There are some excellent performances and plenty of thrills in this movie about how the Klan intimidates an entire town.
Dress model Martha Mitchell (Ginger Rogers) takes a night off from a business trip to visit her recently married sister Lucy (Doris Day). Minutes after she gets off the bus and heads to the recreation center where Lucy works, she witnesses hooded Klan members dragging a man out of jail and murdering him. A couple of the men are not hooded. Martha arrives at Lucy’s house, shaken, and is appalled to recognize Lucy’s husband Hank (Steve Cochran) as one of the killers. Hank says the group only wanted to scare the man and acts contrite. Martha promises to keep her mouth shut for Lucy’s sake since her sister is expecting a baby and is madly in love with the oafish, vicious truck driver. She promises to slip away the next morning.
Her departure is delayed when local D.A. Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan) finds evidence that she must have been near the jail at the time of the murder. She says that she was unable to recognize the murderers because they were all wearing hoods. Unwittingly she has become Rainey’s star witness at the inquest. He had been unable to break the code of silence enforced by the Klan for years and sees a chance to name the group in the murder..
But Grand Vizer Charlie Barr fears an examination of the Klan’s books which will reveal that he has been taking a big cut of the proceeds from selling regalia, dues, etc. He threatens to pin the entire murder on Hank if Martha testifies about the hoods. Reluctantly, Martha lies at the inquest. But when the awful Hank harasses an innocent townsman at the rec center and later tries to rape her, she changes her mind. Things get increasingly scary after that.
Ginger Rogers proved she deserved her acting Oscar for Kitty Foyle in this very dramatic role. This was Doris Day’s first non-singing screen role and I thought she was convincing as a small town housewife. But the big draw of the film for me is Steve Cochran’s very believable turn as an ignorant villain. Heisler keeps the tension high throughout culminating in the truly frightening cross burning scene.
The one flaw in the picture, and for some it may be a deal breaker, is the watered-down portrayal of the Klan. This Klan is not a white supremacist organization but instead is battling “busybodies and outsiders”. They kill the reporter for threatening to investigate their books for tax evasion. I wonder whom the filmmakers were trying not to offend …
Trailer – Cinematography by Charles E. Guthrie