Storm Warning

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Doris Day and Ginger Rogers meet the Ku Klux Klan in 1951’s Storm Warning, a noirish crime drama strangely silent on the most salient aspects of Klan activity but with things to say about the mob mindset and liberal American values nonetheless.

It rattles along at around 93 minutes, with the focus mainly on Rogers, who plays a travelling clothes model arriving in the town where her sister (Day) lives and looking forward to seeing her sister for the first time since little sis got married.

She arrives late and immediately something is off in this dark town, where everything curiously quiet. The lights are going off in shops. A cab driver refuses to take her to her sister’s ten blocks away. Everyone is making themselves scarce. Marsha discovers why when, making her way on foot across town, she comes across a mob dressed in white Klan garb killing a man.

Shocked big-city liberal Marsha has seen two of the men’s faces and on turning up at her sister’s place is shocked again to discover that little sister Lucy is married to one of them, Hank (Steve Cochran). The other, it will later turn out is the Klan leader, a local worthy called Charlie Barr (Hugh Sanders).

In the meantime the world-weary county prosecutor Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan) has turned up at the murder scene, only to find that, as ever, no one saw nothing. The usual omerta descends. The Klan are going to get away with it again, and Rainey, possibly the only decent guy in town, is sick of it.

Robert Reagan and Stuart Randall
The good guys: Ronald Regan and Stuart Randall

From here it’s a case of good guy Rainey on one side discovering that Marsha has seen something and trying to get her to testify at the coroner’s hearing into the man’s death, and bad guy Barr on the other, threatening to do his worst to her and her pregnant sister if she squeals.

It’s a standoff between the rule of the mob and the rule of the law, and there is enough meat there to make this a chewy drama. The Klan are more allegorical than realistic. They have been de-racialised. The dead man was white and there are no black people in this film. Nor are we obviously in the South. And while at one point, Barr makes a speech insisting it’s the Klan that make it safe for nice (white) women like Marsha and Lucy to walk the streets at night unmolested (by black men, the implication goes), that’s as near as Storm Warning ever comes to addressing the elephant in this particular room.

This was Doris Day’s first non-singing role and though she’s playing second string to Rogers, she’s a bright and lithe presence who, when required to flash some steel, does it just right, proving herself as an actor to be adept at whatever came her way, much as Ginger Rogers had years before.

As Hank, Steve Cochran strikes lairy Brando-as-Stanley-Kowalski-in-Street-Car attitudes but his histrionic performance helps explain why Warner’s never managed to turn him into a star, even with years of grooming. Hugh Sanders makes more of an impression as the Klan boss Barr, suggesting there’s something faintly cowardly beneath the tough-guy swagger and big-man poses.

It’s Ronald Reagan who’s the big surprise, hat tilted back, face full of exasperation, it’s a good-guy role and Reagan sells his character well – the townspeople actually like this prosecutor Rainey, he’s a decent guy, and maybe things would be better if the rule of law had more purchase but right here, right now, they’re going to side with the Klan. Reagan gets it all.

This is a glowering, gritty and dark film and director Stuart Heisler and his DP Carl Guthrie keep us at all times aware of the power of the crowd, the isolation of the individual. Sound design wasn’t a phrase bandied about in Hollywood at the time, but this movie uses it excellently – hubbub to clamour, we are always aware that a group of people is potentially scary.

“Busybodies… troublemakers… outsiders” Barr intones in final scenes as he gives Marsha a punishment whipping at a Klan gathering in front of a flaming cross. She’s all of these things and as a single woman forging her way in the world, she deserves it in this Handmaid’s Tale-adjacent vision of an inward-looking, reactionary America. For all its melodramatic moments, this is a curiously powerful film.

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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