Alicia Hull is a widowed small town librarian dedicated to introducing children to the joy of reading. In exchange for fulfilling her request for a children's wing, the city council asks her to withdraw the book The Communist Dream from the library's collection. When she refuses to comply with their demand, she is fired and branded as a subversive. Especially upset by this is young Freddie Slater, a boy with a deep love of books whom Alicia has closely mentored.
Judge Ellerbe feels Alicia has been treated unfairly and calls a town meeting, hoping to rally support for her. However, ambitious attorney and aspiring politician Paul Duncan, who is dating assistant librarian Martha Lockeridge, undermines those efforts by publicly revealing Alicia's past associations with organizations that turned out to be Communist fronts. Alicia notes that she resigned as soon as she found out the true nature of the organizations, but Duncan's incendiary revelations result in only a handful of people showing up to the meeting. Those that do attend express concern about being branded Communists themselves if they stand with Alicia. Upon hearing their concerns, Alicia informs the meeting that she no longer wishes to fight the city council and wants to let the matter drop. With no opposition to her removal mounted, virtually the entire town eventually turns against Alicia.
Freddie, convinced by the opinions of others, particularly his narrow-minded father, that Alicia is a bad person, is unable to handle the resulting feelings of betrayal. He becomes increasingly fearful even of books themselves and he begins to break down completely, culminating in his setting fire to the library. His actions cause the residents to have a change of heart, and they ask Alicia to return and supervise the construction of a new building. Alicia agrees, lamenting her earlier decision not to fight and vowing never again to allow a book to be removed from the library.Bette Davis ..... Alicia Hull
Brian Keith ..... Paul Duncan
Kim Hunter ..... Martha Lockridge
Paul Kelly ..... Judge Robert Ellerbe
Joe Mantell ..... George Slater
Edward Platt ..... Rev. Wilson
Kathryn Grant ..... Hazel
Kevin Coughlin ..... Freddie Slater
Michael Raffetto ..... Edgar Greenbaum
Producer ..... Julian Blaustein
Original Music ..... George Duning
Cinematography ..... Burnett Guffey
Art Direction ..... Cary Odell
Title Design ..... Saul Bass
In his review in the New York Times, Bosley Crowther felt "the purpose and courage of the men who made this film not only are to be commended but also deserve concrete rewards. They have opened a subject that is touchy and urgent in contemporary life . . . [they] put a stern thought in this film, which is that the fears and suspicions of our age are most likely to corrupt and scar the young . . . However . . . the thesis is much better than the putting forth of it. The visualization of this drama is clumsy and abrupt . . . Mr. Blaustein and Mr. Taradash have tried nobly, but they have failed to develop a film that whips up dramatic excitement or flames with passion in support of its theme." Of Bette Davis, he said, "[She gives] a fearless and forceful performance as the middle-aged widowed librarian who stands by her principles. Miss Davis makes the prim but stalwart lady human and credible."
Time said the film "makes reading seem nearly as risky a habit as dope . . . [it] is paved and repaved with good intentions; its heart is insistently in the right place; its leading characters are motivated by the noblest of sentiments. All that Writer-Director Taradash forgot was to provide a believable story."
In the Saturday Review, Arthur Knight opined the film "comes to grips with its central problem with a forthright honesty and integrity . . . It may be that in fashioning the story the authors have made their film a bit too pat, a bit too glib, a bit too easy in its articulation of the various points of view expressed. Bette Davis's enlightened liberalism sounds at times as dangerously smug and self-righteous as the benighted politicos and anti-intellectuals who oppose her."
The National Legion of Decency stated the "propaganda film offers a warped, over simplified emotional solution to the complex problems of civil liberties in American life." Daily Variety responded to the Legion by suggesting "it's almost impossible to over-dramatize human liberty whether it's a depiction of Patrick Henry ... or a librarian sacrificing her reputation rather than her democratic principles."
Time Out London calls the film a "didactic, laborious piece."
TV Guide says, "While the film was forthright in its attempt to deal with censorship, the execution was dismal. The sudden alteration in the town's beliefs is just too nonsensical to accept. Davis, however, is quite convincing as the principled librarian, but there just isn't enough of a story to complement her performance."
Of it Davis herself said, "I was not overjoyed with the finished film . . . I had far higher hopes for it. The basic lack was the casting of the boy. He was not a warm, loving type of child . . . his relationship with the librarian was totally unemotional and, therefore, robbed the film of its most important factor [since] their relationship . . . was the nucleus of the script."
In 1957 Storm Center was awarded the Prix de Chevalier da la Barre at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was cited as "this year's film which best helps freedom of expression and tolerance."