Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Island of Doomed Men (Columbia, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Island of Doomed Men, a 1940 Columbia “B” I’d recently recorded off TCM as part of a night-long tribute to Peter Lorre that also encompassed two of his big mid-1940’s Warners melodramas, Three Strangers and The Verdict. Lorre’s film career began vividly (and indelibly) with the 1931 Fritz Lang thriller M — which he shot in Berlin while simultaneously appearing on stage in Bertolt Brecht’s satirical farce A Man’s a Man (he made the film by day and acted in the play at night) — and his initial foray into the English-speaking film world produced great movies like Hitchcock’s first The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The Secret Agent (1936), Josef von Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment (1935) and Karl Freund’s Mad Love (1935), Lorre’s U.S. debut.

After that, however, his popularity faded and he latched on to the Mr. Moto series at 20th Century-Fox as a way of keeping himself busy — and when that ended abruptly in 1939 he was reduced to making “B” movies at Columbia, RKO and wherever else would have him. Some of the “B” movies Lorre made around this period were genuinely interesting, including Stranger on the Third Floor (RKO, 1940) — though Lorre’s part is a ludicrously transparent psycho killer and the film’s interest lies in the plot thread of the innocent man (John McGuire) convicted and sentenced to death for one of Lorre’s murders — and The Face Behind the Mask (Columbia, 1941), which cast him in a rare sympathetic role in which he was quite good.

Alas, Island of Doomed Men isn’t one of Lorre’s good movies from this period; it’s the old chestnut about the sinister entrepreneur who runs an island and requisitions ex-cons up for parole to serve as his slave laborers, and the good guy — here, Robert Wilcox (who’s neither attractive enough to be “A” leading man material nor a good enough actor or charismatic enough personality for that not to matter) as undercover federal agent Mark Sheldon. In the opening scene, Sheldon is assigned to get the goods on Stephen Danel (Lorre) — maybe that spelling is supposed to make him seem French, but what we actually hear on the soundtrack is “Donnell,” an oddly Anglo name for a Peter Lorre character! — who’s running his slave-labor camp on the so-called “Dead Man’s Island” off the coast of Florida.

Sheldon is supposed to contact fellow agent Jackson (Addison Richards) and work with him on the assignment — they have overlapping code numbers so they can identify each other, Jackson’s being “46” and Sheldon’s being “64” (I couldn’t help but joke, “Gee, James Bond gets a cool code number like ‘007,’ and what am I stuck with? ‘64’!”) — only as soon as Sheldon shows up in Jackson’s office and the two make the I.D., a sinister-looking man stands on the building’s fire escape, fires a gun at Jackson and dashes off. Jackson is killed and Sheldon picks up a gun off the floor and fires at the fleeing man, but misses him. At first we’re sure the killer was one of Danel’s minions, but in the next scene in another office in the same building we learn it’s Danel himself, as he quickly (too quickly) changes from the black suit he wore for the murder to a white one and talks to one of his underlings that they’ve set it up so one of the agents sent to get him is dead and the other has been framed for his murder. (That jarred because I kept thinking that a ballistics test — which did exist in 1940 — could have proved that Jackson was killed with a different gun from the one Shelton was holding when the police arrived, which seems to be the main piece of evidence against him — or were we supposed to believe that Danel had thrown his gun through the window after shooting Jackson and that was the gun Sheldon picked up and used to fire at Danel?)

The plot holes come fast and furious as Sheldon gets arrested and convicted for the murder, sent to prison, paroled and — sure enough — assigned to Danel’s island camp, where the entire installation is surrounded by an electrified fence and the prisoners are whipped regularly for whatever infractions against his rules Danel and his henchmen can dream up. (The imdb.com entry on this film lists “Shirtless Male Bondage” as one of its keywords.) About all the prisoners seem to be doing all day is breaking rocks on a chain gang à la I Am a Fugitive — one would think that Danel would be having his prisoners doing something that would actually bring him some money — and the main plot interest lies in Sheldon’s growing attraction to Mrs. Lorraine Danel (Rochelle Hudson, a sensitive actress who gets more of a chance to shine here than she did in her two most famous credits, as Mae West’s protégée in She Done Him Wrong and W. C. Fields’ daughter in Poppy, even though she’s pretty evidently channeling her characterization from Mary Astor in The Hurricane) and his attempts to foment a rebellion by getting the guards to switch sides so they can get their hands on the huge diamonds Danel seems to have by the fistful. (Maybe that’s what the prisoners are supposed to be digging up on the rock gang, though we see no evidence of this.)

Island of Doomed Men lurches through the expected clichés to a resolution that makes no sense whatsoever (one minute Sheldon and Mrs. Danel are in the clutches of the unscrupulous convicts and guards — by this time Danel has already been killed with a knife in the back from his long-suffering house servant — and the next minute they’re flying back to the mainland, safe, sound and together), and what interest it has is the surprisingly inventive direction by Charles Barton — he and cinematographer Benjamin Cline work out some beautifully atmospheric shots in noirish half-light — and Lorre’s coolly understated performance as Danel. In a role that could easily have lent itself to eye-rolling villainy (and did from Lorre on other occasions), Lorre is chillingly restrained, able to convince us that he’s capable of wearing enough of a mask that parole authorities willingly send prisoners to him in the belief that he’s helping them rehabilitate (or that Lorraine was willing to marry thinking he’d be a good catch!), and even in his nastiest moments he hangs back enough to keep the character an evil man instead of an unmotivated monster.

It’s a pity a performance this good was wasted on a script this schlocky and clichéd (the writer, in case you’re interested, was Robert Hardy Andrews — this is a film that calls into question my general field theory that the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers!); fortunately, better things awaited Lorre — like The Maltese Falcon, which in addition to its major boost to Humphrey Bogart’s career was also a major comeback for Lorre and set the stage for his impressive run at Warners in the 1940’s — though in the scene in which Rochelle Hudson sits at the piano and Lorre bids her play for him, I couldn’t help mashing together two of Lorre’s better-known films and saying, “Play it, Lorraine — play ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’!”