Southwest Side Story

Cut to the chase:  The rare and raw 1950 noirish drama THE LAWLESS, boldly dealing with Anglo vs. Chicano prejudice in small-town America, finally gets its much-deserved resurrection on DVD from the folks at Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.

This remarkable movie grabs you from the fade-in – wherein white teens get confrontational with Hispanic youths. Ostensibly, it’s all about who gets the jobs – or who’s taking the jobs; but it’s veritably all a bullshit excuse to fan the flames of hate. The town is uneasily dealing with growing population of Mexicans who are relocating to the community as migrant fruit-pickers. Their “stealing” the jobs facade is nonsense, as the corrupt law enforcement and political figures gloat about how they’ll keep bringing ’em in at two dollars a head until they’re not needed. So much for the good ol’ days! The schism that becomes Mexicans against white America is further defined by slumming journalist Macdonald Carey, who has had enough of the miserable big-city bastards and yearns for the “simpler life.” He angers the big-shot honchos by going against his race and working for a left-leaning newspaper, which is not only run by an Hispanic, but (oh, the horror!) an Hispanic woman (Gail Russell).

Reluctantly, Carey drifts toward the opposition, alerting his former urban employers to what’s going on in the supposed bucolic paradise. And it blows up in his face. Interracial dating, rape, juvenile delinquency/gang warfare, equal rights for minorities (and women) and equal pay end up exploding into an all-out race riot, with the bigots refusing to acknowledge anyone who looks and/or acts different from them. Conform or get the hell out is the cretin credo, as the town becomes an embryonic blueprint for the one in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This is more than coincidental – the original screenplay is by Daniel Mainwaring, who penned the 1956 Don Siegel sci-fi classic.

And it was the liberal Mainwaring who brought in his pal to direct – controversial and similarly progressive Joseph Losey, here helming his second feature film.

What’s so amazing about THE LAWLESS is its dealing with racial profiling – remember this is 1950 – and its villainous personification via characters right out of the Joe Arpaio playbook. Even more astounding is the fact that this movie sprouted from the bread-and-butter Pine-Thomas unit, Paramount’s efficient B-picture department. Actually, how this came about isn’t that crazy when one considers what was going on in the industry at the time. Post-war audiences craved the neo-realist sociological messages increasingly fueling motion-picture fare. Big pictures like Gentleman’s Agreement, Pinky, Intruder in the Dust, No Way Out and Crossfire had/were doing well at the box office. More relevantly, “little” pics like the Stanley Kramer productions Home of the Brave and The Men, plus the racially charged Lost Boundaries and The Well, got some major juice in markets thought impenetrable by independents. So, long story short, if there was money to be made by being edgy with a message – sound the clarion call. Body Snatchers aside, THE LAWLESS, with its live TV hookup of the circus surrounding the vigilante race riot, prefigures Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (released by Paramount a year later; ironically, Carey’s character is named Wilder).

Mainwaring got his bosses, the notoriously tightwad producers William H. Pine and William C. Thomas (known throughout the industry as The Dollar Bills, a moniker I can never mention enough), to greenlight THE LAWLESS not only because of the above pitch, but also due to his innumerable past successes as a writer for the skinflints. He had a reasonably good working relationship with the Bills; not so with Losey, who clashed with the mini-moguls from Day One.

Losey deflected from calling Pine-Thomas the Dollar Bills, far preferring the term “monsters.” He recalled a script session a Bill had with the director while the producer was attending to business…on his toilet. According to Losey, their inane and inappropriate suggestions caused him to fling the script in their faces with a terse “Direct your own fucking picture!” He was fired at least once (possibly twice, depending upon which source one chooses to believe) with Mainwaring serving as a go-between/referee. The location work (which constituted most of the production) buffered the flare-ups, but had its own share of problems.

In Michel Ciment’s engrossing 1985 book Conversations with Losey, the director discussed the bizarre casting mix surrounding THE LAWLESS:  “Lalo Rios [the juvenile lead]…was a Mexican-born boy that I found in downtown Los Angeles at a church where he was master of ceremonies.  And he was very young, 15 or 16…Maurice Jara came from the Pasadena Playhouse…”  The two stars, Carey and Russell, both Paramount contract players, were, according to the director, an oil and water cocktail. Carey, a total professional – a trained stage actor – was pitch-perfect, a person Losey praised as a “genuinely nice guy.” (They would work well together again in Losey’s wonderful 1961 Hammer thriller The Damned).

Russell, on the other hand came with a Samsonite warehouse full of demons. “Gail Russell…died of alcoholism because she was so deathly frightened of acting, but she had in her the makings of a great star. I think she had the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen…And she was immensely sensitive.  She didn’t know anything.  Paramount had her under contract – like a horse.  She got a big salary then, and I had absolute instructions…not to let her have a drink.  The very first time I shot with her I had a long-night tracking shot…She couldn’t remember a single line and it was three or four pages of important dialogue…Finally…she grabbed me, her hands were icy cold, she was absolutely rigid, and she said, ‘Look,…I never had a director who gave me a scene this long before.  I can’t do it…I’ve never kidded myself.  I’m not an actress.  I hate it.  I’m frightened of it.  Get me a drink and I’ll be all right.’   So I said, ‘You know, I’ve been told not to get you a drink?’  She said, ‘Get me a drink!’  I got her a drink and she did the scene…By this time Macdonald Carey couldn’t remember his lines.  She had absolutely destroyed him.  It was a very hard bad start on a quick picture, to spend the whole night on one set-up…Anyway this started her drinking and she was drunk throughout the rest of the picture.  That isn’t to say that she was bad.  I think she was very good often, but sometimes I had to shoot scenes in ways to disguise the fact that she was drunk and sometimes I had to shoot scenes with a stand-in because she was too drunk to stand up.”

Russell, who is very good in the movie, is backed up by a roster of fine supporting players, including Herbert (Guy) Anderson, Lee Patrick, John Hoyt, Frank Ferguson, Paul Harvey, Willard Waterman and, in early appearances, Martha Hyer and Tab Hunter.

The stark black-and-white photography is by the superb cameraman J. Roy Hunt, whose near 200-title filmography began in 1916.  Losey credited Hunt for his early success:  “An extraordinary man who had invented lots of the little mechanisms on the Mitchell camera we were then using.  He was the one above all others who taught me how to work intensely and well and still fast.  We’d hardly get finished with a shot and he’d have the camera on his back, still on the tripod, and run to the next set-up which I’d already given him.  He was marvelous.” The music was another matter, being a workable but pedestrian score by Mahlon Merrick.  “[Pine-Thomas] forced a score on me which I detest and which I think damaged the film very much,” recalled Losey bitterly almost right up until his death in 1984.  “It made it cheaper and more melodramatic and it slowed the tempo.  And that was a battle I simply couldn’t win.”

With all these bumps and glitches, it’s incredible that THE LAWLESS turned out as well as it did – or even that it got made at all (several times, the picture was halted with the prognosis being to cut the losses and run). It remains, with Losey’s terrific 1951 thriller The Prowler, a peak of his underrated American period. Unquestionably, in part, the politics of THE LAWLESS (coupled with the director’s outspoken liberalism) zoomed him to HUAC’s Deport At Once status. The blacklisted director left the country in 1952 and spent the rest of his career working in Europe.

The lynch-mob sidebar in THE LAWLESS was favorably compared to the narrative of Fritz Lang’s 1936 masterpiece Fury (a movie Losey loved, and had seen many times, but dubiously claims had no influence on the Pine-Thomas pic; it’s undoubtedly also likely that THE LAWLESS resulted in getting the director the 1951 remake of Lang’s M). This sounded promising, except to Pine-Thomas who knew that while Lang’s movie was critically acclaimed, it didn’t make a dime. Undaunted, the producers set their publicity machine into motion utilizing shameful and contentious tactics. Using some of the extras from THE LAWLESS, a campaign began stressing that Mexicans like movies just like everyone else; images of Chicano kids lining up at a local theater filled the pressbook; notably, the show these eager picture-goers were champing at the bit for was the John Payne-Rhonda Fleming epic The Eagle and the Hawk, a (what a surprise!) concurrent Pine-Thomas production.

As positive word-of-mouth spread, Paramount took the reins and upped the promotion to a more respectable level. The studio began a rigorous trade-show screening agenda for their sleeper. And the press responded in kind, with accolades from no less than The New York Times and celebrated newscaster Drew Pearson, who hyped the picture extensively.

Once the repeated comparisons to Fury filtered down, Paramount employees could hear the groans coming from the Pine-Thomas offices. Indeed, the die had been cast; despite the glowing reviews, THE LAWLESS became the lowest-performing entry in the Pine-Thomas canon. In addition, the leftie politics of the piece prompted the producers to remove it from its television syndication packages during the early 1960s (and throughout the 1970s). In effect, it became a quasi-lost movie (occasionally turning up in Losey retrospectives, often hailing from private collections).

Olive Films and Paramount Home Entertainment should be heartily congratulated for making this important title available to classic movie fans. The DVD, mastered from excellent 35MM materials, looks and sounds just grand.

Losey saw THE LAWLESS as the anti-Capra picture, presenting a brutal modern world where would-be Mr. Smiths and Mr. Deedses (aka the Macdonald Carey character) came to the stark realization that there are was no such thing as a Capra America:  it was an ugly sugar-coated myth. For critics and the few popcorn eaters who saw it, THE LAWLESS presented a message that resonated with a cynical vengeance. For Pine-Thomas that message boiled down to two words: Never again!

THE LAWLESS.  Black and White.  Full frame [1.37:1].  Mono.  Cat #: OF393.  SRP:  $24.95.

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