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Storm Warning (1950) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

marsha klan hank lucy

Principal social themes: hate groups, racism/civil rights, spouse abuse

Warner Brothers. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Ginger Rogers, Ronald Reagan, Doris Day, Steve Cochran, Hugh Sanders, Lloyd Gough, Raymond Greenleaf, Ned Glass, Walter Baldwin, Lynn Whitney, Stuart Randall, Sean McClory, Gene Evans. Written by Daniel Fuchs and Richard Brooks. Cinematography by Carl Guthrie. Edited by Clarence Kolster. Music by Daniele Amfitheatrof. Produced by Jerry Wald. Directed by Stuart Heisler. B&W. 93 minutes.


Storm Warning is a powerful film with many unforgettable images, including Ginger Rogers getting bullwhipped, Doris Day getting shot, and Ronald Reagan singlehandedly breaking up a Ku Klux Klan rally. In fact, Warner Brothers downplayed the film after its release because of its controversial nature, and for some reason, the picture received few television broadcasts, even after the election of Reagan in 1980 when the ban on his films was lifted due to the fair and equal coverage provisions of the election law. This is unfortunate, since Storm Warning is one of the most effective social issue films of the early 1950s, even challenging certain aspects of the McCarthy movement.


Marsha Mitchell (Ginger Rogers) is a fashion model on tour in the South with a clothing salesman. When their bus passes through Rock Point late at night, she informs her employer that she plans to get off and visit her sister Lucy (Doris Day), who is recently married. She then plans to rejoin him the following evening on their next stop. When she leaves the bus at 10 P.M., the nervous terminal attendant behaves in a strange manner, anxious to close up. The diner across the street also closes up, and the taxi driver brushes her off after giving her directions to the Valley Cafe and Recreation Center, where her sister works as a night waitress. Marsha decides to walk through the deserted streets. Hearing a commotion, she ducks into a doorway and watches a group of men in white sheets pursuing a man. A shot rings out and the man falls dead. Two of the Klan members remove their hoods, and Marsha sees them clearly, including the man who fired the shot. After they leave, she hastens to the Recreation Center and meets her sister. Lucy tells her sister that she is pregnant, but is stunned into silence when Marsha reports that she has just witnessed a murder.

The police arrive at the crime scene and identify the victim as Walter Adams, a reporter who had been investigating the KKK. Adams was being held in protective custody at the jail when the Klan overpowered the guard on duty, but the reporter broke free and they chased him. The owner gives Lucy the night off, and she brings her sister home to ask her husband, Hank Rice (Steve Cochran), what Marsha should do. Startled, Marsha recognizes Hank as the unmasked KKK man who fired the shot. Hank reluctantly admits to Lucy that he is a member of the Klan, and he went with them reluctantly. They had planned only to frighten Adams, but things got out of hand. Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan), the county prosecutor, assumes control of the investigation of the murder. He is curious why the bus station and diner closed early. Everyone is afraid to speak with him. He tracks down Marsha, who admits to being a witness but does not reveal that she saw two of the men unmasked. Burt plans to subpoena her as a witness at the coroner’s inquest. Hank alerts Charlie Barr (Hugh Sanders), the local Klan leader, that his sister-in-law had witnessed the murder. Barr visits Marsha, and she recognizes him as the other unhooded man. He threatens her not to reveal that she even saw the Klan at the scene of the crime or there will be consequences.

At the inquest, Marsha claims she saw nothing. The jury decides that Adams was killed by assailants unknown. Burt is flabbergasted, and later shoves Marsha in frustration when she leaves the courthouse. The members of the Klan celebrate at the cafe, and Hank gets drunk as he imitates the reading of the verdict over and over again. Barr orders Hank to speed Marsha’s departure from Rock Point. Foolishly, Hank tries to kiss Marsha as she packs her bags. Lucy witnesses his attack and announces that she’s leaving him. With this development, Marsha says she will tell Burt Rainey everything. Hank kidnaps Marsha and takes her to the Klan rally. Lucy alerts Burt about Marsha’s peril. Many of the citizens of Rock Point, decked out in sheets, attend the rally, some even bringing their children. Those without hoods wear an eye mask. Charlie Barr, the grand wizard of the local clan, orders Marsha to be beaten with a bullwhip. Burt Rainey, with Lucy and a handful of men, invade the rally and ridicule their costumes as Halloween nonsense. Burt shames some of them into leaving, and he frees Marsha. Barr identifies the killer as Hank, who grabs a gun and starts shooting. Lucy is struck and collapses dead. The KKK members flee in panic, despite Barr’s pleas to stand together. Burt arrests Barr and leads him away. The last remnant of the rally, a burning cross, collapses to the ground in the film’s final shot.


Storm Warning , like numerous other film noir pictures, is filled with significant social implications. The impact of the last scene is riveting, giving the picture a remarkable hard-edge style typical of the genre. Two flaws undercut the main theme, however. First, none of the black victims of the Klan are ever portrayed on screen. In fact, even references to the black citizens of Rock Point are indirect and oblique, such as when Barr proclaims the good the Klan does by keeping elements of the population in line. Second, the fact that Barr and Faulkner, his partner, are embezzlers detracts from the plot, since their victim of their theft is the Ku Klux Klan itself. The audience would approve of the Klan getting bilked by their local leadership. The script never openly indicates in which state Rock Point is located. Following Marsha’s itinerary, the last city they visited was Atlanta, so Rock Point is west of Atlanta heading toward the Mississippi River. On the other hand, the portrayal of the working methods of the Klan are well illustrated by the film, particularly how they intimidate nonmembers into following their orders. The Klan rally is chilling, especially when children (in miniature Klan get-ups) populate the crowd. The illustration of how the KKK is able to blend in with and influence society is aptly demonstrated. The relationship of Hank and Lucy is another carefully crafted element of the plot, as the man’s true nature is slowly revealed to his wife as he becomes more and more abusive. The production values of Storm Warning are excellent. The lead, Marsha Mitchell, was originally to be portrayed by Lauren Bacall, who chose to bow out of the production to accompany Humphrey Bogart, her husband, to Africa where he made The African Queen (1951). Ginger Rogers is less suited to the part, but she still was able to make it her own, a woman with tremendous fortitude who refuses to back down after a certain point is crossed. Ronald Reagan gives one of the strongest performances of his career, showing genuine depth in the part. When Burt walks into the KKK rally, he tries to defuse it with folksy charm, a ploy that works very well until Hank loses his cool and starts shooting. Doris Day is also exceptionally strong as Lucy, and her killing, one of the few times a pregnant woman is murdered on camera, is one of the most unforgettable screen deaths of the 1950s.

Richard Brooks, the author of the screenplay, went on to become a major director as well. Many of his films became noted for their approach to social issues, including Crossfire (1947) and Elmer Gantry (1960) as a writer and The Blackboard Jungle (1955) and In Cold Blood (1967) as a director.


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