Ginger Rogers? Ronald Reagan? Doris Day? Must be some frothy Hollywood comedy. Certainly can’t be anything close to film noir.

What really surprised me about this powerful 1951 noir classic is that not only had I never seen it, I had never even heard of it. It had sailed completely under my radar all these years. So when it came on TCM one middle of the night a few weeks ago, I recorded it, not expecting much. And what I saw blasted me right between the eyes.

Ginger Rogers, whose dancing career was in her rear view mirror at this point, is a big-city dress model on her way to a big show. She gets off the bus en route in the small town of Rock Point to pay a one-day visit to her sister, effectively played by Doris Day. Within minutes, she witnesses a murder by the Ku Klux Klan. What follows is a descent into Klan terror and the grip that organization had over Rock Point and so many towns like it back in those days.

Storm Warning is not like any other movie in which the Klan plays a role. The murder victim is white, and the subject of race never comes up. Race is only hinted at on one occasion, and even then very obliquely. Ginger is slowly drawn into a conspiracy to cover up the murder and to stymie the investigation, headed up by the anti-Klan district attorney, played with remarkable skill by Reagan in a surprisingly solid performance.

From the moment Ginger gets off the bus two minutes into the film, the tension never lets up. Under the confident hand of director Stuart Heisler, this film takes unpredictable turns every sweaty step of the way, aided immensely by a literate script, penned by no less than Richard Brooks and Daniel Fuchs. The final result deftly avoids all the usual stereotypes associated with Klan movies. The characters don’t even speak with Southern accents, letting the viewer know in no uncertain terms that such terrorism is an American phenomenon, not confined to the backwaters of Dixie.

Doris Day is clearly warming up her cutesy persona which would later bloom in the Rock Hudson comedies at the end of the decade, but her role here is a serious one and she handles it well. Her thick-witted husband, played by Steve Cochran, is one of the Klan killers. This is unquestionably Cochran’s finest performance. During his twenty-year career as a character actor, he was usually called upon to play gangsters and other assorted typical tough guys, but his portrayal of Hank Rice is utterly three-dimensional. Playing “stupid” requires an actor to walk a fine line, to flesh out a believable character without lapsing into stereotype, and Cochran pulls it off without one false note, making it look easy.

Despite the presence of all this talent working at the top of their game, the real star of Storm Warning might well be director of photography Carl Guthrie. His dizzying play of shadows and light rivals the best of the film noir cinematographers. In lesser hands, this potent story could easily lose a lot of its punch.

When the Klan’s Imperial Wizard, played by Hugh Sanders, says at one point, “We’re the law here,” a chill runs up your spine, because this movie is making you realize how true that was. Ordinary people were frightened out of their wits at the thought of snitching on any Klan crime, and no one, not even right-thinking law enforcement, dared stand up to them. Today, we can all be thankful that organization has gone into deep decline and is no longer a factor in American society.

Storm Warning is one of those rare B-movie gems that is seldom on TV. You should make every effort to see this film, one way or another.

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  1. Edward Correll

    It’s good, finally, to have someone give this overlooked film its due. Thanks! And since you had not heard of the film before the TCM Doris Day fest, you probably don’t know that it was her performance in this film that made Alfred Hitchcock give Doris Day the female lead in ”The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956). Thanks again.

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