Noirvember 2020, Episode 6: Storm Warning (1951)
Storm Warning (1951)
Directed by Stuart Heisler
Produced by Jerry Wald
Screenplay by Richard Brooks, Daniel Fuchs
Cinematography by Carl Guthrie
Edited by Clarence Kolster
Music by Daniele Amfitheatrof
(1:33) Warner Bros. DVD
“Hear that yelling out there? They’ve just found out that the law and order can’t touch them. You did that when you let ‘em off the hook. They’re running wild. They’re going to rip up the old laws and make new ones. You’re going to remember this day for a very long time.”
I’m taking a break from low-budget B pictures to focus on a movie with big stars from a big studio, Storm Warning from Warner Bros. Taking a glance at this one on paper, it looks like it can’t miss. And how about this cast: Ginger Rogers, Doris Day, Steve Cochran, and Ronald Reagan. Plus it’s produced by heavy-hitter Jerry Wald with a screenplay by Richard Brooks and Daniel Fuchs. It’s a slam dunk, right?
Ginger Rogers plays Marsha Mitchell, a traveling dress model who steps off a bus in a town called Rockpoint to visit her sister Lucy (Doris Day), whom she hasn’t seen in two years. So much time has passed, she’s never even met Lucy’s new husband.
As soon as she sets foot in Rockpoint, things don’t feel right. Seeing an empty taxi cab parked at a diner, Marsha wants to hire it to take her to her sister’s house. A man, clearly holding a cap that reads TAXI tells her "There’s no cab driver here." In no time at all, the entire downtown goes dark and Marsha soon learns why: the local KKK is about to go to work. Keeping in the shadows, Marsha witnesses the Klan as they murder a man just after dragging him from the town jail.
Frantic, Marsha finds Lucy working her job at the bowling alley. “Lucy,” Marsha says, “I just saw a man murdered.” As she tells her story, Marsha notices the feet of the men bowling, wearing the same shoes she saw earlier protruding underneath white robes. (Don’t these guys know about bowling shoes?)
Marsha learns that the murdered man was a writer named Adams who was writing exposé articles on the Klan. She also learns something else. Upon meeting Lucy’s husband Hank (Steve Cochran), she recognizes him as one of the members of the Klan, giving him one of the longest, most blistering stares in film noir. But wait a minute: Is this actually a film noir? More on that in a moment.
Marsha’s story comes to the attention of Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan), the county prosecutor who’s been trying unsuccessfully to nail the Klan. Rainey urges Marsha to testify, but if she does, she places Lucy in grave danger.
Storm Warning certainly feels like a film noir, especially during its first half, but eventually levels out to thriller/drama territory. The picture is a mixed bag in that it misses so many opportunities to be an enormously powerful film. In a marvelous essay, Eddie Muller explains why, but here’s the gist: The actual racism of the Klan is never mentioned specifically, making bigotry and racism seem almost trivial. (And the man they kill in the film’s opening is white.) This is a surprising move, since Warner Bros. was typically a studio that didn’t shrink from controversy, ripping stories from newspaper headlines with a boldness that most other studios rarely even attempted. Not this time.
Although the performances are generally good, Marsha, in her decision to testify or hot, really has nothing to lose personally one way or another. Reagan also turns in a good performance, breathing as much life as he can into a mostly one-dimensional character (although his lines I used at the top of this review are eerily relevant today). Doris Day, in probably the most unglamorous role of her career, is good, but isn’t given enough to do here.
Yet the film has many excellent moments. The scenes with Rogers and Cochran are riveting, and Heisler knows visually how to keep the audience glued to their seats. You can’t say Heisler didn’t know how to shoot a story. Although many plot points aren’t believable, the visual story here is powerful. It’s a pity the script lost its teeth somewhere along the way. Storm Warning is still a good film well worth seeing, but it could’ve been great.
Storm Warning is available on DVD from Warner Bros.
Next time: a double feature!