The Well is a quirky little number, a plea for brotherhood along the lines of Pabst’s Kameradschaft but with the action transferred from Alsatian coal country to the American boonies. It’s flush with postwar idealism, but like Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story and Albert Band’s Face of Fire it assays the purity of America’s civic values by focusing on the trauma of a single small town. Wisely avoiding an accusatory look, it’s located in a place so anonymous that we can’t even be sure which part of America we’re in. The townspeople’s clothes may scream “Hattiesburg ’51”, but there are no telltale drawls, no root cellars, catfish or cotton crops, no whittling or eating of “vittles”. The sheriff is a well-spoken man leading a team of mostly professional deputies while a handful of educated young blacks, probably students at a nearby university, have the most clued-in perspective in town. Despite some festering resentments the town’s racial problems are under control—people are getting along.
Then, one morning, a young black girl, dawdling on her way to school, falls into an abandoned well. The sheriff barely notices her disappearance until a couple of witnesses recall seeing a man speaking to her—a white man. (“Twist!”, as Liz Lemon would say.) The girl’s parents grow more upset, more vocal in their demands. The whites make quiet jokes among themselves; the blacks trade quiet rumors. The man is found—he is a young civil engineer, new to town. (It’s Harry Morgan, aka “Colonel Potter” from MASH. He’s terrific here.) He admits talking to the girl and buying her a snack, but that’s all he did—he swears. His answers don’t add up, though, plus he’s a bit of a smart-ass. The blacks, monitoring the situation and not expecting justice, grow angrier. The suspect’s overfed employer doesn’t help anything when he shows up—he’s gentry, and acts like it. The flash-point comes: a shoving incident outside the jail. Now gangs of blacks and whites, captured in Dutch angles, race through the streets gathering axe-poles and handguns, and begin laying into one another. Tit for tat beatings spread like plague, and it’s only because the girl’s belongings are discovered at the wellhead that open warfare is averted. The townspeople, all of them, rush to the field. The civil engineer—a suspect just minutes ago—and his pig-eyed boss coolly supervise the sinking of a parallel shaft. This intensely rushed effort to save the child is cut to the rhythms of the machinery’s percussive booms; the drilling spans an entire night, with the workers spotlighted by the glare of circled cars.
The Well was respected enough at the time to rack up writing and editing Oscar nominations, but after that it fell into its own black hole: it was no gimme finding even a semi-decent still for this post, the cover for its DVD carries the poster from another movie altogether, and its director, Russell Rouse, is remembered (if at all) as the man responsible for that Mount Everest of bad taste called The Oscar. But Rouse and The Well’s producer, Leo Popkin, collaborated again a year later on The Thief, a Cold War spy drama that takes as its hero a Communist agent, and which aside from its sound effects is entirely silent—not a word of dialogue is spoken. The Well appeared in 1951, three years before Brown v. Board of Education and four years before Emmitt Till and Rosa Parks became known to the wider world, which is only to say that it was that much ahead of its time, and that it was made only because somebody thought that a picture of two troubled peoples coming together for a higher good couldn’t do the world any harm. Based on events that inspired Billy Wilder’s exercise in exaggerated cynicism Ace in the Hole, The Well settles for exaggerated optimism instead, and suffers from shaky production values to boot. None of that matters a damn to me—I’ll take it just the same.