Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Seven Miles from Alcatraz (RKO, 1942)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I did manage to squeeze in a movie the night before last: Seven Miles from Alcatraz, an intriguing “B” from RKO in 1942 that managed to upend some of the most hallowed movie conventions and clichés and create an original and surprisingly powerful entertainment. Directed by Edward Dmytryk — his first credit after leaving Columbia for RKO and actually a much better movie than Hitler’s Children, the later wartime propaganda piece that made him a star director — from a script by Joseph Krumgold based on a story by John D. Klorer, Seven Miles from Alcatraz is a story about two convicts, Champ Larkin (James Craig) and Jimbo (Frank Jenks), who are serving sentences at Alcatraz when Pearl Harbor is attacked and, with all the fear of a Japanese (or other Axis) attack on the U.S. mainland that surfaced after that incident, they’re worried that they’ll be sitting ducks in case an air raid aims for and hits the prison.

So they escape — “trade secret,” Champ says in his narration (the whole movie is narrated from his point of view — a technique Dmytryk had used before in The Devil Commands and would use again in his masterpiece, Murder, My Sweet), to obviate the need for Dmytryk and producer Herman Schlom to stage an escape on a “B”-movie budget — though the film is explicit on how the two cons get to safety through the waters of San Francisco Bay: they grab onto a shipping crate (addressed, in a nice little in-joke, to “H. Schlom, San Francisco”) and let it float them across the water until it lands them on a lighthouse occupied by Captain Porter (George Cleveland), his daughter Anne (Bonita Granville) and two helpers, Paul Brenner (Erford Gage) and Stormy (a thoroughly obnoxious comic-relief character played by Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, making a semi-comeback after being the voice of Jiminy Cricket in the Disney-RKO release Pinocchio).

Needless to say, it’s hate at first sight between Champ and Anne — he’s got the sexual hots for her (he hasn’t seen a woman in five years, he makes sure to tell us, and of course a strict-Code era movie like this was going to stay mummer than mum about what he might have done for sexual release in the meantime!) and she thinks he’s a despicable convict and won’t have anything to do with him. The plot thickens when Captain Porter receives a message in Morse code that sounds like so much gibberish — only Jimbo, who it was already established back on Alcatraz was a whiz at puzzles, figures it out and eventually the people on the lighthouse realize the truth: that the message was code from a German submarine and Brenner — whom Jimbo has already killed when he got in the way of their plan to steal the lighthouse’s supply boat and escape — is a German agent who’s their contact. Wondering why Brenner hasn’t answered their call (and not knowing that he’s been killed by an escaped convict), three incredibly obvious German spies — the Baroness (Tala Birell), Fritz Weinermann (John Banner) and Max (Otto Reichow), all with heavy-duty German accents that in the iconography of early-1940’s movies immediately established them as baddies and made us wonder why the characters were so much slower to realize that than we were — show up at the lighthouse.

The cons realize that the newcomers are German spies well before the Porters and Stormy do — and much of the suspense comes from whether or not the Porters and Stormy will unwittingly help the spies thinking they’re helping them catch the cons. This is one of those neat little films that tosses the usual clichés into a Mixmaster and emerges with something fresh and original — and Dmytryk directs with a real flair for atmosphere (which he’d also shown in The Devil Commands, another movie set largely at a lonely old manse on a coast!) that would have marked him for biggers and betters even if he hadn’t proceeded to make RKO a ton of money with Hitler’s Children and Behind the Rising Sun (doing his part, along with Val Lewton, to help bail RKO out after all the money they wasted on Orson Welles, William Dieterle, Pare Lorentz and other cinematic artistes whose RKO movies, if they got made at all, were generally artistic successes and commercial flops) even though one can’t help this film could have been made with a bigger budget and better actors: the role of Champ Larkin cries out for Humphrey Bogart (or at least future RKO star Robert Mitchum) and gets James Craig.