Saturday, October 03, 2009

Storm Warning (1951)

[Editor's note: This article by the "Czar of Noir" Eddie Muller originally appeared in April 2009 as the first “Noir … or Not?” feature in the Film Noir Foundation’s bimonthly periodical, the Noir City Sentinel.]

When Jerry Wald began production at Warner Bros. on Storm Warning in 1950, his intention was to serve up a message picture disguised as a crime thriller, something along the lines of RKO’s 1947 sleeper hit Crossfire, which used an all-night murder-manhunt to sell its underlying attack on anti-Semitism. Wald even hired Richard Brooks, author of the novel upon which Crossfire was based (The Brick Foxhole), to cowrite Storm Warning with the always-reliable Daniel Fuchs, who’d penned its original story.

Somewhere during preproduction the top dogs at Warner Bros. lost their nerve, and Storm Warning’s script was declawed and defanged. Even its bark is oddly meek. The studio congratulated itself in its advertising for making a film “as startling as the screen has dared to be,” but for a purported exposé of the Ku Klux Klan the film is as hard-hitting as 40 lashes with a wet noodle. To “take on” the Klan and then omit any mention of its racism or religious bigotry—presenting instead cracker Fascists as garden-variety goons keeping their town clean of “Northern” influence—smacks of cowardice. Especially compared to another film made across town at virtually the same time, Fox’s No Way Out (1950), an unflinching take on racism that reaches far beyond the Mason-Dixon Line.

Not to suggest that Storm Warning is bad. The script may be spineless, but overall it is brilliantly made and utterly engrossing; it may be Stuart Heisler’s best work as a director. He and director of photography Carl Guthrie transform a rural Southern town (actually Corona, California) into a pestilent noir nightscape. Think Road House, only peopled with ignorant, armed peckerwoods. The visual punch is so strong that over the years Storm Warning has nudged its way onto numerous lists of vintage film noir.

But is it noir?

It certainly feels like Noirville, right from the jump. In an opening that plays like a distaff version of Fallen Angel (1945), dress model Marsha Mitchell (Ginger Rogers) steps off a bus in Rock Point to pay a visit to her newlywed sister. Depot and diner patrons give the brush-off to this out-of-town dish, instantly arousing audience suspicion. Clicking her big-city heels through gorgeously chiaroscuro’d streets, Marsha walks smack into a murder scene. Hooded Klansmen shoot and kill a trussed-up man, and from the shadows our hidden heroine catches an eyeful of the ringleaders, who have conveniently doffed their dunce hoods to pose for close-ups. After reuniting with sister Lucy (Doris Day), Marsha is stunned to discover that her new brother-in-law, Hank Rice (Steve Cochran), is one of the hooded killers.

So far, so noir: stranger in town, murder cover-up, familial conflict, guilty consciences, evil lurking beneath the town’s placid surface. But right at the tipping point, when the story could become either a full-blown descent into darkness or a conventionally “well-balanced” story of right versus wrong, the script introduces laconic county prosecutor Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan), an Upright Joe determined to rid Rock Point of its “hoodlum” element. He’s a Southern cousin of Crossfire’s Detective Finlay (Robert Young), a man who has never in his life suffered a twinge of moral or ethical doubt.

Two things quickly cause Storm Warning to lose credibility as hard noir. Reagan gets so much screen time (to his credit, he gives an easygoing performance that, if anything, is a shade too amiable) that Marsha’s predicament—will she inform against the man her sister loves?—loses its urgency. From a storytelling standpoint, the distinguishing characteristic of a hard noir is that the tale almost always hews—subjectively, empathetically—to its central character. As a protagonist, however, Marsha has too little at stake. She testifies or she doesn’t . . . either way she’s on a bus and back into an orderly life at the end of the day. It’s her sister who is the trapped character, living the noir life. If the film had instead focused on her (as in the similarly plotted, if ultimately stupid, 1988 Joe Eszterhas-scripted Betrayed), it might have had a stronger dramatic thrust.

Secondly, the murder victim should have been black. Instead he’s a “nosy reporter” looking to expose the Klan, a “good man” who “didn’t deserve to die.” For all the film’s righteous huffing and puffing, it never works up a sweat-bead of genuine moral outrage. That’s because the victim is just one more dead white plot device in a Warner Bros. melodrama. If they’d been brave enough to show a bunch of buffoons in bedsheets graphically killing a black man—and then have the characters treat the incident as nothing more than fodder for their southern-fried sex drama—that would have been genuinely disturbing, morally outrageous . . . and more authentic. Instead, the Klan’s most vile act is to gang-whip Ginger Rogers while she writhes around in her underwear. Exposé? Or exploitation? Jack Warner probably jacked off in his private screening room.

But back to what’s right about the film. For starters, the quality of the acting. If you’ve put off watching it because the cast—save Cochran—seems resolutely lightweight, think again. As noted, Reagan’s performance is actually good; it’s just a shallowly conceived character. I have never liked Ginger Rogers. Her brassy-dame routine single-handedly prevents Tight Spot (1955) from making my list of Phil Karlson’s best films. Here, however, she’s terrific. She underplays throughout, conveying inner turmoil quietly and convincingly. There’s a wariness in her eyes and a weariness on her aging face, which Rogers rarely allowed on-screen. We are left wishing her character was more complex, since she seems up for a challenge, and inspired by Heisler’s ability to conjure tossed-off, character-building bits of business. Her first scene with Lloyd Gough (as her salesman sidekick) is a marvel of efficient character setup, perfectly executed.

Rogers and Doris Day are utterly believable as sisters, and Day delivers a great character, full of beguiling spunkiness that suddenly curdles into hurt and anger. As written, her “shocking” demise is a routine plot device. With Day in the role, the twist feels truly tragic.

The film is at its best when it sticks with its nasty Streetcar Named Desire-inspired dynamics: two wily women dominated by a lustful lout, a character Steve Cochran renders with his usual canine mix of hangdog charm and attack-dog ferocity. The Streetcar similarities veer dangerously close to plagiarism when Cochran tries to rape his sister-in-law. But the way Cochran plays Hank Rice, you won’t think of Stanley Kowalski. You might, however, mistake him for Elvis Presley, if the Big E had never gotten hooked on “race” music and found his calling.

The biggest pleasure of Storm Warning is watching Heisler at the top of his craft, directing the hell out of what he thought was sure to be a hot, controversial film. His shot selection is spot-on, the camera moves always accentuating the play without intruding on it, and the match-cutting on action (a Heisler trademark) is not just flawless, but thrilling. Heisler obviously schemed many of the cuts in advance, not too common for a studio director of that time. Watching this film is a primer on when to cut into action, and how far into or out of the action the camera can move before becoming obvious.

Heisler’s other noir hybrids—Among the Living (1941), The Glass Key (1942), Smash-Up (1947)—give little indication of a noir-infused visual sensibility—not like what you see in Welles or Mann or Siodmak, for example. Much of the film’s visual allure must be attributed to director of photography Carl Guthrie, a man who spent the bulk of his career shooting TV shows before an untimely death in 1967 at age 62. Guthrie isn’t often associated with noir, but here his work is exemplary.

His framing always maximizes the contributions of the art director and set decorator, without displaying them. And the lighting is simply spectacular: The enticing gleam of the town’s bustling bowling alley, the hot dead air of the jailhouse, the musky funk of Lucy and Hank’s clapboard love nest, and, most memorably, the nocturnal postcard shots of Rock Point’s hash houses and bus stations are, I believe, the primary reasons Storm Warning feels so much like noir. Closer analysis reveals it to be a deftly made “issue” drama, but one whose sagging spine and diluted social conscience are greatly invigorated by its deep, dark, noir patina.

Written by Eddie Muller


Brigham said...

In this game you learn right away that a lot of the fun with film noir is trying to determine if a given film is, in fact, noir. Everyone has his opinion and suggested lists vary wildly in content. (My own radical suggestion is that the Roy Rogers flick "My Pal Trigger" is noir.)

Like Mueller, I'm inclined to cite this film as noirish, or semi-noir. Or even semi-demi-noir if you like. What's missing is the fatal aspect. For instead, if this were a real film noir you might have seen Doris Day and Cochran getting plugged as inevitable rather than as an interesting plot device.

Yes, this Klan film is an oddity. A Klan film without any racial rhetoric? What's the point, then? Might as well be a mob film.

Ginger Rodgers' presence in a film awlays causes problems for me. I can't escape the image of this former Golddigger dressed in a coin bikini rolling her eyes and singing "We're in the Money" in pig Latin. Dick Powell made the hard-boiled transition much more successfully, I think.

Doris Day isn't as spunky and virginal as in this as she would later become. This film must have been from the period Oscar Levant referred to when he stated that he knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.

Steve Cochran plays a moron quite convincingly; I really disliked him in this.

And Ronald Reagan... sigh. I miss him.

I thought this flick was well worth occupying an hour and a half of one's time.

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