In Hollywood, there has always been a tendency to play it safe and produce films based on tried-and-true formulas designed strictly as mainstream entertainment. Yet in every decade there have been a few brave directors who defied convention and dared to create substantive motion pictures dealing with important social issues. Many of these bold productions are pretty much forgotten, but modern audiences now have a chance to see, thanks to DVD, a number of memorable movies from the past that explored how fear and ignorance can quickly lead to violence and hatred. Two of the most notable examples are THE WELL, directed by Leo Popkin & Russell Rouse, and this film, THE LAWLESS, directed by Joseph Losey. While neither could honestly be called a cinematic masterpiece, both are worth viewing for their consciousness-raising content.
THE LAWLESS deals with the friction in a small California community between self-righteous townspeople and Mexican-American farm workers (referred to as "fruit tramps" by the locals). Macdonald Carey plays a newly-arrived newspaper editor who becomes interested in the case of a young Hispanic man wanted by the police on a number of questionable charges. The trouble reaches a boiling point when the youth is captured and the "decent" townsfolk assemble in a mob determined to carry out their own ideas of justice. All things considered, the film takes a fairly bold stand on the rights of the accused, and the subject matter is pretty strong stuff for 1950. Unfortunately, the movie's power is somewhat muted by a rather uninspired performance by Carey and a script that lacks a sharp dramatic edge. One never gets a sense that the editor has any deep convictions, so it's hard to know how he truly feels about the farm workers. Consequently we don't develop any emotional connection with him and the film's climax falls a bit short of expectations. Nonetheless, THE LAWLESS definitely holds your attention and ultimately packs quite an impressive punch.
Sixty years later, many of the issues explored in these remarkable films remain sadly relevant. America is still wrestling with matters of race and ethnic/religious heritage, as any survey of the daily news will attest. So, were any lessons learned from motion pictures like THE WELL and THE LAWLESS? Obviously they were not big box-office hits that created a national discussion. They mainly served to shine a light on some naked truths about the fragility of our ostensibly civilized society. Film lovers will have to console themselves with the thought that if these movies caused even a few individuals to stop and think, then they were at least partly successful.