Lawless, The (1950): Joseph Losey’s Social Problem Film about Bigotry, Prejudice and Discrimination (Mexican-American)

In the late 1940s, Hollywood produced a cycle of social problem films that examined prejudice and discrimination against various ethnic minorities (Jews, blacks, Indians, Hispanics).

Some of these films were set in the military (Home of the Brave, 1949), while others were grounded in civilian life.  Most of their narratives took place in urban milieux, but some unfolded in rural regions and small-towns.

Kazan’s Pinky is set in a small Southern town, and Lost Boundaries (both in 1949) in a New Hampshire town. Both films deal with the problems of mulattoes who are trying, or are forced, to pass as whites. And in both films, the protagonists are played by white actors: Jeanne Crain in “Pinky” and Mel Ferrer in “Lost Boundaries.”

Joseph’s Losey The Lawless, which is set in California and concerns discrimination against Mexican-American, shares some thematic similarities with Fritz Lang’s Fury and Intruder in the Dust, because, like them, it deals with mob violence. (For a while, the film was known as Outrage).

Grade: B (***1/2* out of *****)

The Lawless
Lawless poster 1950.jpg

Theatrical release poster

 

The Lawless was an attempt by Pine-Thomas Productions to make a more “significant” kind of film.

The social-cultural context in which The Lawless was viewed was responsible for making the picture all the more relevant. There were riots in Peekskill, New York, precipitated by an advertised performance of Paul Robeson.

Set in Santa Marta, in the fruit-growing region of Northern California, the story examines a vicious community inflamed by prejudice against Mexican-Americans. The sources of prejudice are never explored, but the film illuminates the consequences of such behavior on both the victims and their oppressors.

In accordance with the conventions of the time, the narrative is explicit and didactic. As the prologue states, it is the story of a town and its people who, “in the grip of blind anger forget their American heritage of tolerance and decency and become the lawless.”

The problem is never discussed in social structural terms, but it is kept safely as an individual case of discrimination rather than a systemic issue.

The migratory workers live in the Sleepy Hollow, the “foreign” section, i.e. the other side of the tracks. In Santa Marta, a bridge divides the bad from the good section of town (the script was first titled “The Dividing Line”). But the ghetto is proud of establishing peace and order within its borders. “Tell your readers to look across the tracks,” says Sunny Garcia (Gail Russell), a Mexican reporter and unrelenting crusader, “We’ve erased juvenile delinquency over here.” (As was the custom at the time, the female is played by a white actress).

To convey the different lifestyle of the two sections, Losey crosscuts from a Mexican kid using an outdoor shower to a white kid in a clean bathroom.

The Lawless does not present the Mexican community as a uniformed or undifferentiated group. For example, Paul and Lopo differ in their levels of aspiration. Paul is more modest, aiming at owning his land one day, whereas Lopo believes in changing the community’s norms and structure.

Members of the two groups meet at a club that’s ironically named “The Good Fellowship Dance.” The community’s hatred and anger are brought to the surface when Paul Rodriguez (Lalo Rios) is accused by Joe Ferguson (John Sands), a racist youth with a cool air, of attacking a white girl.

The movie then goes on to show how the innocent Paul is forced to become a fugitive after he and his friend Lopo Chavez (Maurice Jara) are inadvertently involved in a car accident.

The film’s producers had imposed the melodramatic elements of rape and a police car going up in flames–against the protests of director Losey, who believed they were extraneous and unnecessary.

Even so, the youths’ flight from the police and the ensuing chase precipitates a series of disastrous events.

The white press is depicted as callous and sensationalistic, not unlike its imagery in the movies made in the 19309s, such as They Won’t Forget or Fury. “This is the greatest manhunt in the history of this lovely little town,” one reporter states.

Most of the white residents are shown to be hypocritical and duplicitous. Consoling Paul’s mother, one woman offers sympathy, “I’m a mother too.”  However, soon after that, she phones in a vicious report, describing Paul as a “mud-covered, sullen, a trapped animal if I ever saw one, cruelty in his eyes.”

The only positive characters in the white community are the newspaper’s editor Larry Wilder (MacDonald Carey, who played the detective in Hitchcock’s 1943 Shadow of a Doubt) and Joe’s father, Ed (John Hoyt), a businessman who’s liberal.

Interestingly, the town’s moral mouthpiece is a businessman, a rather unusual convention in small-town films. Ed is exactly the opposite from his son; he has obviously failed in educating him. “I didn’t think it could happen here,” claims Ed.

Some critics see this passage as a commentary on the political witch-hunting of communists in the late 1940s; Losey himself was blacklisted and went into exile to London for the rest of his career and life.

Initially, Wilder is not committed, having serious doubts and fears about getting involved. Deeply disenchanted, his initial reaction is simply to desert the place: “I’m through with small towns. They’re not like I remember them.” And it is significant that, only after the mob destroys his office, he commits himself to defend the oppressed kid from the lynching mob.

Wilder bears the name of many John Wayne’s heroes, but he is more of a Humphrey Bogart type of a hero: he is initially hesitant about committing himself to the cause.

Still, as in most Frank Capra films of the Depression, once committed, the leader addresses the masses in powerful speeches, appealing directly to their sense of guilt and shame.

Wilder tries to defend Paul in a newspaper article, which incites even greater anger. Lopo is attacked and a lynch mob for Paul is organized. The newspaper office is invaded and destroyed.

Wilder considers leaving town for good, but after a second consideration, and encouraged by Sunny’s love, he decides to stay in town and to merge their operations into one new newspaper, named “Union.”

Losey builds suspense by the accumulative power of small details about the characters and the social contexts in which they operate.  By standards of the time, the film was strikingly authentic: Shot on location (including the interior scenes), Losey consulted the photography of Paul Strand and Walker Evans.

The manhunt takes place in a rock-filled, desolate landscape, a wasteland outside town, reinforcing visually Paul’s sense of isolation and terror. Losey was impressed with the wilderness of rocks and the quality of their sounds.

The director wanted to show both sides of the American Dream. The nostalgia and good things about small towns are reflected in the sound of distant trains, the sparkle on the air of football games, the smell of leaves burning at night.

However, the dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima, the death of President Franklin Roosevelt, and the HUAAC 1947 investigations had disenchanted Losey to such an extent that he later claimed that his intent was to show what he called, “the complete unreality of the American Dream.”

Turning upside down the conventions of Frank Capra’s small town movies, the negative and pessimistic tone of The Lawless reflected Losey’s beliefs that “the most prejudiced, the most bigoted, the most racist, are always the people from small towns.”

Gail Russell had been on suspension by Paramount but got off it to make this film.

The Lawless features the screen debut of Tab Hunter, who would become a popular youth star later on in the decade.

Made on a low budget, the film was shot in only 18 days.

Cast

Macdonald Carey as Larry Wilder
Gail Russell as Sunny Garcia
Johnny Sands as Joe Ferguson
Lee Patrick as Jan Dawson
John Hoyt as Ed Ferguson
Lalo Rios as Paul Rodriguez
Maurice Jara as Lopo Chavez
Walter Reed as Jim Wilson
Guy Anderson as Jonas Creel
Argentina Brunetti as Mrs. Rodriguez
William Edmunds as Mr. Jensen
Gloria Winters as Mildred Jensen
John Davis as Harry Pawling
Martha Hyer as Caroline Tyler
Frank Fenton as Mr Prentiss
Paul Harvey as Chief of Police Blake
Felipe Turich as Mr. Rodriguez
Ian MacDonald as Al Peters
Noel Reyburn as Fred Jackson
Tab Hunter as Frank O’Brien

Russ Conway as Eldredge
Robert Williams as Boswell
James Bush as Anderson
Julia Faye as Mrs. Jensen

Credits:

Directed by Joseph Losey
Screenplay by Daniel Mainwaring, based on the novel The Voice of Stephen Wilder by Daniel Mainwaring
Produced by William H. Pine, William C. Thomas
Cinematography J. Roy Hunt
Edited by Howard A. Smith
Music by Mahlon Merrick

Production companies: Pine-Thomas Productions, Paramount

Distributed by Paramount Pictures

Release date: June 1, 1950 (US)

Running time: 83 minutes