it involves highly sensitive information. Using a certain code, he will be typing an updated membership list, for Moscow, after hours in the Party offices. Most likely, Jack Blake, the Party’s glad-handing public face, will be watching closely for any slip. Nevertheless, scoring intel like that would be quite a victory for the FBI (and the cause of freedom).
Even though the narrative of “Baited Trap” is still pretty simple (as necessitated by its half-hour time-slot), it is by far the tensest, most suspenseful episode yet. Lew Landers, who directed Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in The Raven (as Louis Friedlander) takes over the helming duties and he tightens out all the slack.
Evidently, Philbrick now has a new FBI handler, Special Agent Jerry Dressler played by John Zaremba—and he is also an upgrade. Based on his guest appearance as Blake, it seems a shame veteran TV character actor Alan Reynolds never had the chance to play LBJ, because his garrulous but hard-edged performance definitely brings to mind “Landslide Lyndon.” Yet, “Baited Trap” might be most notable for the casting of future Hollywood gazillionaire Aaron Spelling as the weirdo elevator operator.
Landers capitalizes on the claustrophobic setting Philbrick finds himself in, while maintaining the series’ super-noir vibe. I Led 3 Lives is always strong on one-man-alone suspense, but “Baited Trap” really concentrates and crystalizes it nicely. Highly recommended for any fan of vintage 1950s television, “Baited Trap” is available online and on DVD.