One of Storm Warning’s failings is its attempt to carefully navigate the story content so I’m just going to be lead-footed and get right to things, which probably would’ve helped the movie though not the ending.
Storm Warning is about Ginger Rogers visiting sister Doris Day and witnessing the Ku Klux Klan murdering someone. Rogers sees it before she even lets Day know she’s in town for a visit. Rogers is a fashion model who travels the country modeling clothes at buyers’ meetings. For a while it seems like Storm Warning might be a de facto strong woman picture, just because Rogers is clearly the protagonist and she’s also “of a certain age,” which probably meant over twenty-four in 1951 but Rogers is late thirties. Sadly, no. I expected way too much when I saw Richard Brooks on the screenwriting credit; I always forget the reason Daniel Fuchs stands out is because I’ve seen The Thing too many times and not because he’s a good writer.
Warning has a short present action (twenty-five hours or so) and a fine pace. So right away Rogers finds out Day’s husband, who she’s never met and Day has moved to this small town to be with and, oh, Day’s pregnant—the husband (Steve Cochran in an arguably fantastic performance) is one of the killers. Rogers saw two of them unmasked, Hugh Sanders is the other. It’s important because just when the movie ought to be about Rogers and Day, or even just Rogers (as it turns out Day’s been going along with the Klan—just like the rest of the town), it’s about Cochran and Sanders. Ronald Reagan and whatever the hell is going on with his oversized suits is second-billed but he turns out to be irrelevant, with less a part to play than even Sanders. He’s the county prosecutor who wants to go after the Klan, even if it means he’s going to lose his re-election campaign. See, the Klan (run by Sanders) has supplanted the rule of law. The guy they kill at the beginning is a reporter who’s close to uncovering the Klan isn’t just supplanting the rule of law, but—and it comes in real quick—Sanders is actually ripping all the dumb racist hicks off because they’re dumb racist hicks. There’s some of the script’s careful navigating—see, while Klan members are showing poor judgment, they’re also victims of income tax evaders.
It’s shocking Storm Warning didn’t cure racism back in 1951 with such a bold statement. Eye roll.
Of course, Warning doesn’t address racism. There are occasional Black people in the film, meaningfully iCocn shots, but they don’t get any lines and there’s no violence against them or even mention of their existence. What’s wrong with the Klan is they’re holding small towns back so people like Ginger Rogers won’t want to visit. As Sanders puts it, if it weren’t for the Klan, Rogers wouldn’t be able to walk the streets at night. Sanders isn’t worried about the phantom Black male attacking her it turns out; it’s his men. You need the Klan to stop racist hick men from assaulting women en masse or so Sanders says. And the film agrees with him, which should throw off its internal philosophy but doesn’t because holy crap the ending is nuts morality play….
It’s a mess.
But for a while, it’s not and it’s rather good, even if it’s a little neutered. Rogers is really good, even when the film doesn’t have anything for her to do. Director Heisler will give Rogers these reaction shots—where she’s reacting to things she’s observing—and she does a great job with them. Shame the shots all seem forced in (or Clarence Kolster just does a terrible job editing). Day’s okay. She’s got a couple rather good scenes, but also a number of weak ones. It’s hard to buy her and Cochran, who’s always a bastard of one kind or another. Though the film also tries its darnedest to imply Day’s a little bit dumb, which throws a wrench in that pro-woman message I’d foolishly assumed would be a factor since… it’s about Rogers standing up to the Klan, right? But Day’s possible dullness is just another excuse for her inaction.
Storm Warning really likes giving White people an excuse to be inactive. Including Reagan’s parents, who didn’t used to think his silly liberal politics (in this case, thinking the Klan shouldn’t be allowed to kidnap and murder people) were good, but they’re grown on them since Reagan’s such a profound legal orator.
He’s not. He’s really not. The courtroom scene is terribly written.
Reagan’s fine overall. His suits are dumb, he’s got no personality, but he’s kind of banally charming. He really, really, really, really, really never should’ve been given lead roles. Someone seemed to think he was Jimmy Stewart.
Cochran’s terrifying. Even after the movie takes a few hits—the courtroom stuff is exceptionally problematic, plot-wise—Cochran’s still reliably foreboding. All the tension comes from him, even if his scenes with Sanders are dramatically inert nonsense.
Sanders isn’t bad, but he’s never good. He’s a one dimensional Mr. Big.
Great photography from Carl E. Guthrie; the exterior night time shots are fantastic (right up until the end when Heisler can’t figure out how to frame the climax and Guthrie can’t figure out how to light what Heisler goes with). Too much music from Daniele Amfitheatrof but not bad. Just too much.
Storm Warning could’ve been good. It could’ve given Rogers a great role, could’ve given Day a great role, could’ve given Reagan… well, maybe could’ve not wasted the time Reagan’s onscreen. It starts strong and seems sturdy but nope. And not even because of all the hoops it jumps through to avoid really talking about the Klan.
Directed by Stuart Heisler; written by Daniel Fuchs and Richard Brooks; director of photography, Carl E. Guthrie; edited by Clarence Kolster; music by Daniele Amfitheatrof; produced by Jerry Wald; released by Warner Bros.
Starring Ginger Rogers (Marsha Mitchell), Steve Cochran (Hank Rice), Doris Day (Lucy Rice), Hugh Sanders (Charlie Barr), Lloyd Gough (Cliff Rummel), Raymond Greenleaf (Faulkner), and Ronald Reagan (Burt Rainey).