The Well (1951)
Director: Leo Popkin, Russell Rouse
Cast: Gwendolyn Laster, Richard Rober, Maidie Norman
Synopsis: In a racially mixed American town, a 5-year-old black girl falls unnoticed into a hidden, forgotten well on her way to school.
The Well is a forgotten work that, while perhaps not deserving of the classic status that some would like to bestow upon it, at least deserves to be better known than it is. Although it’s clearly made on a shoestring budget, and the acting leaves a lot to be desired on many occasions, The Well did actually receive two Oscar nominations: one for Best Editing (Chester W. Schaeffer) and the other for writing (Clarence Greene and Russell Rouse).
The story takes places in a small unnamed American town. In the opening scene we see a small girl fall down a hidden well in a field, and the next forty-five minutes follow the mounting tensions that swell amongst the townspeople as the news of her disappearance spreads. The girl was black, and was last seen in the company of a white stranger who bought her flowers from the local florist. The spectre of sexual abduction is thus alluded to without being openly mentioned. The black townsfolk believe the man the local sheriff (Richard Rober) quickly arrests will just as quickly be released because his alleged victim is black. The white folk take exception to the blacks’ accusations of prejudice, and friction between the races escalates at a frightening pace, abating only when the little girl is finally located.
The Well plays like two separate movies, the first a study of racial tension which is dropped with inappropriate haste when the girl is found and it becomes apparent that the suspect (Harry Morgan), a miner, had nothing to do with her disappearance, and then becomes integral to her rescue. It’s this racial aspect to the film that is the most interesting. One of the characters is heard to say that there had been no trouble between blacks and whites prior to this incident, indicating one of two possibilities – that black and white really had lived in harmony up to this point (unlikely) or that whites are simply blind to the simmering resentment of blacks living in a society which preaches equality but practices a form of racism that has simply grown more sophisticated – and therefore less verifiable – than that practiced by its forefathers. It’s a brave message to put out there in 1951, but it’s one that the writers fail to follow through to a conclusion, choosing instead to drop it completely once the town pulls together to rescue the missing girl.
The other thing that prevents The Well from becoming a bona fide classic is the quality of the acting. A low budget film can overcome many things to rise above the quality that’s expected of it, but poor acting isn’t one of them, and this one has some real amateur dramatics moments. Ironically, in view of the lengthy acting career she enjoyed, the chief culprit is Maidie Norman, who plays the missing girl’s mother. The only names familiar to moviegoers – and even then only the hardy few familiar with character actors from sixty years ago – will probably be Morgan, who went on to appear in the MASH TV show; Barry Kelly, who plays the building contractor Sam Packard, and Tom Powers as the town’s mayor (better known as Barbara Stanwyck’s ill-fated husband in Double Indemnity). By the time this film was released, leading man Richard Rober, once been touted as the next Bogart, had seen his career sink to low-budget mediocrity, and would be dead a year later after driving his car over a 75ft embankment.
(Reviewed 23rd May 2012)