Lawless, The (1950): Joseph Losey’s Social Problem Picture

In the late 1940s, Hollywood produced a cycle of films that examined prejudice and discrimination against ethnic minorities (Jews, blacks, Indians, Hispanics).  Some of these films are set in the military (Home of the Brave, 1949), others in civilian life.  Most narratives take place in urban centers, but some unfold in 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.

The social context in which The Lawless was viewed made 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 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 is kept safely as an individual case of discrimination. 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, she 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 level 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 shows how the innocent Paul becomes a fugitive after he and his friend Lopo Chavez (Maurice Jara) are inadvertently involved in a police car accident. The producers imposed the melodramatic elemennts of rape and a police car going up in flames–against Losey’s wishes. The youths’ flight from the police and the ensuing chase precipitate a series of disastrous events.

The white press is depicted as callous and sensationalistic, not unlike the press in the 1930s movies, They Won’t Forget or Fury. “This is the greatest manhunt in the history of this lovely little town,” one reporter says. Most of the white residents are hypocritical and duplicious. Consoling Paul’s mother, one woman offers symapthy, “I’m a mother too,” but soon after she phones in a vicious report, describing Paul as a “mud-covered, sullen….a trapped animal.”

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

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 commentary on the political witch-hunting of communists in the late 1940s; Losey himself was blacklisted and went into exile to London.

Initially, Wilder is not committed, having serious doubts and fears about getting involved. Deeply disenchanted, his first reaction is to desert: “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 than a Wayne hero: he is initially hesitant about committing himself to the cause. Still, as in most Capra films, once committed, the leader addresses the masses in powerful speeches, appealing directly to their guilt and shame. But there is a risk: Identifying with the Mexican cause alienates him from the other town members. At the end, he has to start all over again, working for a Chicano newspaper.

Losey builds suspense by the accumulative power of small details about the characters and their social context. 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(c)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 sound.

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, and the smell of leaves burning at night. However, Hiroshima, the death of President Roosevelt, and the HUAAC l947 investigations disenchanted Losey so much, he wanted to show “the complete unreality of the American Dream.”

Turning the conventions of Capra’s small towns upside down, the film is based on Losey’s belief that “the most prejudiced, the most bigoted, the most racist, are always the people from small towns.”