Film Noir Friday: The Well (1951)



Russell Rouse, who wrote the screenplay for Rudolph Maté’s eccentric 1950 noir D.O.A., co-directs The Well with Leo C. Popkin. This 1951 picture is part film noir and part socially conscious drama, with Rouse and Clarence Green’s screenplay exploring subjects of race and rescue. It’s an important picture in a number of ways and its issues are still vital today.

But it’s not without flaws, especially when things literally descend down the titular pit. Rouse’s fingertips seem to be all over the moments of chaos, like when racial divides rumble into vicious conflict, and the early scenes account for the best The Well has to offer. Unfortunately, the movie’s desire to pull things together makes for an overly expedient and overly extensive rescue sequence.

Richard Rober stars as Sheriff Ben Kellogg and he’s on the case when a five-year-old black girl (Gwendolyn Laster) goes missing. The investigation puts the finger on Claude Packard (Harry Morgan), a white man seen buying her flowers. Packard is visiting his uncle Sam (Barry Kelley), a flush industrialist, and he’s picked up on suspicion of kidnapping.

After an incident that puts Sam on the ground at the hands of a few black men, racial tensions boil over. Sam wants to drive out the African-Americans and armed mobs take to the streets, with rumours further fuelling long-dormant frenzy. Soon, the girl is discovered alive but trapped at the bottom of a well. The town bands together to save her.

The first half of The Well makes for a compelling motion picture, with its undaunted exploration of racial resentment. The powerful try to get Sherriff Kellogg to drop the charges against Claude and attempt to have the whole issue glossed over. After all, nobody really cares about a black girl when a white man of good repute is at stake.

The black family, depicted here as reasonably wealthy in their own right, knows that there are limits to the help law enforcement will provide. Maidie Norman does a wonderful job as the girl’s mother, a woman who just wants her little girl back and doesn’t have an interest in the games the men of the town are playing. When her daughter is discovered, her despair is heartrending.

Rober does an admirable job as the man trying to keep everything civil. He spots the powder keg from a mile away and suggests the National Guard, knowing that the people of the town will tear each other apart. He is a man possessed by the desire to do his job and he doesn’t play to the racial politics of those he’s bound to protect and serve.

Considering The Well in the context of 1951 is interesting, but the core of Rouse and Popkin’s picture is still persuasive today. Given the fissured nature of racial politics, there’s a lot to be said for the fable of togetherness presented in the latter half of the movie. If only one singular event could pull such disparate forces together, all wounds would heal. Right?

Cinematographer Ernest Laszlo ensures the noir credentials are on-point with his simmering work, especially when it comes to the urban chaos. He captures the textures of the characters well and uses close-ups efficiently, tilting the lens as we look at some mad locals set to burn their town to the ground.

Unfortunately, The Well doesn’t do enough with its currency. The discord it stokes is authentic and the scenes of mob violence are unsettling and real, but the solution comes too effortlessly and there are far, far too many conveniences when it’s all said and done.

Had the picture made more out of Morgan’s Claude Packard and the allegations, it’s conclusion would’ve felt more earned and Rober’s man in the middle would’ve maintained a more impactful role. As it is, The Well is a good-hearted but mediocre entry in the film noir pantheon. After a heated first half, it sinks into tactless naïveté and never quite recovers.

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