The Lawless (1950)

Lawless (1950): Starring Gail RusselHaving watched what might be termed a “message noir,” Try and Get Me (1950), at UCLA recently, I thought it would be interesting to watch a film made the same year which has similar themes.

That movie is The Lawless, which, like Try and Get Me, concerns crime in a small California town; in each case the movies focus heavily on the power of the press — for good or ill — and mob violence. Class divisions are also touched on in each film, and both movies feature early television, though it’s much more significant to the plot of The Lawless.

It’s also interesting to note that the two movies each also happen to have had directors who were later blacklisted and relocated their careers to England; in the case of The Lawless it was Joseph Losey, while Try and Get Me was directed by Cy Endfield.

In The Lawless Macdonald Carey — whose centennial was March 15th — plays Larry Wilder, the new owner-editor of a small-town paper. Racial tensions between Hispanic farm workers and the more well-off “town boys” boil over at a dance in what struck me as an early version of the Jets versus the Sharks.

A nice Hispanic kid, Paul (Lalo Rios), hits a police officer in the melee, panics, and flees in a stolen ice cream truck. Matters go from bad to worse when he is caught but the police car crashes on the way back to the station, killing an officer and setting Paul once again on the run.

The local citizenry get worked up into quite a state, fed by wildly exaggerated news stories by a Stockton reporter (Lee Patrick) as well as Larry’s own employee (Herbert Anderson), who has a sideline stringing for another paper. Soon there’s also a TV reporter stoking the flames.

Local tensions come to a head when Larry publishes a more balanced story on Paul’s background and starts a legal defense fund for the young man. The fact that Larry has a relationship with Sunny Garcia (Gail Russell), the publisher of a Spanish-language weekly paper, only inflames some of the locals more.

I found this 83-minute film to be an interesting drama. It effectively tackled some of the same issues as Try and Get Me; while it didn’t have the same dramatic power as that film, it was actually a bit of a relief, as I found Try and Get Me to be stomach-churning. This film had plenty of interesting conflict but wasn’t so exhausting to watch!

Carey and Russell are both favorites, and they do a fine job. Russell plays her role without attempting an accent; she is simply a Mexican-American, emphasis more on the American, who’s concerned about her community. She is in some ways the gutsiest character in the movie, serving as the voice of conscience for Larry and refusing to abandon a newspaper office when it’s stormed by a dangerous, destructive mob.

The Lawless felt less preachy than Try and Get Me, which had a professor regularly lecturing the other characters. The film in some ways stereotypes small-town citizens as prejudiced, resentful, and easily manipulated by the media, while at the same time it does show individual characters who don’t fit that mold, whether it’s Larry or the wealthy father (John Hoyt) of a young man (Johnny Sands of The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer) who realizes his son’s been up to no good and wants to help set matters right. The movie also balances showing some policemen who are responsible professionals with an officer who’s a real jerk.

The movie has a deep cast which includes Martha Hyer, who has a single scene as Herbert Anderson’s date; the great character actor Frank Ferguson, who also has one scene as a lawyer attempting to help a bunch of Hispanic boys after they’re arrested; and Tab Hunter, in his first role, as one of the town troublemakers. The cast also includes Russ Conway, Argentina Brunetti, Maurice Jara, Walter Reed, Pedro de Cordoba, and Paul Harvey. The little girl in a single scene is Janine Perreau, part of an acting family which included her better-known sister, Gigi Perreau.

The Lawless was shot in black and white by J. Roy Hunt. It was filmed on location in Marysville and Grass Valley, California. Robby has some terrific “then and now” comparisons at Dear Old Hollywood.

Laura G. is a proofreader and homeschooling parent who is a lifelong film enthusiast.  Laura’s thoughts on classic films, Disney, and other topics can be found at Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, established in 2005.