Monday, February 10, 2014

Movie Monday: Storm Warning

Have you ever thought to yourself "Hey, I'm a fan of former President Ronald Reagan. I'm a fan of Doris Day. And I'm also a fan of the Klu Klux Klan. Is there a movie that features all of these things?" Well, the answer is yes, and that movie would be the 1951 Warner Bros. film noir Storm Warning!
Storm Warning opens on a young(ish) woman named Marsha Mitchell, a traveling dress model(?) who via bus stops in a small Southern town of Rockpoint to visit her younger sister Lucy (Doris Day).

Right from the get-go, we know there's something up with this town: in the background, you can't help but notice a couple of the locals seem to be staring at Marsha (and her friend, who is continuing on the bus trip), but saying nothing. They're friendly enough, but something is just a
Marsha notices right away things are strange here: all the businesses seem to close up shop in the middle of the evening, and a man who seems to be a cab driver pretends not to be, turning her down when she inquires about getting a ride further into town.

A short time later, Marsha is walking down a dark street when she hears a commotion coming from the police station:
This hooded gang kicks and beats a man, who manages to get up and run away. But then he is shot in the back by the Klan, which causes him to collapse and die right in front of Marsha. As the Klan approaches, she hides in an alley and sees a couple of the ringleaders without their hoods on.

Marsha makes her way to the bowling alley where her sister works. They talk, and Marsha relates the events of what she just saw to Lucy. Lucy suggests the slain man was a reporter who came to town, undercover, with the goal of revealing the Klan's existence in Rockport. They head back to Lucy's house, where Marsha meets her new brother-in-law, Hank (Steve Cochran)...who was one of the Klansmen Marsha saw committing the murder!
As Marsha and Lucy deal with their drama, a Federal prosecutor named Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan) arrives, wanting to investigate the murder. As you might imagine, the town is less than thrilled to have the guv'mint poking around in their bidness, and everyone seems to clam up, hoping to stop the investigation in its tracks.

Now, I will say, when I first saw the trailer for this movie (more on that in a moment), I thought Storm Warning looked like gangbusters: what an unusual cast, and a very unusual subject matter, shot through the film noir filter of 1950s Warner Bros. How is this movie not more famous?

And indeed, the movie's opening scenes are wonderfully creepy and evocative: right away, you know something's wrong with this supposedly friendly small town, and when Marsha's friend gets back on the bus, leaving her behind, you get a real sense of menace. I'm a sucker for "Nightmare Town"-esque stories, so I was really excited to see where this went after Marsha sees the Klan commit murder, right there in the open.

Unfortunately, it's right at that point that Storm Warning takes its exciting grabber of a premise...and then doesn't do a whole lot with it. One of the more confusing elements is that the whole racist part of the Klan's existence (which is to say, all of it) is completely eliminated: in fact, I don't think you see a single non-white person in the film. The Klan here seems more like the Mob, running the town by force, or an overzealous gang of vigilantes. 

Also, the cast here seems out of place: Ronald Reagan is way too laid back as a hard-driving District Attorney, who is literally putting his life at risk by showing up in this town. (There is a line that made me laugh, in light of Reagan's later political career and philosophy: when a local tells Rainey they don't like the Feds snooping around, Rainey says something to the effect of "Well, if you could keep things under control locally, then the Federal Government wouldn't have to get involved"). Additionally, Ginger Rogers and Doris Day just seem too white bread to be involved in this potentially dark, grimy story of murder. There's way too many scenes of them arguing (Lucy doesn't want to believe what her sister says about her husband, of course) and that stuff feels like its from a typical Hollywood melodrama.

Storm Warning is a case where the film might have been better as a "B" picture, with a cast more adept this kind of material: replace Ronald Reagan, Ginger Rogers, and Doris Day with Sterling Hayden, Ida Lupino, and Marie Windsor, and then maybe you would have had something.

As I mentioned above, the thing that got me excited about this movie was the trailer, which is awesome. Take a look:

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