STORM WARNING (Stuart Heisler, 1950)

Storm Warning is a melodrama that attacks the Ku Klux Klan and the failure of people to rise up against such instances of social evil and speak the truth.  Having purchased the “hot” stage property A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams, Warner Bros. was contractually obligated to wait until the end of the play’s original Broadway run to adapt it for the screen.  In the meantime, the company worried and worried that a rival studio would co-opt the project, thereby cutting into Warners’ potential profits, by incorporating some of the play’s potent themes in other films.  Like a harried soul so afraid of death that he or she ends up committing suicide, the studio finally shot itself in the foot by making Storm Warning, which includes some of the Streetcar stuff.  Thus Warners’ own Streetcar-wannabe was released, as it turns out, earlier the same year as Elia Kazan’s film A Streetcar Named Desire (1951).  No other studio released anything that could be described as beating Warner Bros. to the punch.

I love this bit of background for epitomizing Hollywood irrationality.  The film itself is frighteningly dark at night and just as steadily engossing in daylight.  The brilliant script is by Richard Brooks and Daniel Fuchs, from Brooks’s novel Storm Center; the direction by Stuart Heisler is striking, arresting and intelligent—a career high.  The net result is  stark and serious in black and white.

The protagonist, Marsha Mitchell, is a New York City high-fashion model who arrives at night by bus in a southern town.  She is visiting her younger sister, Lucy, who is married to Hank Rice, whom Marsha hasn’t yet met.  Marsha witnesses murder in the streets: Klansmen storm the local jail, springing Adams, a reporter investigating the Klan, an “outsider,” spuriously jailed for drunk driving, and killing him.  Marsha sees the face of two of the Klansmen when they remove their hoods.  At her sister’s home she sees one of those faces again.  It belongs to her sister’s husband.  The film centers on Marsha’s dilemma.  She is torn between bringing Hank to justice, especially at the urging of the crusading local district attorney, and ceding to her sister’s wish for family peace.  Hank’s sexual advance on her and assault upon his pregnant wife decide the matter; but, before she can set matters right, Marsha is kidnapped by the Klan, who aim to silence her.

This is gripping stuff.  When confronted with the boast of all the “good” the Klan does, Marsha incisively responds, “I’ve seen what the Klan does.” Nevertheless, at the inquest into Adams’s death, Marsha lies to protect Lucy’s marriage. However, after Lucy walks in on her husband attempting to rape her sister, Lucy chooses to abandon her spouse, whom Marsha is now prepared to expose as one of the killers. The Klan, therefore, has another “outsider” with which to deal. One might complain that the KKK’s reign of terror targets men, not women, blacks, not whites—and that there isn’t a single black soul in sight in this small southern town.  Doubtless, the studio did not want to cloud the film’s anti-KKK message by engaging the ambivalence towards Negroes (as African Americans were then called) felt by the film’s target white audience. The critical thing is that the film’s message comes through powerfully, especially when Lucy, shot by her husband, dies in Marsha’s arms, moving Marsha to accept responsibility for this outcome: “This is all my fault!” As citizens, we are obliged to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances, when we witness a crime.         

As Ronald Reagan agreeably plays him, District Attorney Burt Rainey isn’t sanctimonious as he goes about his job of trying to get Marsha to testify at the inquest against the Klan, if only she would.  Ginger Rogers plays Marsha, and she is alternately sensitive and stunning; hers is a performance by an actress at the peak of her abilities.  (Susan Hayward, originally pegged for the part, would not have been so shrewdly modulated or, ultimately, so deeply moving.) Critic Andrew Sarris, though, put his finger on the most interesting aspect of Rogers’ performance and director Heisler’s handling of it: Rogers’ mature sexuality.  Steve Cochran, with two beautiful performances up ahead (R. G. Springsteen’s Come Next Spring, 1956; Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Cry, 1957), is effectively creepy and loutish as Hank.  One major performance, however, is ridiculous.  Doris Day, as Lucy, skips around in musical-comedy style, mawkishly emotes rather than acts, and never once hits a note of even scant realism.  This would remain Day’s worst performance until Midnight Lace (David Miller, 1960).

 

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One thought on “STORM WARNING (Stuart Heisler, 1950)

  1. You’re wrong about Doris Day’s performance. After having seen the film, director Alfred Hitchcock, meeting Miss Day at a party, told her that he had seen her in “Storm Warning.” “You can act,” he told the actress, and he promised to use her in one of his future films. He kept his word: a few years later, Ms Day appeared in “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” giving a highly acclaimed performance.

    Yes, Hitchcock saw what he wanted in Day on the basis of her Heisler performance; he knew he could use her for his purposes (that of a hopeless neurotic in the “The Man Who Knew Too Much” remake). But that isn’t an argument for or against the quality of her performance in “Storm Warning,” is it? Indeed, it may have been precisely Day’s divorce from any recognizable reality that led to Hitchcock’s choice of her–and, of course, she could sing the song. — Dennis

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