Thursday, September 24, 2009

Buried Treasures: The Well (1951)

I know the title of this post sounds a bit like I’m straining for a laugh—come to think of it, most of my post titles start out with that purpose in mind—but Buried Treasures is a new semi-regular feature that I’m introducing here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, concentrating on films inside the dusty TDOY archives that may not be particularly well-known but are well worth the time invested to watch them. (I swear these “well” references are unintentional.) I decided that the inaugural feature would be the 1951 suspenser The Well, a well-made B-picture about the racial tensions that explode in a small, racially-mixed town when a young black girl (Carolyn Crawford) turns up missing and is thought to have been killed by a stranger (played in first-rate fashion by Harry “Bill Gannon” Morgan, who was still being billed as Henry at this point in his career). As always, I need to give you a heads-up and tell you that I do give away the ending of the film—so if by chance you haven’t seen the movie, do so at your first opportunity and then come back to read what I’m sure will be by that time heralded as a critically-acclaimed bit o’cinematic review. (Well…I can dream, can’t I?)

I remember seeing this film a long time ago as a kid one Saturday afternoon and while I’m a bit fuzzy on the actual time frame (yeah, it’s hell getting old) I know that my family and I were still living in West Virginia because I saw it on Charleston’s WCHS-TV, Channel 8. (The fam and I dug up stakes and moved to Savannah in May 1983, so it’s possible that it may have been five or ten years before that.) While I remembered the general story about rescuing the little black girl from the well, I had no recollection of the subplot involving the ugliness that erupts when the word gets out that she was last seen in the company of an adult white man and that the town’s sheriff (Richard Rober) is grilling said individual in the city jail. (I bought this DVD at Amazon.com last year for $4.99 thinking I would watch the movie once and then offer it up for sale on eBay—in fact, the original title for this series was going to be “$4.99 Theater.”) So naturally, I was pleased that The Well turned out to be a much better film than I recalled from my frequent hazy memory.

Claude Packard (Morgan) is a “person of interest” in Sheriff Ben Kellogg’s (Rober) investigation of the child’s disappearance; at least three adult witnesses—a florist (Wheaton Chambers), a milkman (Edwin Max, “the judge” in Follow Me Quietly [1949]) and a baggage man (Guy Beach)—all saw Packard in the company of the girl, not to mention several of her schoolmates. A black teenager who works for the florist gets wind of the white man’s involvement and soon plays Paul Revere throughout the town, lighting the match that will soon touch off the powder keg of racial violence. To make matters worse, the white stranger is the nephew of the town’s main employer, contractor Sam Packard (Barry Kelly), and word also begins to get out that the suspect is going to get preferential treatment because of his connections. Packard pays his nephew a visit and advises him to keep his trap shut and simply tell the police he was with his uncle at the time the girl was allegedly abducted—but Claude balks at this: he knows he’s innocent of any wrongdoing, though he is concerned that something like this could “ruin him” (he pleads with the gendarmes that he’s got a wife and two kids). Going back to his car, the senior Packard is confronted by the girl’s father (Ernest Anderson) and uncle (Alfred Grant); a scuffle ensues, and the next thing you know blacks and whites are fabricating stories, beating one another up and making liberal use of the N-word.

Unbeknownst to the townspeople, the girl is still alive…but has been seriously injured due to falling down an abandoned water well. There’s an incredibly palpable moment when Kellogg and one of his deputies (Dick Simmons) are searching the very meadow the well is located on, and they’re not more than a few yards away…when they get the news that violence has broken out in town, so they pack up and head on back. It’s up to a young boy (Pat Mitchell) and his dog (no, it’s not a collie) to stumble upon the well site, and he quickly races back to town to inform the girl’s mother (Maidie Norman) of her whereabouts…effectively pre-empting the plans of Sam Packard, his right-hand man Alex Wylie (Robert Osterloh) and an army of disgruntled townsfolk to open up a forty-gallon drum of Whupass on the black population. (Indeed, when Packard learns from a radio repairman [OTR veteran Jess Kirkpatrick] that “they found the kid” his first reaction is “What kid?” before he realizes that’s how the ugliness got started in the first place.)

The remainder of the film finds the town’s population banding together to save the little girl in a race-against-the-clock rescue attempt, with Packard advising Kellogg and the others on the best way to reach the little girl in time—putting in a parallel shaft near the well and then tunneling over to rescue the child. He needs the help of an experienced miner/engineer who, as luck and movie scripting would have it, turns out to be his incarcerated nephew. Claude is being released from the nick when his uncle pleads with him to assist the workers in the effort, but the disgruntled guest of the city’s penal facilities is anxious to put as much distance as possible between him and that unpleasant little town. “I’m gonna do just as you told me,” he snarls at the senior Packard. “I’m gettin’ out of here as fast as I can…I hate this town and everybody in it! I wanna forget I ever saw it, or you, or him, or anything about it!” Of course, Claude’s enough of a right guy to change his mind at the last minute, and his contributions in the rescue attempt pay off when the little girl is retrieved, unharmed.

An independent film produced by Harry M. Popkin (Impact, D.O.A.) and co-directed (along with Russell Rouse) by his brother Leo, The Well was a modestly budgeted film released through United Artists whose searing portrayal of race relations still resonates with audiences today. With the exception of Morgan (who at that time in his career was a seasoned character actor but had not yet reached the point where he would become a household name), the film features a no-name cast but its white-knuckle suspense plot made members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sit up and take notice long enough to get the movie two Oscar nominations, one for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay (Rouse and Clarence Greene) and one for Best Film Editing (Chester W. Schaeffer). The film also benefits from a superb music score courtesy of Dmitri Tiomkin (who was nominated for a Golden Globe award that same year). Many of the actors in The Well give outstanding performances, notably Morgan, Norman, Kelly and veteran Bill Walker…who has a tiny role as a black doctor trying to stress the need to back up the sheriff when the lawman announces to a room of the burg’s movers and shakers that he may have to call in the state militia to prevent a race riot:

Has any of you ever seen a race riot? (after a pause) I have…I saw a whole town go bad…a town very much like this…I saw my own father’s body tied to a car and dragged through the streets…and the driver of that car was a man my father had known for twenty years…I saw a white child beaten to death by my own people… (turning to a man standing beside him) She was just about the same age as your daughter, Mr. Lobel…oh, you can’t believe it unless you see it with your own eyes…it happens fast, just like this is happening—and then suddenly it turns into mob violence! And once it grows into mob violence, it’s a shocking, frightening spectacle…decent people go suddenly insane…there is no reasoning, no feeling of guilt…just hysteria! A wild, uncontrollable hysteria…and then the fear…the terror of helpless victims…something that you can never forget as long as you live…

Richard Rober receives top-billing as Sheriff Kellogg, and while he doesn’t fall down completely in a difficult role he comes across as a bit stiff at times…and there’s a rather awkward scene in which he addresses some civil defense volunteers who have expressed a reluctance to confront the mob outside with guns (many of the mob’s members are close friends, relatives, neighbors, etc.) with: “Now let’s get this straight—you’re not doing me any favors, you’re doing this for yourselves! There are women and children in this town…some of them your wives, and your children. When this thing breaks, life is going to be awful cheap…nobody’s walking away from this because I need fifty for every one of you! I’d like to walk out of it, too! But if I’m in it…you’re in it with me.” Yeah, that’s the kind of pep talk that would make me go and play my guts out in the second half.

The glaring weakness of The Well resides in the inescapable conclusion that scorching social drama or no, it is a Hollywood motion picture and it’s got to have a happy ending—which is why the film calls it a wrap by allowing the child to survive and all of the townspeople are friends again…despite the reality that they were ready to tear one another apart in the first half of the film. So you have to put up with a cornball ending which has the unintentional effect of negating a lot of what previously occurred. I will say this for the rescue climax—I think it is suspensefully done (this reviewer says it goes on too long) and I like how the low budget necessitated most of the rescue be done in sort of “audio” form; Morgan appeared on radio shows on occasion during his acting career, notably as the announcer on the 1947 summer series Mystery in the Air and appearances on Dragnet and This is Your FBI. I shudder to think what would happen if someone got a notion to do a big-budget remake of The Well; the rescue attempt would be an overdone and bloated CGI affair, robbing the movie of its dramatic tension and effectiveness.

In real life, a child who disappeared down a similar well was not so lucky. In the liner notes on the back of the DVD, producer Wade Williams mentions that the 1949 incident of Kathy Fiscus (spelled “Friscus” in the notes, which could either be a typo or Williams’ Ivan-like memory) inspired the movie (Wikipedia also says the Fiscus girl’s death motivated Ace in the Hole, but I believe the celebrated Billy Wilder film took most of its cues from the 1925 death of Floyd Collins). The back of the DVD also contains a ringing endorsement from former—and I do mean former—first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who is quoted as saying: “An exciting movie, filled with drama and tension…None of you want to miss it!” As for the front—well, Image Entertainment must surely win an award for a eye-catching and fanciful cover depicting a scene in the film that doesn’t exist. The female is supposed to be actress Christine Larson (who plays a waitress named “Casey”) and I’m assuming the guy who’s guessing her weight is Rober—though he looks a lot more like William H. Macy. You have to admire the ingenuity of some of these folks in the DVD bidness, that’s for sure.

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2 comments:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Never even heard of this. What was it with Hollywood back then? Audiences couldn't handle tragic endings? Good grief.

Tom Sutpen said...

I don't fault Popkin and Rouse for the Happy Ending shtick. Like Mankiewicz's No Way Out, if that film had followed the story's trajectory without deviation, the thing would have ended with a quasi-apocalyptic race war; and I don't think anybody was ready to see that on the screen in 1951.