by Alan Rode
An early and little known noir suspense film about a lost child set against the backdrop of mid 20th century American race relations.
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This frequently overlooked but important film was co-directed by Leo Popkin and produced by Harry M Popkin (this cinematic team of brothers also co-produced And Then There Were None, D.O.A., Impact, among others) and written by Russell Rouse.
A young black child walks through a meadow and falls down an abandoned well. The last person seen with her, Claude Packard (Henry Morgan), is a stranger in town who immediately becomes the prime suspect in the child’s inexplicable disappearance. Tensions multiply when it turns out that Morgan is a nephew of the town’s leading citizen, construction contractor Sam Packard (Barry Kelley). The elder Packard attempts to bully his innocent nephew to proffer a phony alibi and then pressures the Sheriff to drop the charges. He fails miserably on both accounts, succeeding only in turning both men against him and inflaming the entire situation. Claude continues to protest his innocence as a true victim of circumstance.
The town sheriff (Richard Rober) struggles to carry out his duties objectively as the town immediately divides across racial lines. After Sam Packard gets mildly roughed up, the hoi polloi, led by roughneck Alex Wylie (Robert Osterloh), turn out in force to fan the fires of race hatred and mob violence. Lacking only a white hood, Packard proclaims his intention to drive all black citizens out of town and break into the jail to free his nephew. Armed mobs take to the streets. The town’s African-American population quickly decides that the loss of a child, an apparent legal cover-up and brutal white reprisals are too much to endure and they react accordingly. A powerful scene-by scene tableau illustrates how latent race hatred, superheated by rumor and gossip, triggers a full-scale conflict. This is the best part of the movie and is absent most of the usual period stereotypes. Even though some of the acting is amateurish, these sequences are very honest and compelling stuff. Some of the language is racially raw, in keeping with the subject matter. It certainly must have taken a lot of persistence and fortitude to make this picture in 1951.
Just before the local police department and citizens committee is overwhelmed and the National Guard is sent in to maintain order, the little girl is found and a frantic rescue effort ensues. In a sequence astoundingly reminiscent of the recent mine rescue in Pennsylvania, air is pumped to the little girl and a rescue shaft is started adjacent to the well. The entire town turns out as one, using their auto headlights to illuminate the work site. As the rescue team struggles to make progress, Sam Packard and Wylie arrive on the scene. After a shamefaced change of heart, both men take personal charge of the effort, bringing in cranes and special equipment to accelerate the rescue effort. In a final cliche, Claude Packard, who was released from jail after the girl was found in the well, shows up to personally descend into darkness and (oh yes, he’s a professional miner) bring the little girl up to safety.
The rescue sequence is skillfully directed, but becomes overlong and the picture concludes on a high, but unreal note. The little girl (actually a rolled up blanket) is put in an ambulance with the hysterical parents cringing outside without even making an attempt to see their daughter. After a few moments, the Sheriff emerges and reports that she is going to be okay as the townspeople spontaneously celebrate. Kelley and Morgan wink at one another and the ambulance rolls away at 5 miles an hour. An absolute cornball ending to a captivating movie.
Richard Rober was earnest and convincing as the Sheriff placed in the middle of town coming apart. Rober had a rising film career and his life (42) prematurely cut short by a traffic accident in Santa Monica in 1952. Robert Osterloh, Henry Morgan and especially Barry Kelley (one of my favorite film noir actors) acquit themselves in fine fashion. Other familiar faces include Tom Powers (Mr. Dietrichson in Double Indemnity) as the Mayor and Ed Max who overacts outrageously as a milkman. Maidie Norman played the girl’s mother and had a long career in films and television through the late 1990’s. Many of the cast are bit players and unknowns who do yeoman work.
The Well is a seminal American film on race relations that is still entertaining and topical after a half a century and counting.
Alan Rode is a film noir aficionado living in San Diego, CA.
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