Cast & Crew
In Santa Marta, California, Mexican-American fruit picker Paul Rodriguez dreams of owning a small farm, but his friend, Lopo Chavez, has become embittered by poverty and the prejudice he has faced since returning from World War II. One day while driving through town, Lopo accidentally runs a stop sign and has a minor accident with another car. The driver, Harry Pawling, and his passenger, Joe Ferguson, make a racial slur against Lopo, who responds with his fists. A policeman breaks up the fight and sends Harry and Joe home, and after fining Lopo for running the stop sign, helps him push his disabled car to the side of the road. Lopo then visits Sunny Garcia, whose father publishes the Spanish weekly newspaper La Luz , and makes sure she is going to the Good Fellowship dance that night. Paul, meanwhile, goes home to his shanty and tells his parents about the incident. When his father Juan warns him against spending time with "Americans," Paul protests that he is an American. At the same time, Joe is reprimanded by his wealthy father Ed, who regrets that his son has grown into a bigot. That night, The Union newspaper's new owner/editor, Larry Wilder, a former big city journalist known for his provocative exposés, meets Sunny while waiting in line at the dance. Larry acknowledges that he is there because he anticipates a brawl, but Sunny insists that the Mexican gangs have made peace. Joe, Harry and their friend, Frank O'Brien, show up at the dance, and when Joe starts to harass a young woman, Paul comes to her defense. Joe throws the first punch and a brawl erupts and spills out of the hall. Paul runs away after accidentally striking policeman Al Peters, and escapes in a stolen ice cream truck. Larry's reporter, Jonas Creel, calls in the story to a larger newspaper in Stockton, and exaggerates the fight as a riot. Paul, terrified, then steals a car as the police chase him, but finally gives up and allows himself to be arrested. Peters angrily starts to beat Paul, but his partner, Boswell, insists that he restrain himself. Of the participants that night, Joe is the only white man arrested, and Sunny resents Joe's guilt-ridden father paying the bail for the poor Mexican boys because they cannot afford a lawyer to prove their innocence. When Boswell tries to stop Peters from roughing up Paul in the back of the police car, he loses control of the car and crashes. Boswell is killed in the accident, and Paul runs away from Peters because he blames him for the death. Later, Stockton reporter Jan Dawson arrives at Larry's office and shows Larry her paper, which has already printed a sensationalized headline reading "Fruit Pickers Riot." Meanwhile, Paul is hiding out in a barn and when he startles teenage farm girl Mildred Jensen, she hits her head on a board and is knocked unconscious. Encouraged by Jan, Mildred later tells police that Paul assaulted her, and news of the attack is reported on television, and Paul is made out to be a dangerous "gangster." Larry wants to publish interviews with Harry, Joe and Frank, but is threatened by all of their fathers, except Ed. Paul is finally tracked to an area near a quarry by another farmer, and a dragnet is formed. Larry manages to find Paul first and protects the frightened, sobbing boy while he is arrested. Sunny implores Larry to print the truth about Paul to counter the vicious lies that have already been published, but Larry fears disrupting the town's peaceful lifestyle. Larry's conscience nags him, however, and he writes a sympathetic article about Paul and publicly asks for money for his defense. The article incites the townspeople, and because Larry stated that Mildred could not know the truth because she was unconscious, her father and his friend try to assault him in his office, then attack Lopo and two friends in their car. Although Lopo's friends escape, he is brutally beaten and left behind. Jensen directs an angry mob to lynch Paul at the jail, but Larry arrives first and convinces the sheriff to take Paul elsewhere. Jensen then leads the mob to Larry's office, where Lopo has taken refuge with Sunny. The mob ignores Lopo's pleas for peace, and after he is battered by stones, they storm the offices and destroy everything. When the police finally arrive with Larry, an ambulance takes Lopo away, and Larry finds Sunny, with whom he has fallen in love, crumpled in a heap on the floor. Sunny revives and is unharmed, but Larry is so revolted by the destruction that he plans to leave town immediately. After Ed puts up Paul's bond, the boy tells Larry that he knew he could trust him because he sees his own brother, who died in the battle at Normandy, in Larry's eyes. Larry is deeply moved by Paul's faith, and instead of bidding Sunny farewell, he proposes they put out a weekly newspaper called The Union on her modest press.
Pedro De Cordoba
Lewis H. Creber
William H. Pine
William C. Thomas
The Lawless - MacDonald Carey & Gail Russell in Joseph Losey's THE LAWLESS
Relocated to a small California agricultural town after tiring of crusading for issues in his career, journalist Larry Wilder (Macdonald Carey, fresh off his role in the 1949 The Great Gatsby) finds himself coaxed back into action when a Mexican youth, Paul Rodriguez (Touch of Evil's Lalo Rios), is hunted down and charged with antisocial crimes after a clash between white and Latino teens at a party. The town's overwhelming sentiment against the accused sends Larry to team up with Sunny Garcia (The Uninvited's Gail Russell), a sympathetic editor for the town's small Latino-based paper. However, they find themselves increasingly outmatched as the local community seems destined to explode in a racially-charged riot.
Of course, that opening text card gives viewers a pretty good idea of what to expect; no film would start out by lighting a fuse and then veering away from the explosion. What makes The Lawless (retitled The Dividing Line in England) significant now is its place in Losey's filmography as a solid B-movie with the first realistic treatment of concerns that would inform much of his work. His only previous feature film, The Boy with Green Hair, had certainly dealt with a similar concept in a fantasy context, but here the focus is squarely on a real social problem that still remains with us today on a larger scale, as ongoing debates about the scapegoating of Mexican immigrants in states like Arizona still demonstrate.
Approaching a film like this, it's important to remember the circumstances of its creation. This was a quick, cheap programmer, running a tight 82 minutes with limited resources by Paramount. Under those conditions it's a rewarding exercise to see how Losey and his cast of familiar character actors (but no major stars) using deep framing, character placement, and verbal nuance to give shading to a story that could have easily toppled over into flat sermonizing.
A reliable filmic everyman, Carey would largely find himself on television soon after this but reunited with Losey again in 1963 for the director's bleakest and most unsparing look at humanity's dark side, the Hammer sci-fi/horror cult favorite These Are the Damned. Also noteworthy for film buffs is the screenplay by "Geoffrey Homes," a press agent-turned-novelist named Daniel Mainwaring who wrote several screenplays under that pen name before emerging with his real moniker. Three years before this he had crafted one of the finest film noir screenplays with Out of the Past, and after this film (adapted without attribution from his novel The Voice of Stephen Wilder), he would go on to revisit similar themes later in the decade with the fact-based The Phenix City Story and his classic Jack Finney adaptation, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Like many Paramount films from that era, The Lawless became extremely difficult to see apart from occasional TV airings. Fortunately the studio's willingness to relinquish the video handling of much of its back catalog has resulted in a much-needed DVD release from Olive Films who, as per their usual practice, present it in a fine-looking bare bones edition. The purple cover art is a bit odd, looking like sort of an uneasy fusion between a western and film noir, but the disc inside is quite rewarding. The excellent transfer is full frame as originally shot (widescreen hadn't quite taken over yet at that point), and the film elements appear to have been kept in pristine condition - not surprising since any printing elements were largely left untouched given the very little use of this film over the past half century or so.
For more information about The Lawless, visit Olive Films.
by Nathaniel Thompson
The Lawless - MacDonald Carey & Gail Russell in Joseph Losey's THE LAWLESS
For those of us living today in the post-Civil Rights era, when the biracial son of an African father can ascend to the highest office in the free world, it can be all too easy to forget how recent were the struggles that created this world. Somewhere between the ugly prejudices of the past and the world of today there must have been a period of transition, as people challenged traditional modes of thinking and accepted social conditions. This period culminated in the famous marches and speeches of the mid-century - but before those heroic days came years of struggle and hard work. Filmmakers like Joseph Losey saw their role in the media as one of grave responsibility, and sought to use their films as platforms to ennoble and uplift their fellow man, to stir the consciences of their viewers.
The message films of the 1930s and 40s can be embarrassingly earnest to the jaded viewers of today-designed to make a point, they tend to occupy a melodramatic space not far from the After School Specials of later generations. Samuel Goldwyn famously said, "Pictures are for entertainment. Messages should be delivered by Western Union." Reviewing Losey's first film, the earnest anti-racism fable The Boy with Green Hair (1948), the New Yorker wrote that "It's good he doesn't approve of people going around killing each other. Maybe, however, [Losey] could have summed up his views more interestingly in a commercial." Looking back on these early films, Losey himself even said, "I was still trying to get out of my system, I suppose, some of the things which were very much a part of me in the thirties and early forties."
"They were what is called 'message pictures.' And they were made by a man-me--and other men and women who thought we knew the answers or thought we could find answers. I stopped somewhere along the line," Losey later explained, "and have been much more interested in making pictures of provocation: that is, opening up the mind so people have to examine situations and attitudes and come to their own conclusions."
Shot on location in Marysville and Grass Valley in late 1949 for a mere $407,000 (Losey once claimed he had but $150,000 to spend, but this is not borne out by studio documentation), The Lawless takes place in a fictional California small town riven, like so many real ones, into two classes: the middle class whites congregate in Santa Maria, a self-proclaimed "Friendly Town." The local fruit industry depends on low-cost labor, provided in large measure by Mexican immigrants, derisively known as "fruit tramps," living in a shantytown called Sleepy Hollow. They work long hours for meager pay, are reflexively considered unreliable layabouts and eyed with suspicion by the police. In any ghetto, the hardships of life can wear down people's civility, and so Sleepy Hollow has its share of problems and violence-which community organizers like intrepid journalist Sunny Garcia (Gail Russell) work to resolve. But when angry young men from across the tracks come to Sleepy Hollow full of anti-Mexican resentment, looking to start a fight, even the noblest of intentions fall short.
Like West Side Story (1961), we find it all coming to a head at a dance, where rival gangs fail to keep their roiling passions at a controlled simmer. Some white kids throw the first punches, and a melee ensues. And, again like West Side Story, the spiraling consequences put the most level-headed young man into the worst of it, hunted like a criminal because the world assumes that's what he must inevitably be. One day Paul Rodriguez is defending Santa Maria as a great place to live-his wary father advises him to stay away from Americans, to which the boy replies, "I'm an American." But the next, he's an animal on the run for his life, a scapegoat for a community determined to be at war with itself.
Losey found a photogenic non-actor named Lalo Rios to play Paul, and given how many films of the era figured it was OK to smudge some dark makeup on white actors rather than hire any real Latino actors (did I mention West Side Story yet?), it is a refreshing change-although Losey took some hits from critics who accused him of paternalism. (What was the guy thinking-hiring a Latino kid to play a Latino kid? Just like a bleeding heart liberal!).
Under pressure from the producers to make the film less cerebral and more pulpy, screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring and director Losey were obliged to include some loony escalations to Paul's predicament, which starts to accrue too many absurd coincidences and misfortunes to remain believable. The Lawless already takes place in the time before court-appointed lawyers, which means the poor kid will be obliged to plead guilty to whatever cockamamie charges the arresting officers choose to slap on him, since he cannot afford a lawyer to contest the case. Such a situation is already nightmarish, without the Wiley Coyote antics the film forces Paul through along the way.
However, while the guts of The Lawless are intense sequences involving Paul's desperate flight, the heart of the film belongs to top-lined Macdonald Carey as newspaper publisher Larry Wilder. Carey was a talented actor who brightened many a B-level production like this but whose oddly featureless face denied him A-list stardom. As Wilder he plays a once-crusading reporter worn down by fighting the good fight for too long. Now he has opted for a less demanding career in smalltown America in search of a quieter life. Challenged by Sunny to use his paper to help ease the racial tension, he declines-he's new to town and not looking to start fights or choose up sides, he says.
Trouble is, the injustice is all too plain for him to ignore for long. His own colleagues and friends are making matters worse, in pursuit of sensational journalism that sidelines reason for outrage and whips up the worst emotions in already moblike crowd. His growing attraction to Sunny complicates his position further so he takes his first tentative steps towards social action, and is roundly punished for it. Merely by refusing to take part in the anti-Mexican hysteria, Larry makes himself a target of the mob's anger-and the riot mentality descends on him.
Here is where The Lawless touched the lives of its makers most closely, intentionally or not. Mainwaring and Losey may have thought they were commenting on racism, but they were also anticipating the coming dread of the Hollywood Blacklist. Congressional investigation into Communist sympathizers in the film industry had already begun, and Losey had already found himself in the middle of the brawl. Before long he would flee to England, while many of his friends would serve time behind bars. Mainwaring's use of the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes was a preexisting condition unrelated to the Blacklist - but for his political beliefs he would soon be forced to remain completely anonymous, uncredited on his scripts because he had become a non-person in Hollywood. Like Larry Wilder, those who spoke out against the witch-hunts would only invite scrutiny on themselves, and the hysteria became accepted as the natural order of things. Of course there are enemy Communists in Hollywood corrupting our minds through pop culture, of course they must be removed - the only question is who is who. The ensuing madness drove away many of our most promising filmmakers, out of intolerant America and into the welcoming arms of Europe, much as the rise of Nazism had driven Germany's finest filmmakers out of Europe a generation before.
In The Lawless, a character looks around the wreckage left by his neighbors and friends, driven to mindless violence to enforce a meaningless standard of conformity, and clucks, "I never thought it could happen here." Losey and Mainwaring were saying the same to themselves, behind the scenes.
Losey had been twiddling his thumbs at RKO, under contract to a studio that had decided to let him idle rather than let a rancorous malcontent use their precious filmstock. He was rescued by the forward-thinking producer Dore Schary at MGM who bought off the director's contract and took him on as a writer. Losey soon befriended fellow writer and fellow traveler Daniel Mainwaring, and the two repaid Schary by offering their services instead to Paramount's notorious B-producer team William Pine and William Thomas, the so-called "Dollar Bills." Schary was irked at the way Losey treated him, but was almost immediately called out for his own associations with Hollywood left-wingers.
Relations with the Dollar Bills were never happy. Thomas was known for holding conferences with his staff while he was seated on the toilet, door open. They interfered constantly-amending the story as mentioned earlier to include more sensational excitement, at the cost of realism, and slathering an inappropriate romantic musical score over the entire film. Hot-headed Losey rose to the bait, and at one point threw his script at Thomas in disgust and sneered, "Go direct your own f*cking picture!" Careers had ended over less. Thomas coolly noted that his upstart director had done this in private, with only Mainwaring as a witness; if the two agreed to keep mum he would permit Losey to retain his job. This they did, only for Losey to then get into a fistfight with production manager Doc Merman. Losey's relations with the cast were also tense. Although Carey was a pro and would work with Losey again on future projects, Gail Russell was a pretty young ingénue hired for her looks and forced into acting against her wishes. She was terrified, and unable to perform without a steadying drink-the one thing her managers had forbade Losey from giving the poor girl. One scene with Carey dragged on for hours. Carey was by now so rattled he could barely focus on his own performance, and Losey realized the entire production was on the brink of total collapse. He offered the shaken actress a drink - and saved the scene, at a cost. She spiraled into dependency - exactly as her handlers feared, and Losey struggled to keep her, Carey, and the untrained Rios together as some semblance of a professional unit.
If it sounds like this was a ramshackle production, the result betrays no such thing. If it were a bottle of wine, one would say The Lawless offered high quality and flavor for a low cost. Losey collaborated with production designer John Hubley to carefully pre-visualize the film in detail. The two studied the socialist realist photography of Paul Strand and Walker Evans, along with Life Magazine coverage of lynch mobs and race riots. From this research they drew up storyboards, an uncommon luxury for a film of this budget level, that greatly simplified the tasks of the on-set crew.
Director of photography Roy Hunt assembled a package of lightweight cameras, and he sped through each set up at a breakneck pace. With just twenty-one days on the schedule, the man literally ran-grabbing a handheld camera with which to chase Lalo Rios across Grass Valley landscapes. Having come from a background in radio, Losey played with the soundtrack, emphasizing and suppressing sound effects for dramatic rather than realistic effect. Although the unfortunate musical score by Mahlon Merrick undercuts the effect, Losey's attempt at such cinematic texture enriches a film that could too easily have seemed stagebound and theatrical.
The Boy with Green Hair had recreated its small town vibe on Hollywood soundstages and back lots, much to Losey's disappointment. Determined to rectify the error, he took Hunt and the cast out to actual Californian hamlets for The Lawless. For the riot scene, he asked the people of Marysville to gather in the town square and throw stones-they were not told what the film was about, and obliged, to their later chagrin.
Paramount's executive Y. Frank Freeman found the finished picture uncomfortably pink, and sent it out quietly in the summer of 1950. Two months before its American premiere, it opened in the United Kingdom under the alternate title The Dividing Line. English critics raved, and before long the island nation would claim the homeless Losey as their own.
Message films existed because their makers believed strong ideas had the power to change society-and the Blacklist bought the same logic, fearful that strong ideas had the power to change society. The Lawless depicts a weary shopworn hero, running low on courage, discovering the limits of such idealism-ideas are powerful, but not all-powerful. The days of the Blacklist may seem old news, and certain details of the film are now anachronistic, but in an age where self-appointed "Minute Men" feel entitled to wield criminal violence in a paradoxical campaign against the supposed violent criminals immigrating from Mexico, The Lawless has lost little of its relevance and punch. It remains a surprisingly grown-up film for its era, made with cinematic flair by artisans whose beliefs cost them their jobs.
Producers: William H. Pine, William C. Thomas
Director: Joseph Losey
Screenplay: Daniel Mainwaring (screenplay, as Geoffrey Homes; novel "The Voice of Stephen Wilder" uncredited)
Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Art Direction: Lewis H. Creber
Music: Mahlon Merrick
Film Editing: Howard Smith
Cast: Macdonald Carey (Larry Wilder), Gail Russell (Sunny Garcia), John Sands (Joe Ferguson), Lee Patrick (Jan Dawson), John Hoyt (Ed Ferguson), Lalo Rios (Paul Rodriguez), Maurice Jara (Lopo Chavez), Walter Reed (Jim Wilson), Guy Anderson (Jonas Creel), Argentina Brunetti (Mrs. Rodriguez), William Edmunds (Angie Jensen), Gloria Winters (Mildred Jensen), John Davis (Harry Pawling), Martha Hyer (Caroline Tyler).
By David Kalat
James Palmer and Michael Riley, The Films of Joseph Losey
Edith De Rhaw and Andre Deutsch, Joseph Losey
Tom Milne, editor, Losey on Losey
Michael Ciment, Conversations with Losey
James Leahy, The Cinema of Joseph Losey
Foster Hirsch, Joseph Losey
David Caute, Joseph Losey: A Revenge on Life
The working titles of this film were The Big Showdown, Outrage, The Dividing Line and Voice of Stephen Wilder. The film opens with the following written foreword: "This is the story of a town and of some of its people, who, in the grip of blind anger forget their American heritage of tolerance and decency, and become the lawless."
Information in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library provides the following information about the production: After reading an early draft of the script, the PCA recommended changing any references to the alleged rape of "Mildred Jensen," such as eliminating the word "rape," and eliminating the line, "What they holdin' back the doctor's report on what he done to her for," as well as the following line: "and I thought of those hands mauling the lovely little body of Mildred Jensen." Although the PCA determined that the script was basically acceptable under the guidelines of the Production Code, PCA director Joseph I. Breen issued the following statement in a October 5, 1949 letter to Paramount: "The shocking manner in which the several gross injustices are heaped upon the head of the confused, but innocent young American of Mexican extraction, and the willingness of so many of the people in your story to be a part of, and to endorse, these injustices, is, we think, a damning portrayal of our American social system. The manner in which certain of the newspapers are portrayed in this story, with their eagerness to dishonestly present the news, and thus inflame their readers, is also, we think, a part of a pattern which is not good. The over-all effect of a story of this kind made into a motion picture would be, we think, a very definite disservice to this country of ours, and to its institutions and its ideals....This whole undertaking seems to us to be fraught with very great danger." Paramount evidently held similar reservations about the film, as noted in Paramount representative Luigi Luraschi's response to the PCA, in which he noted that, "Unfortunately, the script you received did not reflect all of the changes we hope Pine-Thomas will make." In the film, it is not explicity stated that "Paul" raped "Mildred"; it is reported that she was "attacked."
The Lawless marked a departure for producers William H. Pine and William C. Thomas, who were known for making low-budget action melodramas for Paramount. In a Time magazine interview, Pine commented that he and Thomas had wanted to do a serious story about a journalist for years, but were unable to conceive of a suitable screenplay until they started working with writer Geoffrey Homes, pseudonym of Daniel Mainwaring. Pine also noted in the interview that Paramount, which was not known for producing controversial films, was hesitant to make a picture with such a touchy theme, and that they had difficulty finding a Mexican actor for the lead. They finally hired Lalo [Edward] Rios, who was not a professional actor at the time. In addition to Rios and Maurice Jara, Tab Hunter made his screen debut in the picture. In a March 5, 1950 New York Times article, Homes wrote a detailed description of the film's production, noting that "though it is true that discrimination against guys named Garcia and Chavez is more prevalent in the Texas and California border towns and in Los Angeles, it exists wherever there is a Mexican community. This I wanted to say on film."
The film was shot in eighteen days on location in Marysville and Grass Valley, CA, areas which were home to many migratory workers. In the New York Times article, Homes noted that many local citizens participated in the film and appear as the angry mob in one scene. "Of course, no one ever said what the picture was about. That May have been why they were so amiable." A May 1950 Paramount News item quoted a Los Angeles Daily News article, which stated that "this film...points up eloquently, and with great feeling and understanding, the problem that has developed in California as a result of Mexican persons and those of other nationalities trying to adjust themselves to each other. It demonstrates that the fault is on both sides but mainly on the side of those of us of Anglo-Saxon traditions."
Paramount held the film's premiere in late June 1950 in San Antonio, TX, assisted in part by The Lulacs, an organization which promoted "loyal, united Latin-American society." According to a Daily Variety news item, Pine and Thomas received an award from the Los Angeles Urban League for "outstanding achievement in developing better racial understanding through the production of their film, The Lawless." A Los Angeles Times review stated that "Geoffrey Homes, in one of the most cleverly balanced scripts yet written for a controversial theme, (all racial themes, unhappily, seem to be controversial), has found direction to match in Joseph Losey's dynamic use of camera and speech." Losey was blacklisted by the HUAC in 1951. For more information on this aspect of his career, see the entry above for The Boy with Green Hair. In a modern interview, Losey noted that he worked with John Hubley on the production design for this film, but Hubley was not credited onscreen.