20 June 2015 | dougdoepke
A Little Closer Look
Plot-- A normal American farming town is split racially apart as a Latino boy is blamed for a number of offenses against town whites. In the process, the town newspaper only makes the situation worse as the new publisher shies away from digging out facts that might relieve the situation.
There were a number of social-conscience movies made in the late-40's and early-50's; that is, before the Cold War and McCarthy froze them out. This is one of them, more obscure, however, than most. Though the 83-minutes contains elements of first-rate expose, it fails to rank among the best of that period, e.g. The Well (1951), Lost Boundaries (1949), No Way Out (1950). Now, I'm not saying it's not a good or worthwhile movie of its kind. On the contrary, it is. However, I don't think it' as memorable as the best of the period, and that's surprising given the film's outstanding writer (Mainwaring) and director (Losey).
What I think the results lack most noticeably is an intense core. Usually this is supplied by a cast principal. Here, however, the concept of publisher Wilder (Carey) is much too laid-back to supply the needed intensity. His flaw in the face of community conflict is not greed or power, but apathetic retreat after a lifetime of hard-driving journalism. Apathy is a good point to make since it allows the racial rivalry to worsen. Given the overall lack of an intense core, however, the concept comes at a price. At the same time, it's hard to see how Carey's Wilder could ever have been intense. Then too, there's Gail Russell's educated Hispanic, who could be a forceful voice for her community. But she's more a pretty presence than a factor. I'm not sure whether her retreat lies with the writer, director, or actress, or a combination thereof. However, coupling her with the laid-back Wilder creates a soft center that fails to catalyze the more incendiary elements and weakens the film as a whole. Even the angry mob provides more spectacle than either needed fear or tension.
On the positive side is a fine performance by Maurice Jara as Lopo, the hapless victim of circumstances. His anguish really comes across during the breakdown scene as the posse closes in. And I certainly agree with the reviewer who singles out Lee Patrick's sharp performance as the ethically challenged reporter Jan Dawson. It's really she who shows a seedy side of journalism by sacrificing facts for increased circulation. And catch perennial villain John Hoyt cast against type as a wealthy liberal (Ferguson) who does what he can to dampen animosities. Note too how his upper-class standing finesses class issues that might otherwise become a factor.
There are a number of topical touches that make the movie still relevant to today's audiences. Note how one of the cops roughs up Lopo with apparent impunity, though the script turns suddenly cautious by having another cop reprimand him. Note too, how whites and Latinos mix amicably at the dance, until hot-headed teens start defending their honor. The suggestion here is that it is possible for racial groups to get along socially, despite adversities. And speaking of teens, bobby-sox idol Johnny Sands is featured as hot-headed Joe Ferguson, ever ready to make a bad situation worse. Still, I can hear even now the girls of the time swooning over him.
The movie gets a big leg up by filming on location, especially in seedy surroundings that reflect rural hard work. I don't know where they went for those miles and miles of rolling rock mounds, but they're like frozen ocean waves. Plus, they aptly symbolize the desolate situation Lopo finds himself in. Given the movie's many outstanding features, I'm just sorry they don't get the cohesive impact needed to lift results into the front rank of social protest films. Nonetheless, the production is still well worth catching up with despite the relative obscurity.