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The Well

Posted by martinteller on May 5, 2012

A little black girl falls down a well, and her disappearance sends a community to the brink of race riots.  The film is divided into two distinct parts.  In the first part, we see the town building towards an explosion of violence and tensions between the blacks and whites heat up.  A stranger in town (Harry Morgan) was last seen with the girl, buying her flowers.  Because we see the girl’s fate in the opening minutes, the audience knows him to be innocent, but people are jumping to conclusions and the tension builds as incidents break out everywhere.  The film doesn’t shy away from use of “the n-word” and is incisive and damning in its condemnation of rumor-mongering and deep-rooted prejudices, on both sides of the issue.  Despite seeing similar issues covered in noirs like The Lawless, No Way Out and The Crimson Kimono, it’s still surprising to see such thoughtful and progressive viewpoints about race relations in pre-Rosa Parks/MLK film.  It’s handled very well and is deeply cynical.

Then (and I suppose I should say SPOILER ALERT but you can probably guess it’s coming) the movie takes a turn as the girl is discovered, and the community pulls together for the rescue effort.  It’s not an elaborately constructed scenario, but maintains tension throughout.  The camerawork by Ernest Laszlo is striking as the men and machinery work through the night, and there are some predictable but still very moving moments.  As far as “child fallen down a well” stories go, it’s as gripping as any of them.  Popkin and Rouse manage to be both cynical and optimistic about racial strife in the same film, without any sense of dissonance between the two attitudes.  We should strive for an ideal and be wary of the pitfalls that could send us all plummeting down towards a dark end.

There is a large array of amateur actors in the film, and sometimes their delivery is rather poor (not helped by some dialogue that can be a little too on-the-nose).  But the central performances are strong.  Morgan is always a pleasure, Maidie Norman (small roles in Written on the Wind, Susan Slept Here) is heartwarming/heartbreaking as the mother, Richard Rober (a familiar face to noir fans) projects a strong but uncertain presence as the sheriff, and Barry Kelley and Robert Osterloh (more noir regulars) are fairly compelling as the main antagonists.  The photography is generally more impressive in the second half, but there is at least one nice shot when Morgan is interrogated, with the camera right over his shoulder, making the viewer feel like the accused.

A little hokey and maybe a little rough around the edges, but a really compelling, sensitive and often touching movie.  Rating: Very Good


One Response to “The Well”

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