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Blu-Ray : Highly Recommended
Ranking:
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Release Date: April 25th, 2023 Movie Release Year: 1951

Storm Warning - Warner Archive Collection

Overview -

A bold indictment of mob violence in general and the Ku Klux Klan in particular, Storm Warning made waves in 1951 and remains an explosive melodrama that preaches a timeless message. Ginger Rogers, Ronald Reagan, Doris Day, and Steve Cochran file fine portrayals in this riveting thriller that's been given a welcome high-def makeover by Warner Archive. A new 4K scan of the original nitrate negative, excellent lossless audio, and a few vintage supplements distinguish this top-flight release of an important film. Highly Recommended.

A traveling dress model (Ginger Rogers) stops in a Southern town to visit her sister, who has married a Ku Klux Klan member. While there, she helps the district attorney (Ronald Reagan) prosecute Klan members after she witnesses them commit a murder. Directed by Stuart Heisler.

OVERALL:
Highly Recommended
Rating Breakdown
STORY
VIDEO
AUDIO
SPECIAL FEATURES
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
Blu-ray
Video Resolution/Codec:
1080p/MPEG-4 AVC
Length:
93
Aspect Ratio(s):
1.37:1
Audio Formats:
English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono
Subtitles/Captions:
English SDH
Special Features:
Theatrical Trailer
Release Date:
April 25th, 2023

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

Ranking:

"I don't know who's the guiltier. The one who commits the crime or the one who just stands by and refuses to do anything about it."

Such a conundrum has frustrated law enforcement throughout our country's history and the blistering 1951 drama Storm Warning is one of the few Golden Age films to address it. Director Stuart Heisler also attacks the Ku Klux Klan by name in this tense noir thriller that examines such hot-button topics as gang violence and a culture of fear and intimidation that grips a small Southern town. While Storm Warning takes several bold steps that earn it commendation and admiration, it shrinks from depicting - or even mentioning - the racism that incited much of the Klan's brutality. The story still packs a potent punch, but like those the film decries who are too frightened to stand up to a bullying mob, it doesn't go far enough in its repudiation of such a vile cult.

In its day, though, Storm Warning was pretty strong stuff and harkens back to the gritty social issue films that defined Warner Bros in the 1930s. The screenplay by Daniel Fuchs and Richard Brooks indicts the insidious nature of the Klan, knocks it as "a lot of bunk, just a racket," and strikingly depicts how it exerts its odious influence over the weak, lost, and scared. Yet by sidestepping the group's heinous white supremacist attitudes, the film also gives the impression the Klan is merely a group of pig-headed thugs who play dress-up and abuse those they don't like. Glossier than, say, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (arguably Warner's most powerful social issue film), Storm Warning often allows its melodrama to overshadow its message...and often feels like a shameless knock-off of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, which Warner Bros was concurrently mounting and would release a few months later. (Storm Warning proves how smitten Brooks was with Williams' work and surely paved the way for him to later adapt and direct two major Williams plays - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth - for the screen.)

While traveling by bus with her boss, fashion model Marsha Mitchell (Ginger Rogers) - not to be confused with Watergate icon Martha Mitchell - impulsively decides to make a stopover in the supposedly sleepy town of Rock Point somewhere in the South to visit her sister Lucy (Doris Day) and her new husband, whom Marsha has never met. Almost as soon as she arrives, Marsha notices how skittish, edgy, and downright unfriendly the townspeople are. The taxi driver refuses to give her a ride, her bus is forced to cut its layover short, all the businesses are shuttered, and even the streetlights are dark.

On her way to see her sister, who works at a bowling alley, Marsha walks by the courthouse and witnesses a commotion. A desperate man emerges followed by a gang of men dressed in white sheets with cone-shaped hoods. They begin to beat him and when he breaks away and starts to run, one of the hooded men shoots him in the back, killing him (see video clip below). The horrified Marsha runs from the scene and finds Lucy, who tells her the murdered man was an undercover journalist trying to get the goods on the Klan. Marsha's horror intensifies when Lucy's hunky husband Hank (Steve Cochran) comes home and Marsha recognizes him as the Klansman who pulled the trigger.

Jaded county prosecutor Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan) investigates the case, but the Klan has such a stranglehold over the community no one will cooperate. Even Marsha is reticent because Lucy adores her husband and is pregnant with their child. Pressured by Rainey to testify at the inquest and threatened by the Klan if she does, Marsha finds herself trapped in a moral quandary. Does she stay mum to protect her naive, lovesick sister and a repulsive brother-in-law or speak the truth, cross the Klan, and send Hank to the gallows where he belongs?

Heisler was a journeyman director who worked with many big stars, but his pedestrian style keeps his films from achieving maximum impact. In the hands of someone like Fred Zinnemann, who was originally approached to direct, Storm Warning might have more nuance, subtext, and emotion, but Heisler's heavy hand instead highlights action and the heated confrontations that fuel the narrative. The burning-cross climax must have been an eye-opener in 1951 (and still shocks today), but excessive histrionics somewhat douse the flames. Though Storm Warning remains an exciting and involving movie, it lacks that something extra to make it special.

The myriad of Streetcar similarities also can't be ignored. The bowling alley reunion between Marsha and Lucy mirrors the one between Blanche and Stella (and looks like it might have been shot on the same set); a sweaty Cochran in a T-shirt is the spitting image of Brando (minus some of the animal magnetism); the way Lucy blindly adores Hank is just like Stella's lusty bond with Stanley; the premise of the older sister meeting her primitive brother-in-law for the first time, shacking up with the newlyweds, and causing tension between them comes straight out of the pages of Streetcar, along with Lucy's pregnancy and - most blatantly (spoiler alert) - Hank sexually assaulting Marsha. It's a wonder Williams didn't bring a plagiarism suit.

Rogers, a last-minute replacement for Lauren Bacall (whose refusal to do the film led to a suspension and eventual dissolution of her Warner contract), files an intense portrayal. Her character is put through the wringer - over a 24-hour period she's attacked verbally and physically, abducted, and whipped (yes, whipped!) during a Klan conclave - but Rogers exhibits a toughness that belies her long-standing image as an elegant ballroom dancer and screwball comedienne. Reagan, on the other hand, takes the lazy Southern stereotype to extremes in a rather listless performance. Like Bacall, he too was on his way out at Warner Bros and would leave the studio a year later.

The real surprise is Day, who supplies the heart and soul Storm Warning desperately needs in her first non-singing part and steals the film with a natural, sincere, and very affecting portrayal. Though Cochran is no Brando, he brings plenty of macho magnetism to the hot-headed thug who believes the Klan gives him carte blanche to indulge his bigotry and hatred and will protect him if he crosses any legal lines.

It's easy to wish Storm Warning went further in its damnation of the KKK by calling out the cult's racism, but considering the social climate at the time and harassment of many by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (some have surmised the Klan is a symbol meant to represent HUAC), it's hard to knock the film too much for not taking a stronger stand. Storm Warning was a brave first step in shining a spotlight on dangerous fringe groups and condemning mob violence, but sadly more films in the same vein didn't follow it and expand upon its themes. We still need to heed the warnings of Storm Warning and that keeps this 72-year-old movie relevant and powerful, despite its faults.

Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Storm Warning arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.

Video Review

Ranking:

A brand new 4K scan of the original nitrate negative yields an excellent 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that's a nice step up from the 2007 DVD. Carl Guthrie's noir-ish cinematography is faithfully rendered, thanks to a natural grain structure that preserves the feel of celluloid, inky blacks, stable whites, and a pleasing grayscale. Much of Storm Warning transpires at night, and superior shadow delineation ensures all the critical details are discernible. Though some scenes appear a tad soft, most of the film looks vibrant and sharp. Costume textures and the flames that dominate the fiery finale are well-defined, and crisp close-ups showcase Day's peaches-and-cream complexion and Cochran's rugged good looks while betraying the early signs of middle age on Rogers' face. Any nicks, marks or scratches that plagued the DVD have been scrubbed clean, leaving a pristine, often immersive picture that heightens the film's impact.

Audio Review

Ranking:

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track provides potent audio that enhances the film's tension and drama. A wide dynamic scale allows Daniele Amfitheatrof's bombastic music score plenty of room to breathe, sonic accents like gunfire, the clatter of bowling pins, sirens, and flames make a statement, and subtleties like footsteps crunching against concrete are distinct. All the dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend and any age-related hiss, pops, or crackle have been erased. Films like Storm Warning require strong audio to impact the audience and this track consistently delivers in that regard.

Special Features

Ranking:

Unlike the 2007 DVD, which only includes a trailer, this Blu-ray release features both a vintage short and a cartoon.

  • Vintage Short: One Who Came Back (SD, 21 minutes) - Nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject in 1951, this taut two-reeler chronicles a Korean War soldier's injury on the battlefield, treatment in a Seoul hospital, journey back home to the U.S., and reunion with his wife. The film's subject, Corporal George Kritzman, narrates his story.
  • Vintage Cartoon: Bunny Hugged (HD, 7 minutes) - Bugs Bunny takes on The Crusher in this Looney Tunes spoof of pro wrestling, presented in glorious HD.
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview features a "real" Klan member and hypes Storm Warning as "the screen's most fearless blast of drama" and "one of the most important and exciting pictures ever produced!" 

Final Thoughts

Though its melodrama occasionally overshadows its message, Storm Warning stands as a sober reminder of the cancerous nature of mob violence and bigotry. Stuart Heisler's noir-ish direction and solid performances from a top-notch cast propel the film and keep it relevant seven decades after its release. A new 4K scan of the original nitrate negative, potent audio, and a few vintage supplements distinguish Warner Archive's Blu-ray presentation of this under-the-radar classic. Highly Recommended.