STORM WARNING is a terrific-looking Warner drama that wants to attack the Ku Klux Klan, but is afraid to get into exactly what that organization does and why it’s bad.
At one point prosecutor Ronald Reagan (!) learns that his right-hand man is a former member. He seems just curious, and kind of charmed, by this revelation. The guy tells him he joined because he wanted to do some good — Reagan is fine with this, although it’s about the least convincing explanation for membership I can imagine — then he says he got out because he discovered the thing was a crooked, money-making racket. Yeah, that’s the trouble with the Klan. They were fine before they went kommercial.
So, fashion model Ginger Rogers (!) stops off in this hick town to visit her sister, Doris Day (!) — and stumbles right into a lynching. One of those white-on-white lynchings you hear so much about. Seems the victim was a journalist who got caught trying to write an exposé on the Klan’s nefarious activities — so nefarious that Warners cannot allow us to ever know what they are. I half-suspect Warners of killing the guy, actually.
When Ginger realizes that one of the guilty men, Steve Cochran (no “!” for you, Steve) is her sister’s husband, and sis is pregnant, she does everything she can to avoid testifying — but Reagan is SO insistent. (Did Ron and Ginger sit around between takes plotting world domination, or did they just trade chimp stories? Oh, Ginger hadn’t made MONKEY BUSINESS yet? Well, maybe she did it on Ron’s recommendation. “Bonzo was super, and he didn’t try to bit my face off once.”)
Paul Roen (High Camp) compares this film to A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, and there’s certainly the bestial caveman thing going on in Cochran’s beetle-browed sweatiness, but there’s no suggestion that Ginger finds him anything but repellant. Doris manages to sell her sympathetic, simple-minded wife/sister role so that she’s moving rather than annoying — aware of the difference between right and wrong but simply unequipped to process what’s going on around her. Ginger is so tough we’re never really concerned for her, despite a rape attempt and a whipping — the film is nothing if not sadistic, in a noir fashion. Cochrane is memorably repellant. Reagan is… quite adequate.
All the sadism is there to torture Ginger for failing to do her civic duty, putting her pregnant sister’s well-being above her legal obligation to testify against Cochran. And this would work fine, is even a story that could be politically compelling while failing to deal with the Klan, but Reagan’s scenes diffuse the tension. His narrative purpose is to tiresomely point out to Ginger her correct course, and he does this well enough, but because he’s a leading man the script also gives him redundant scenes of his own. These are all intended to convince us that lynch mobs don’t face prosecution, despite the efforts of noble authority figures, because the communities protect the guilty. The last part of that statement is true, but we all know that the authorities colluded in the crimes. The movie does semi-implicate a couple of prison guards, but that’s as far as it will go.
The characters occupy such well-defined, stereotypical positions, either all good or all bad, that it must have been hard to get real life into the film, but at some point one of the writers has decided to cram in some strange humour, and a new kind of animation flares up for five minutes. The inquest into the central murder features a radio newscaster wandering the crowd trying to get vox pops from reticent or surly locals (we’re in the South, but nobody has a particularly southern accent), but keeps emitting tetchy whispers to his associate “Don’t step on the cable!” Then, we see the jury sworn in: “Raise your right hand. Your right hand.” A snarky touch — in a movie so anxious not to alienate the southern audience, suddenly suggesting that the average citizen is a moron probably wasn’t wise, but it’s very funny in an “oh dear” kind of way.
Everything I’ve seen from director Stuart Heisler has been good so far — nothing’s been quite great, but I’m certain there’s a masterpiece out there. THE BISCUIT EATER, THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL, AMONG THE LIVING, THE GLASS KEY, all are recommended — there’s real visual panache and emotional commitment in all of them.