Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Well is an emotionally satisfying socially conscious drama that sits squarely in the middle of what passed for controversy in 1951. Its theme is community cooperation, despite the fact that it stages the most elaborate race riot perhaps ever seen on American screens. It has a noir-ish tendency toward documentary realism, filling dozens of small roles with non-actors. It sees America as a tinderbox waiting to erupt into racial warfare, yet did not suffer the wrath visited upon so-called subversive Hollywood movies like Try and Get Me! and The Prowler (both 1950).
In April 1949, the fledgling Los Angeles Television station KTLA made history with marathon location coverage of a 27-hour effort to free a small girl, Kathy Fiscus, from a narrow abandoned well-shaft in San Marino. On-the-spot TV coverage of news events was then a brand-new concept, and the incident became a national tragedy. 1
A kindergarten child (Gwendolyn Laster) goes missing. Sheriff Ben Kellogg (Richard Rober (The Tall Target, The File on Thelma Jordon) promises the girl's parents Martha and Ralph (Maidie Norman and Ernest Anderson) that race will not become an issue in the search. Witnesses recall seeing a white stranger buying the child a flower. The man turns out to be Claude Packard (Henry aka Harry Morgan), the brother of the town's leading employer, Sam Packard (Barry Kelley). Claude pleads his innocence and Ben begins to believe him, but Sam demands unreasonably that his brother be released. Convinced that Sheriff Ben and the rest of the whites will stick together, black citizens voice their distrust, leading to a gross overreaction by irresponsible whites. Gossip blows a tiny scuffle out of proportion and a full-scale race war erupts in the town streets, fed by deep-seated hatreds unrelated to the problem of the missing child. Then the news arrives. The little girl hasn't been kidnapped at all ... some young boys have discovered that she has fallen into the shaft of an abandoned water well.
Any discussion of The Well should start with the statement that it's not a cheap exploitation film. It begins with the horrifying image of a tiny child disappearing into the ground, a sight guaranteed to grab the attention of any parent. For the better part of an hour we think of little Gwendolyn's terror while the town above her degenerates into civil chaos.
The Well was made by producer Harry Popkin, who in the late forties turned out a trio of novel thrillers, the superior D.O.A., this film and The Thief. All were written or directed by the team of Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene, who subsequently enjoyed a spotty but interesting career.
The most amazing part of The Well is its depiction of a race riot growing from almost nothing into an all-out war. White and black mobs armed with clubs and guns roam the streets and beat defenseless victims. I don't remember anything like it in a previous film except for Joseph Mankiewicz's No Way Out, which added an exaggerated theatricality to the mix. The warring townspeople of The Well are played mostly by local non-pros. Their actions and attitudes are disturbingly credible even when their acting is weak. The issue of a lost child and a hot-potato kidnap-murder suspect gets put on the back burner while the town goes haywire. Fast montages (Oscar-nominated) by editor Chester W. Schaeffer show the gossiping citizens -- mostly white hotheads -- spreading exaggerated false rumors of savage actions by 'uppity' blacks. The 'N' word gets a strong workout. Both the editing and the screenwriting (also Oscar-nominated) of this part of the movie is basically copied from Norman Krasna, Bartlett Cormack and Fritz Lang's Fury, the pioneering 1936 movie about lynching.
The movie has a surprisingly mature approach to the African-Americans of this racially mixed community. The relatives of the missing girl are not perfect role models -- the father becomes unreasonable when he fears the sheriff is not being fair -- but they are granted respect and dignity. The standout is actress Maidie Norman, who plays the mother. She's best known as the ill-fated housekeeper in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The mother is paralyzed with apprehension, and after rushing to the bare hole in the ground where her daughter disappeared, spends most of the rescue section of the movie frozen in silence.
The Well shows that socially conscious movies are needed, even when they promote a political point of view. Cy Endfield made Try and Get Me!, a movie that suggested that inequities in the supposedly booming post-war economy might drive a good man to terrible crimes. The film ends with a cataclysmic lynching riot and a condemnation of the American status quo. Joseph Losey's The Prower is a thriller about a corrupt cop who murders for love and money and then hides behind his badge. His does it to join the 'successful class,' the Americans that 'make money while they sleep.' The makers of those pictures (both 1950) were blacklisted and forced to retreat to England to make a living. Their films were considered attacks on America, giving comfort and propaganda leverage to our Cold War enemies, the Russians.
Stalin's propaganda apparatus loved to promote the idea that America was run by lawless profiteers in league with gangsters, a land where labor organizers were routinely murdered and racial minorities cruelly suppressed. One could imagine that the Soviets would be delighted to release The Well with a few changes. As the town descends into chaos, the Communist revision could simply cut back to the lonely hole in the field, where the forgotten little girl is perishing. The End. 2
The Well 'gets away' with its realistic depiction of a lawless American race riot because the violence is de-fused as soon as the word gets out that the little girl is trapped in the well shaft. The storytelling does go a little fuzzy at this juncture. There is no distinct changeover point in which the town switches from riot hysteria to communal concern. With the civic blood temperature already raised by dozens of beatings, you'd think that individual reprisals would be self-perpetuating.
The only comparable movie situation I can think of -- that works -- is in the comedy The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming. Yankees and Russkies are nose to nose and ready to open fire when a little kid's life is suddenly put in danger by an accident everyone can see. Both sides abandon the standoff and rush to the rescue, functioning in full cooperation. It's schematic, it's corny, but it works because the movie is a comedy. The situation in The Well is far more serious.
The script also treats the rescue in an odd communal way, minimizing the personal agony in favor of an automatic collective effort. Mrs. Crawford tries but cannot hear her daughter's cries from 65 feet down a hole in the ground. A radio technician, who a few minutes ago was out for black blood, now lowers a microphone into the hole to prove that the little girl is still alive. Sheriff Ben doesn't need to make any sermonizing speeches because everyone turns out at the well site. The previous stock heavy Sam Packard becomes a take-charge guy, ordering in his digging equipment to drop a parallel shaft to free the child. His unhappy brother Claude overcomes his bitterness over the false arrest. He's the only experienced miner around, and he's the first to drop into the narrow rescue shaft to dig a path to the trapped girl. The role must have been a major breakthrough for Harry Morgan, as demand for his services boomed. Morgan soon became a regular sidekick in James Stewart movies.
Curiously, the film does not end with a sentimental family reunion. The last thing we see is the Sheriff and the local waitress Casey (Christine Larson) embracing, and the Crawfords don't even seem to accompany their daughter in the ambulance. This makes the rescue a shared communal victory.
What the second half of The Well most closely resembles is a classic German movie by G.W. Pabst, Kameradschaft. Between the world wars, bitter resentments across the Franco-German border are forgotten during a French mine cave-in. German miners volunteer to come to the rescue because their profession outweighs national hatreds. The common humanity of the citizens in The Well likewise outweighs their racial differences.
The Well was probably saved from the blacklist because 'everything turns out for the better.' The town heals itself and the National Guard is not needed. It's interesting that this ending mimics a European movie with a definite Communist message!
Leading player Richard Rober was building a solid scorecard of roles, but was killed in an auto accident just the next year. He has an interesting tough guy face with expressive, thoughtful eyes, and his contribution holds together the mixed cast of actors and local non-professionals.
Image's DVD of The Well comes from a second-rate Wade Williams print source. The movie seems to be intact but has quite a few distracting scratches, especially in the first half. Ernest Laszlo's night scenes are good but his on-the-street buildup to the riot is even better. We feel like we're in a real small town where a bored teenage girl might claim she was threatened by a black man to get her boyfriend to pay attention to her. A better copy will hopefully someday emerge.
A big plus is the dynamic score by Dimitri Tiomkin. It's not as hysterical as his work on D.O.A. but adds an excellent edge to the drama as the riot tension builds. In one scene where Ben's deputies just miss spotting the well hole, the music is truly chilling.
There are no extras. The racy cover illustration has less than nothing to do with the movie inside.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Well rates:
Video: Fair +++
Sound: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 25, 2007
1. The KTLA reporter on the scene was the very young Stan Chambers. He remained with the station all these years, has covered many historic events and is a local celebrity frequently seen here in the Hollywood / Hancock Park / Larchmont area. I've always wondered if Mr. Chambers' warm and responsible coverage (he was barely a cub reporter at the time) added to the media rejection of Billy Wilder's cynical approach to a similar situation in his Ace in the Hole, released the same year. The rescuers reached Kathy Fiscus too late, but the rescue scene did not turn into a "Big Carnival."
2. That description of a 'Russian re-cut' of The Well is just a Savant daydream. But someday we have to see the real 1953 Soviet satire Serebristaya pyl (Silver Dust). Shown once in the West at an Italian film festival, it was instantly condemned as venal Soviet propaganda. The charge was repeated throughout diplomatic circles and in LIFE magazine, but the movie has barely been mentioned in film books. I spent several hours tracking down obscure references on the web. The few 1953 spokesmen to discuss it admitted that they didn't see it themselves and were going on the negative reports of others, leading me to think that the furor was based 99% on hearsay. According to the Phil Hardy Encyclopedia of Science Fiction films, Silver Dust follows a U.S. scientist who invents a deadly radioactive dust and seeks human guinea pigs to test it on. A businessman, a general and an ex-Nazi scientist welcomed by the Americans also want the dust. A LIFE reporter was incensed at scenes depicting brutality toward black servants, a lynching and a false arrest. The irony is that, unlike the outright fantasies in our worst anti-Commie propaganda, it sounds as if everything that happens in Silver Dust is basically true!
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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