The Lawless (1950)
User ReviewsReview this title
Like Fritz Lang's "Fury" over a decade before, this covers the topic of how frenzied a mob can be when thinking through anger, not common sense, and lacking in the facts in the poor man's case. Rios isn't presented as perfect, either, as his temper gets the better of him when a bigoted young white man refers to him in the derogatory term of "cholo". A fight breaks out at a local dance where Carey meets a Mexican-American reporter (Gail Russell) and learns the truth about how the people of the Sleepy Hollow section of the city are treated and misjudged. A young girl blames her accidental bruising on Rios, another farmer claims he attacked him, and soon, the locales are furious, out to lynch the poor young man without benefit of a trial. Carey writes an article sympathetic towards him and ends up a victim of their fury as well.
Veteran character actress Lee Patrick plays a hard-boiled reporter acquaintance of Carey's who sees things from a different perspective and seems to be responsible for elevating the anger towards Rios. She directs the girl knocked out by her own clumsiness (not Rios) to show off her bruises as if modeling a new dress just to get a story. This adds another important element to the theme of the film besides the unjustified prejudice, that being the abuse of the freedom of the press, a subject very much prominent today. Like another important independent film made about race relations ("The Ring"), this shows Mexican/Americans in a more realistic light than the happy-go-lucky music/dancing obsessed bumpkins they were made out to be in many classic films.
The subject of prejudice is one still prominent today, and in seeing films like this, you begin to understand the anger of non-whites towards Caucasians. This makes this an important film historically to show why assumptions can never be justified and how judging based simply on different race, creed or skin color is wrong no matter what is presented in the media. This makes a good companion film to the controversial "Ace in the Hole" (aka "The Big Carnival") in how a media obsessed public can turn the truth or a simple story into a media circus.
This is a Pine-Thomas Production and they supplied all the B films it seemed for Paramount in about 15 years from World War I until Bill Pine's death. The usual run of films for these two were decent action adventure, western, or occasionally a noir film. But this one is a real odd fish in their credits. Not to say it isn't good, because it's good and powerful. Timely too, coming out right around the time Joe McCarthy was telling he had lists of varying amounts as to how many Communists there were employed in our government.
Times like those give way to people's primal fears. The Lawless deals with the mob mentality of a southern California town when a young Mexican kid, Lalos Rios, gets himself in a jackpot during a brawl that breaks out at a dance. During his flight he gets even more problems when the cop driving the car that picked him up crashes after the driver loses control and is killed. The reason it crashes because the cop in the back seat starts pounding on him.
Ihe Lawless is about fear and people lose their trust in the law when fear steps in. Young Rios is afraid of what the mob will do and the mob of whites who were comfortably in the majority are afraid of the growing numbers of these darker and different people.
Standing up for law and order in its best sense is the editor of the local newspaper MacDonald Carey. He pays big time for going against the mob. As did director Joseph Losey and many others at that time.
Elements of They Won't Forget and Fury are found in this film and later on MGM put a lot more dollars into Trial, a film about the same issues addressed here.
Besides Carey and Rios, you'll see some outstanding performances by Gail Russell as the Mexican American love interest for Carey and by an old flame of Carey's Lee Patrick who plays a right wing reporter slanting the story against Rios for all its worth. Watch Patrick's facial expressions as she's dictating copy, they're frightening and unforgettable.
Made on the shoestring Pine-Thomas budget that Paramount normally allotted for them, The Lawless is an uncomfortable reminder of past times with very much relevance for the present.
Set in and around the seemingly quiet town of Santa Marta, California - "The Lawless" was certainly a tough, little social drama (once things finally got cooking) that clearly pitted the privileged whites against the "near-poverty-level" Mexican fruit-pickers of Sleepy Hollow.
I think it's interesting to note that this low-budget production was one of the very last Hollywood pictures to be directed by Joseph Losey.
In 1951 Losey was, indeed, blacklisted (for his apparent Communist ties). And with his directing career in Tinseltown now completely ruined by those self-righteous witch-hunters - He had fled to Europe where he attempted to continue his present occupation over there.
There were a number of social-conscience movies made in the late-40's and early-50's; that is, before the Cold War and McCarthy froze them out. This is one of them, more obscure, however, than most. Though the 83-minutes contains elements of first-rate expose, it fails to rank among the best of that period, e.g. The Well (1951), Lost Boundaries (1949), No Way Out (1950). Now, I'm not saying it's not a good or worthwhile movie of its kind. On the contrary, it is. However, I don't think it' as memorable as the best of the period, and that's surprising given the film's outstanding writer (Mainwaring) and director (Losey).
What I think the results lack most noticeably is an intense core. Usually this is supplied by a cast principal. Here, however, the concept of publisher Wilder (Carey) is much too laid-back to supply the needed intensity. His flaw in the face of community conflict is not greed or power, but apathetic retreat after a lifetime of hard-driving journalism. Apathy is a good point to make since it allows the racial rivalry to worsen. Given the overall lack of an intense core, however, the concept comes at a price. At the same time, it's hard to see how Carey's Wilder could ever have been intense. Then too, there's Gail Russell's educated Hispanic, who could be a forceful voice for her community. But she's more a pretty presence than a factor. I'm not sure whether her retreat lies with the writer, director, or actress, or a combination thereof. However, coupling her with the laid-back Wilder creates a soft center that fails to catalyze the more incendiary elements and weakens the film as a whole. Even the angry mob provides more spectacle than either needed fear or tension.
On the positive side is a fine performance by Maurice Jara as Lopo, the hapless victim of circumstances. His anguish really comes across during the breakdown scene as the posse closes in. And I certainly agree with the reviewer who singles out Lee Patrick's sharp performance as the ethically challenged reporter Jan Dawson. It's really she who shows a seedy side of journalism by sacrificing facts for increased circulation. And catch perennial villain John Hoyt cast against type as a wealthy liberal (Ferguson) who does what he can to dampen animosities. Note too how his upper-class standing finesses class issues that might otherwise become a factor.
There are a number of topical touches that make the movie still relevant to today's audiences. Note how one of the cops roughs up Lopo with apparent impunity, though the script turns suddenly cautious by having another cop reprimand him. Note too, how whites and Latinos mix amicably at the dance, until hot-headed teens start defending their honor. The suggestion here is that it is possible for racial groups to get along socially, despite adversities. And speaking of teens, bobby-sox idol Johnny Sands is featured as hot-headed Joe Ferguson, ever ready to make a bad situation worse. Still, I can hear even now the girls of the time swooning over him.
The movie gets a big leg up by filming on location, especially in seedy surroundings that reflect rural hard work. I don't know where they went for those miles and miles of rolling rock mounds, but they're like frozen ocean waves. Plus, they aptly symbolize the desolate situation Lopo finds himself in. Given the movie's many outstanding features, I'm just sorry they don't get the cohesive impact needed to lift results into the front rank of social protest films. Nonetheless, the production is still well worth catching up with despite the relative obscurity.