Wednesday, February 27, 2002


This apparently set the mold for all later prison dramas. I usually avoid films set in prison (I haven't even seen THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION), but the prison-movie cliches are so prevalent that I know most of them, and practically all of them are in this movie: stool pigeons, the gruff but well-intentioned warden, the cafeteria scene, solitaire, the guy too soft for prison life, and the breakout. At the time, they weren't cliches, but they do help to date the movie to a certain degree. The saving grace here is the acting. As much as I like Chester Morris, this movie confirms an observation about him that I had some time ago--I don't know if it's his acting or his roles, but even when he's the star of a movie, he usually gets overshadowed by someone else. He doesn't have enough to do in ALIBI and FIVE CAME BACK; other stars steal his spotlight in RED-HEADED WOMAN and PUBLIC HERO #1. In this one, Wallace Beery (a notorious scene-stealer) winds up making more of an impression despite having a slightly smaller role.

The plot centers on Morris as a forger in prison who, just as he's about to be released, gets framed for a major rule infraction and is put in solitaire. When he comes out, he escapes, meets and falls for a girl, then is caught and tossed back in prison just in time to play a crucial part in a Thanksgiving Day breakout. Despite Morris's central role as "hero," the movie begins from the point of view of Robert Montgomery, a pampered rich boy who killed someone in a drunk driving accident and is put in the same cell as Morris and Beery (a hardened murderer). The prison code is exemplified in the behavior of the three. Morris knows how to survive and remain human; Berry's too hot-headed for his own good (though despite his crude and violent behavior, we do have some sympathy for him). Montgomery can't learn how to play by the rules and it's not long before we know he'll come to no good. (Leila Hyams, the only woman in the story, is the girl Morris falls for--who is also Montgomery's sister, in a plot twist that doesn't really have a payoff.) The violent breakout scene is very well handled, although the film drags a bit in getting to the climax. Morris looks good as always, especially in a couple of scenes where his usually greased-back hair is allowed to look more natural.

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