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Lawless, The (DVD Review)

11 Jun, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Macdonald Carey, Gail Russell.

“Crusading newspaper editor movie” has a better ring to it than “crusading website editor movie,” which means that this crisp 1950 soap-boxer from what was then Paramount Pictures’ premier low-budget production unit is old-school (in addition to being old-school liberal). Thus, on the latter count, welcome to another familiar story hook about a white guy of community standing coming to the rescue of an oppressed minority — in this case, a Hispanic migrant worker speciously accused of sundry offenses, including the assault of a young and Caucasian California woman. Her casting amplifies the effect, though it didn’t mean as much at time; Gloria Winters later became a symbol of ‘50s’ purity by virtue of her boomer immortality for having played “Penny” on TV’s “Sky King.”

But on the other hand — and despite the film’s portrayal of other stand-up white citizenry — who else at the time could or would have carried the torch against this kind of injustice other than a crusading white editor?

This was director Joseph Losey’s second of five Hollywood features before fleeing to England in permanent Blacklist exile — though atypically, the picture was also a sojourn into social consciousness by producers William H. Pine and William C. Thomas, whose profitable Paramount productions were more likely to be oceanic adventures starring a John Payne or Rhonda Fleming. The Lawless was shot in 18 days and was almost certainly relegated to the bottom of double bills, which makes it remarkable that it turned out so well. You can see already that Losey has an eye for exteriors (during the chase sequences) and interiors (as in the scene where a Mexican-American dance social turns into a riot after white teens “go across the tracks” to see if they can take advantage of Mexican-American women).

With a screenplay by Geoffrey Homes (a frequent pseudonym used by Daniel Mainwaring), the movie has some of the feel of the Mainwaring-scripted Invasion of the Body Snatchers, even down to each picture being set in towns whose names begin with “Santa.” Both use small-town California locales most effectively when studio back-lots would have trampled the mood, and Olive’s print here is another good one of a non-household name that’s more than 60 years old. Except for the uncharacteristic Jackson, MS. locations it shelled out for with 1949’s Intruder in the Dust, it is almost impossible to imagine, say, MGM leaving Culver City to make this kind of movie — though, ironically, MGM probably would have been more inclined to take this subject matter on than Paramount (which didn’t have that much interest in stories “ripped from today’s headlines,” Ace in the Hole notwithstanding). 

Cast as the editor, Macdonald Carey certainly knew how to do “stalwart” with a mild sense of humor; he and Losey must have gotten along because the director used him again for 1962’s These Are the Damned, which is one of the key cult movies from the middle part of Losey’s very interesting career. The Lawless also marked Tab Hunter’s screen debut, but mostly he just stands around as the blondest member of the white kids who precipitate a lot of the trouble. And speaking of trouble, the female lead (in Hispanic makeup) is tragic Gail Russell — her last movie for Paramount before the studio elected not to renew her contract due to the actress’s well-known drinking problem. Compared to her luminous presence just three years earlier opposite John Wayne in the perpetually popular Angel and the Badman, you can already see what booze was doing to Russell’s looks. She died in 1961 at 36, but you can’t take Angel — or what is arguably the movies’ greatest ghost yarn, The Uninvited — away from her.

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