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Reviewed by Jerry Renshaw, November 26, 1999, Screens

The Well

D: Leo C. Popkin, Robert Rouse (1951); with Harry Morgan, Richard Rober, Maidie Norman, Barry Kelley. In The Well, a tiny African-American girl disappears down an abandoned well while on her way to school. Several witnesses report having seen her with a white man earlier in the day, and the police's suspicions soon turn to kidnapping. Claude Packard (Morgan) is visiting the town and is dragged in by the small-town cops. Despite the police's relentless interrogation, though, Packard maintains that he only befriended the girl and never saw her again. With little evidence to hold him, the cops reluctantly let Packard go free. Packard is the nephew of local businessman Sam Packard (Kelley), and word soon spreads through the town that he's been released. The black residents resent the fact that a white man (and the nephew of an influential resident) was released so quickly and feel that the life of a black child isn't worth much in the eyes of the authorities. A series of incidents occur, rumors fly, and soon the town is on the verge of a race riot. Black residents are pulled from their cars and beaten by mobs of whites while groups of blacks prowl the streets looking for whites to attack; the small police force is overwhelmed, and large numbers of citizens are deputized to help maintain order. The authorities are ready to call in the militia when a small boy stumbles onto the girl's jacket and books at the mouth of the well and tells his parents. Soon the entire town knows that she's been located.

Based on a true story, The Well plays like two separate movies. The first half is a frightening essay on mob mentality and racial tensions; the N-word is tossed about freely (as is the word "ofay"), and the violence is surprisingly intense for the times. The pace with which things start to turn ugly in the town is all too believable. The movie's second half is a nerve-racking race against time as the rescuers struggle to free the girl from the well. The pace and direction of the film help maintain a great deal of tension from start to finish, and despite the obscure cast, the performances are uniformly good. Morgan's indignation and fear at the hands of the police, the near-hysteria of the girl's mother (Norman), the sheriff's (Rober) struggle to maintain peace in his town -- all are extremely credible and absorbing. Rober was a B-grade leading man before his early death; he was hailed as "the next Bogart," but really seems more like a poor man's William Holden. The story of The Well must have been considered rather daring for the time, addressing race issues in such an open way (reminiscent of Joseph Mankiewicz's No Way Out). Co-director and screenwriter Robert Rouse also wrote the screenplay for 1950's D.O.A. (as well as 1966's The Oscar). It would seem like a given that a writer who would take on such a progressive script would have liberal leanings -- given the climate of the times, it makes one wonder if Rouse was soon caught up in the machinery of the Hollywood blacklist. Though it seems a bit heavy-handed at times, this film's message is still fresh, relevant, and alarming nearly 50 years later.

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