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Monday, May 12, 2014

STORM CENTER (1956)

As one of the few films to tackle the ‘50s Communist Witch Hunts straight on, rather than allegorically, during the Hollywood Blacklist era, there’s a natural rooting interest in this cautionary fable about censorship at a small town library. If only Oscar-winning scripter Daniel Taradash, in his sole megging effort, had his camera, as well as his heart, in the right place now & then. (The only stylish moment on screen is the Saul Bass Opening Credit sequence.) Bette Davis, packing on an extra twelve years or so, is the long widowed city librarian who reshelves a controversial book extolling The Communist Dream; then watches her life, her town & even her favorite young readers succumb to lowest-common-denominator political hysteria & scapegoating. Davis thought the film failed because of a lack of emotional warmth from the troubled kid at the center of the action. She’s right, but Taradash, as both writer & director, deserves equal blame. Even with some excellent use of real locations in Santa Rosa, California, especially in public spaces, the studio interiors are visually dead. And Taradash hasn’t much knack at getting results out of the pro & non-pro actors in the cast . . . especially that bookish kid in the middle of things. Even Davis turns a bit colorless, pausing to think about kindness & decency before every cue. Just look how she lights up when she finally gets the chance to tell off her library replacement, Kim Hunter. The one standout is Brian Keith, frighteningly sure of his political instincts as a Red-Baiting city councilman in the ambitious tradition of Senator Joe McCarthy. These days, he comes off more like Senator Ted Cruz.

DOUBLE-BILL: Producer Julian Blaustein wasn’t afraid of movies with a message: World Peace with THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL/’51; prejudice against Native Americans in BROKEN ARROW/’50. And handled without that Stanley Kramer air of self-importance.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A WONDER BOOK is a central prop in this story. A retelling of Greek Myths for young readers, it was once a standard in American Children’s Lit. Does anyone still read it?

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