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Storm Warning, a 1951 release directed by Stuart Heisler, is unsettling from the start. A bus carrying small-time model Marsha Mitchell (Ginger Rogers) arrives in the town of Rock Point late one evening. Only a ten-minute stopover is planned, but Marsha wants to stay and spend the night, visiting her sister Lucy (Doris Day) and meeting Lucy's new husband, Hank Rice (Steve Cochran), for the first time. But odd things start happening the moment she steps off the bus. The driver nervously eyes the clock and ends the stopover early. A cab driver claims he isn't a cab driver, even though he's holding a cab-driver cap and his taxi is parked nearby. Disconcerted by these incidents, Marsha sets off on foot to the bowling center where Lucy works.
She hasn't walked far when she hears angry voices in the darkness ahead. Slipping into the shadows, she sees a mob of men in Ku Klux Klan robes carrying a prisoner who's bound and gagged. The captive suddenly breaks free, runs for his life, and is shot in the back by a Klansman, dying instantly. The mob flees, leaving Marsha to find Lucy at the bowling alley and breathlessly tell what she's just seen. The sisters go to Lucy's house and wait for Hank to get home from work. An electrifying moment occurs when Marsha and Hank see each other for the first time: his eyes fill with lust as he sees her shapely figure and lovely face, and hers fill with horror as she sees that he is a Klansman from the lynch mob - and not just any Klansman, but the brutal one who shot the prisoner down. Marsha's look of fear and loathing turns into a glare of contempt and accusation, and soon the truth about Hank's nature comes out: he's as cowardly as he is vicious, and therefore all the more dangerous.
The fourth main character, district attorney Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan), despises the Klan for masquerading as a law-and-order society when it's really a scam that allows a few ruthless citizens to control and cheat the ordinary working folks. The murdered man was an out-of-town journalist doing under-cover research for an expos, and Burt could nail the Klan's leaders if he had a witness to the crime. Marsha is the person he needs, but she doesn't want to destroy Lucy's marriage by turning Hank in, so she lies at the inquest and says it was too dark to identify the men. In the meantime, Klan mastermind Charlie Barr (Hugh Sanders) is threatening Hank with dire punishment if he doesn't get Marsha out of town pronto, and Hank is still itching with lust for her.
Warner Brothers made Storm Warning as a social-problem picture of the kind that served the studio well in the pre-World War II years - Archie Mayo's anti-Klan drama Black Legion (1937), for instance, and Anatole Litvak's popular Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939). Although the film doesn't specify where Rock Point is located, it was shot in Corona, California, which reputedly had numerous Klansmen in its population, one of whom actually walked up to Reagan and offered to rent KKK robes to the filmmakers. The densely packed screenplay was written by Daniel Fuchs, who had worked on Elia Kazan's intelligent thriller Panic in the Streets (1950) the previous year, and Richard Brooks, whose credits included the novel that inspired Edward Dmytryk's anti-bigotry drama Crossfire (1947). Jerry Wald, the producer of Storm Warning, helped Reagan prepare by sending him articles with titles like "Prelude to American Fascism" and "Who Killed Huey Long?"
Storm Warning loses some of its narrative momentum during the inquest scenes, which follow standard patterns of courtroom noir, and the movie as a whole is less politically pointed than it might have been. Although the chief business of the real-life KKK has always been terrorism and oppression based on race, the film's murder victim is a white man; the camera glimpses only a handful of African-Americans even in crowd scenes; and the Klan, never actually named in the screenplay, seems more interested in financial crime than in promoting white supremacy. These matters aside, the picture regains its force in the later scenes, when Hank launches an all-out attack on the two women in his miserable life. The finale is also potent, showing Marsha taken by force to a Klan rally where she is publicly whipped - quite realistically, although Rogers said later that the lash hurt about as much as "a dozen shoe strings."
The acting is terrific, and Rogers is best of all, even though the part was originally offered to Lauren Bacall, who turned it down. Rogers was a seasoned actress by the early 1950s, and she projects strength and vulnerability with equal skill throughout Storm Warning. Day does well with her first non-singing role, modifying her famous perkiness with accents of doubt and dread. She was thrilled to work with Rogers, her longtime idol, and she was equally thrilled when she met Alfred Hitchcock for the first time soon after the film's release. "I saw you in Storm Warning," the great director said, adding, "Good, very good. I hope to use you in one of my pictures." Sure enough, Day starred in Hitchcock's remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1956.
Cochran makes Hank as dislikable as anyone could ask, although the character seems too obviously modeled on Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams's great melodrama A Streetcar Named Desire, which didn't open as a movie until a few months after Storm Warning but had already made a huge impact (with Marlon Brando as Stanley) on the Broadway stage. Reagan has a convincing air of authority as the DA with a mission, and his slight limp - this was his first movie after breaking a leg in a charity baseball game - gives his character an extra touch of individuality. An enjoyable bonus for today's viewers is getting to hear the president-to-be, so closely identified with conservative politics, speak dialogue about the importance of keeping Washington outsiders from meddling in local affairs.
Wald's first choice of director for Storm Warning was Fred Zinnemann, but he was unavailable, so Wald turned to Heisler, who proved ideal for the assignment. He moves the action at a lively clip, and his atmospheric long takes frame the characters in positions and juxtapositions that heighten the emotional intensity without ever seeming stagy or contrived. He also shows a talent for appropriately disturbing nuances; at the climactic KKK rally, for instance, he shows a Klansman lifting up a little child to give the youngster a better view of Marsha being tortured. Heisler is largely remembered as a director of great actresses, having escorted Susan Hayward and Bette Davis to Academy Awards in Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947) and The Star (1952), respectively. But while it's true that Rogers and Day outshine Reagan and Cochran in Storm Warning, the entire movie is a testament to the artful professionalism he could muster when a project was perfectly suited to his talents.
Director: Stuart Heisler
Producer: Jerry Wald
Screenplay: Daniel Fuchs and Richard Brooks
Cinematographer: Carl Guthrie
Film Editing: Clarence Kolster
Art Direction: Leo K. Kuter
Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
With: Ginger Rogers (Marsha Mitchell), Ronald Reagan (Burt Rainey), Doris Day (Lucy Rice), Steve Cochran (Hank Rice), Hugh Sanders (Charlie Barr), Lloyd Gough (Cliff Rummel), Raymond Greenleaf (Faulkner), Ned Glass (George Athens), Paul E. Burns (Frank Hauser), Walter Baldwin (Bledsoe), Lynn Whitney (Cora Athens), Stuart Randall (Walt Walters), Sean McClory (Shore).
by David Sterritt