Hell’s Highway (1932)

Takin’ It Off Here Boss

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Hell’s Highway is the lesser-known chain gang picture from 1932, overshadowed by its more famous counterpart, Warner Bros. I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, however, according to sources, this RKO production was released two months prior to the Warner Bros. picture. There are some notable differences between the two socially-conscience, pre-code films. Unlike I Am A Fugitive…, the majority of Hell’s Highway takes place within the chain gang itself rather than the events leading to the protagonist being imprisoned. Richard Dix stars as Frank ‘Duke’ Ellis, whom unlike Paul Muni’s character in IAAFFAGC, is not an innocent man who has been falsely imprisoned, therefore as a viewer, one’s sympathies lie differently with him. The film cleverly creates sympathy for the character in two ways. Firstly it is established he has been locked up for the crime of bank robbery, which means he isn’t as morally reprehensible as say a murderer. Secondly, he forgoes an escape opportunity when he learns his idolizing younger brother Johnny (Tom Brown) has also been sentenced to the chain gang, thus Duke remains put in order to protect him. Duke is also a World War I veteran; however, the manner in which this is revealed is a brilliant piece of visual storytelling. In a scene in which Duke has been tied up to receive a whipping on the back, the guard is apprehensive about doing so. The camera then pans to Duke’s shirtless back to reveal a giant Tattoo of the American flag accompanied by the text “42nd Machine Gun Co, 167th INF.”, as the screen then fades to black – powerful stuff. Dix himself is a silent-era holdover and like his contemporary’s such as Richard Barthelmess, he has an intense presence and a face which is able to convey so much.

While Duke Ellis is a man who has been rightfully locked up, Hell’s Highway does raise the question of when does the punishment outdo the crime? When does punishment become even too hardcore for the likes of Dirty Harry – a system which has prisoners are in bondage the majority of the day, even as they sleep and eat in the mess hall. One of the most distinguishing images in Hell’s Highway is the prison uniforms which have a target on the back of them, a target for prison guards or bounty hunters to aim at as seen later in the film (however, I can’t find any real-life example of these uniforms actually existing). Likewise, the trousers worn by the prisoners have flaps on their rear ends, looking like an exposed diaper and another way (whether intentional or not) of removing dignity from these men. However, it’s the sweat box which is the most inhumane piece of torture present in the film. Alec Guinness might have survived one on the River Kwai but here it is a death sentence, as occurs early in the picture as indicated by the haunting sound of a crying dog (although one minor criticism I would deliver is from this moment having its impact weakened as a character immediately explains the dog’s crying means someone has died rather than just allowing the moment speak for itself).

Hell’s Highway opens with a prologue stating “Dedicated to an early end of the conditions portrayed herein – which though a throwback to the Middle Ages, actually exists today”, followed by a montage of newspaper headlines covering abuses taking place in chain gangs across the states. I am unable to find any evidence these headlines are real. For example, one of them reads “Prison Guards Accused Of Murder As Tortured Youth Dies Chained In Sweat Box” from the Seattle Post, a publication of which I can’t find any evidence of actually existing. Regardless, this along with the haunting acapella of chain gang singers over the opening credits sets the tone for the film. These chain gang chants serve as the film’s diegetic soundtrack (with prolific composer Max Steiner acting as the picture’s music director), which is put to its most effective use during a memorable montage which is accompanied by sketches made by prisoners depicting previous events in the film.

Hell’s Highway is one dirty, sweaty film full of fascinating, rugged faces which say a thousand words. Firstly I have to ask is the character of Maxie (Sandy Roth) supposed to look like the film’s producer David O. Selznick? Furthermore, it wouldn’t be a pre-code film without an overtly homosexual man thrown in; a prisoner who does what else, cooks the food and does the laundry.  Moreover, the head guard of the chain gang, Mr. Skinner (C. Henry Gordan) has a moustache primed for twirling. However, throughout the course of the film, he is seen trying to learn the violin in his downtime – a corny but effective way to make him more human and show he has a soft side. However, if the film has one show stealer it has to be religious/spiritual prisoner Mathew, a man who claims to be Christian despite having three wives at once and an expansive knowledge of astrology (of which he highfalutin, astrological predictions do come true throughout the film). When I first watched Hell’s Highway I had to know who this actor was a dead ringer for Harry Dean Stanton (or certainty in this picture at least). It turns out the actor is known as Charles Middleton, whose biggest claim to fame was playing Ming With Merciless in three Flash Gordon serials made between 1936-1940.

Hell’s Highway concludes with justice actually being served by the film’s end in which the Of Michigan State Governor arrives at the chain gang prison to issue injunctions against the corrupt prison officials for their violation of state law (although it is not stated where the film is actually set until ¾ into the picture). The Governor himself is presented in one of the most comically, stereotypical images of an American authority figure (usually a southerner but not always the case as seen here) wearing the Col. Sanders white suit, hat, shoes and the black bow tie. The ending is another major deviation from I Am A Fugitive…, which does not conclude in such a manner with everything being neatly tied up. It’s not a bad ending by any means, but I do feel the film’s impact could have been stronger with justice not remaining delivered at the end. Regardless, perspective viewers can find this pre-code gem on the Warner Archive Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume 9.

The Criminal Code (1931)

Crime Doesn’t Pay

The Criminal Code explores the issue of turning a normal person who made a mistake into a criminal through time spent in prison and ends up abiding by the criminal code itself. The same subject matter is also explored in the movie Caged made 19 later; nothing seems to change. Robert Graham (Phillip Homles) is a sheltered pretty boy who got a rotten break (similar to Robert Montgomery in The Big House). However, unlike Montgomery in The Big House, Graham is put in a cell with two guys (including Boris Karloff’s Galloway) who look out for him. Although you do have to suspend your disbelief a bit over the movie fast forwarding six years and Graham not being remotely criminalised within that time. Among the film’s examination of the American legal and penal system, Walter Huston explains how it would be possible for someone to get off the hook for a crime such as manslaughter; “A year’s delay, a new trial, the witnesses would fade away, they always do, the whole mess would get cold, the papers would have something else to yap about. I’d get him off; he’d never serve a day”. Great thought provoking stuff.

Walter Huston plays the warden of the unnamed prison. He is stern but fair and a real “Yes sir!” type as evident from his first appearance with the manner in which he addresses a female witness (“Never mind that, pull down the shade”). The man is one lightning-fast talker who can interrogate like a boss but his greatest moment of badassery comes from the scene in which he goes into the prison yard to confront protesting, yammering prisoners face to face without any guards. Just look at the way he walks into the yard and lights up a cigar. As he approaches the prisoners the yammering stops and they don’t lay a hand on him. Simply put, this guy is badass. Perhaps unrealistically so but that’s why we have movies.

The Criminal Code was Boris Karloff’s first significant screen role in the part of Galloway. With his dominating, tall, lanky figure he steals the show; his monologue on why’s he’s in the slammer with the shadows across his face is hair-raising stuff. Galloway has a vengeance with a guard named Gleason which gives the film some dark comic relief such as the two awkwardly passing each other on the stairs to Karloff’s recurring use of the lines “I don’t like you” and “I got an appointment with you”. Likewise, the other memorable cast member, albeit in a very brief role is Andy Devine who is very hard to miss with that highly distinctive voice of his.

The Criminal Code uses the same set created for MGM’s The Big House released the year before. With its more intricate cinematography, the film doesn’t capture the sense of claustrophobia seen in The Big House but still captures the mundanity of prison life. As an early talkie, there is no music present in The Criminal Code but rather the sound of prisoners marching along with various other sound effects are just as effective as any music score could be.

The Criminal Code is also host to one of the most shocking moments in pre-code cinema (and was even featured in Karloff film Targets from 1968). When Galloway chases a squealer into a room while yammering is going on in the background from the prison yard, Galloway walks into the room with the squealer cornered as he slowly closes the door as the squealer looks on in terror. What happens next is up to the viewer’s imagination.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The Big House

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Shawshank Redemption is a movie which is hypnotising in just how good it is. You know the type of film; whenever it’s on TV (which in this case it constantly is) you have to stop what you’re doing and watch it – one of those rare movies in which you don’t want to end. With the all the movies out there in which you find yourself checking how long is left of the running time, here is one in which you see there is a whole hour left and you’re glad; the mark of a truly great movie.

Carcerophobia is the fear of going to prison and is something which has crossed my mind in the past, partially brought on by movies like The Shawshank Redemption. Even if you’ve committed nothing illegal like Andy Dufresne, there is always that possibility that an honest law-abiding citizen could end up in the slammer. The world of Shawshank State Penitentiary is one with little to no human rights, one with shocking but believable treatment from both the guards and fellow prisoners as they engage in brutal, sadistic acts. Regardless of what prisons around the world are like circa 2017, your “whole life (is) blown away in the blink of an eye, nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it”. The Shawshank Redemption may be one of Stephen King’s non-horror works, but the prospect of going to prison for a crime you never committed gets under my skin.

One of the aspects of The Shawshank Redemption which intrigues me the most in the empire Andy builds while inside prison as well as an insight of the economics and commerce which goes on between the prisoners and guards. Just like Robert Stroud in Birdman of Alcatraz, he is still able to find meaning in his life despite being in what first looks like a hopeless situation; he is able to find hope in despair. This really does show that at the end of the day, knowledge is power. Likewise, Andy sending a letter every week to the state government for prison library funding and ultimately playing with the system, always something which inspires me.

What makes Andy Dufresne such a great character? Like Tim Robbins himself, there is more than meets the eye. Robins has an intelligence to him and you can’t quite figure out what is going on behind his eyes, an actor with a mysterious aura to him and this comes through with the character of Andy. He is not like the rest of the prisoners, he’s a civilised gentleman thrown into the jungle that is prison but he’s not a sheltered fool ether and knows how to deal with his new surroundings. But why do I need to tell you this, the narration sums up his character perfectly in a beautiful and poetic manner – “I must admit I didn’t think much of Andy first time I laid eyes on him; looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over.” Likewise, I also find myself very intrigued by the character of Brooks; just how does such a gentle soul end up in prison? Did he really commit a crime? Who knows?

Morgan Freeman has the ability to play wise old men without coming off as a stereotype or a cliché. His narration is describing what obviously appears in the film, so what makes it so great? Like the best film narration, it’s to do with its poetic manner and the way in which it’s delivered; scenes in the film were shot to time with the pre-recorded voice over plus it goes without saying Freeman has one of the most heavenly voices ever. None of his dialogue is necessary for the advancement of the plot, yet what would the film be without it? There are just so many inspirational quotes.

The escape sequence itself so incredible yet at the same time is entirely believable and one of the most satisfying movie revenge plots. Many people always point out as to how Andy could reattach the poster to the wall when he begins his escape through the tunnel, even Frank Darabont acknowledges this on the DVD audio commentary although I am puzzled as to why this is made into a big deal. Andy could simply attach the poster to the wall at the top two corners and allow gravity to cover the remainder of the hole and simply crawl into it from below as if the poster where a curtain, likewise we never see on screen if the poster has been reattached on all four corners.

When I think of films which can convey an expansive range of powerful human emotions and feelings and act as a form of emotional therapy a few instantly come to my mind – It’s a Wonderful Life, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shawshank Redemption. Films which help one to break from the mental prisons of our life.

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

The Birds

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Birdman of Alcatraz isn’t just a movie, it’s an experience – the story of a man who’s able to lead a meaning and productive existence despite serving a life sentence in solitary confinement. A man who is able to create an empire of bird keeping and aviary research within the solitary confinement quarters of a prison. When I first watched Birdman of Alcatraz I only vaguely knew about the story of Robert Stoud and thus I was in awe as just how his empire gradually comes to be as he MacGvyers the little he has at his disposal to create a grand sanctuary. I don’t know what it’s like to be isolated in a confined area for days on end but I suspect this movie may provide the closest feeling I could ever get to it; black & white cinematography and claustrophobic prison cells go hand in hand not to mention the daunting narration by Edmund O’Brien creates an ongoing sense of foreboding.

Birdman of Alcatraz made me a fan of Burt Lancaster. It was not the first film I had seen him in but it was the first at which I was struck at what an immense powerhouse of an actor he is, carrying a two and a half-hour long, mostly single location picture. His portrayal of Robert Stroud is the classic characterisation of tough on the outside, soft on the inside. A heartless monster who learns the value of humanity and cares for a creature as delicate and feminine as a bird. It’s a dichotomy that can come off as very corny but Lancaster’s immense performance prevents it from coming off like this. Stroud’s relationship with his mother (Thelma Ritter) even has shades to the Cody Jarret mother complex. Yet just as compelling is the relationship between Stroud and the warden played by Karl Malden, which I feel is summed up with one line (and one of my favourite movie quotes), “That convict has been a thorn in my side for 35 years but I’ll give him one thing, he never lied to me.”

Birdman of Alcatraz is a tale of rehabilitation with a clear anti-death penalty message. Early in the film when Stroud’s mother speaks to First Lady Edith Wilson, she speaks of how she believes the current President doesn’t believe in the barbarity of “eye for an eye”. Due to Stroud’s pardon, the stone-cold killer went on to achieve great things in the field of aviary research and discovering cures for various aviary diseases. Later in the film, Stroud’s birds are taken away from him and he is unable to engage in commercial enterprise following rules from the newly established Federal Bureau of Prisons. The pain of seeing the one thing giving Stroud meaning in his life being taken away from him when he’s transferred to Alcatraz is unbearable viewing.

Like many biographical films, Birdman of Alcatraz receives criticism with the historical liberties taken; most prominently in this instance the fact that the real Robert Stroud was reportedly an incredibly unpleasant individual. I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again: Movies are not documentaries. When adapting a real-life story to the screen, changes and liberties are likely going to be made for the sake of storytelling and entertainment; would a story closer to the truth have been more interesting? My second rebuttal to the ‘not historically accurate’ criticism is that how many people would even be aware of certain historical figures if it wasn’t for their film biopics; movies can act as a gateway to learning about history. After watching Birdman of Alcatraz I wanted to read about the real Robert Stroud, otherwise, I might not have even heard of the man.

The Big House (1930)

You Know What They Do To Guys Up At The Big House!

I suspect The Big House helped birth many of the conventions, staples and slang terms which have come to define prison films. Many of the classic elements are here but they manage to feel fresh instead of coming off as worn out clichés.

The big impact this film had for me was that it made me a fan of two of its main stars, Robert Montgomery and Wallace Beery. The Big House made Beery a star, establishing his loveable lug persona and making him one of the biggest stars of the early 30’s and one of the most unconventional stars in Hollywood history. Beery has a contradictory screen persona as seen here as his role of Butch; a thuggish brute one minute but as gentle as a puppy the next. However, I feel Robert Montgomery is the one who steals the show, even If he doesn’t have as much screen time as Beery and Chester Morris. Montgomery strikes me as the most interesting character in the film, as a privileged pretty boy convicted of manslaughter while drunk driving; he appears to be barely ready for adulthood, let alone ready for serving 10 years in prison. Throughout the entire film, you can tell he’s completely out of his element with his trembling manner and naive wide-eyed stare. Unlike the rest of the prisoners, he is not a criminal in the common sense, displaying how it’s a scary possibility for any regular person to end up in prison regards of their background or social standing.

Being an early talkie, The Big House features many long static camera shots, muffled sound and no background music. However, I feel these technical limitations are one of the film’s greatest assets as they heighten the claustrophobia of the cells and other confined areas of the prison. If The Big House was made or remade later in the sound era with more advanced cinematography and clearer sound and a music score, it would not be as effective. The sound design itself is impressive, with the sound effects of whistles, prisoners marching or turning their plates in perfect unison in the mess hall showcase the routine nature of prison life and its mundanity.

The film’s screenwriter, Frances Marion interviewed actual prisoners and prison personnel when writing The Big House, making the film an as authentic as possible look at the American prison system in 1930. Director George W. Hill apparently threatened to fire anyone caught acting and forbade the use of makeup in the film. The sets don’t look like Hollywood sets and this is not a romanticized look at prison such as movies like Ladies They Talk About. At the beginning of the film the prison’s warden (Lewis Stone), delivers a monologue about the general public wanting criminals locked behind bars but don’t care about their treatment or rehabilitation once in prison. Here the prisoners have nothing to do all day in the overcrowded prison but grow animosity towards the guards and plot on how they are going to make their escape. Shortly after watching The Big House, I heard a discussion on the radio regarding the deteriorating conditions of prisons in the UK in 2014 and a caller phoned in and mirrored the exact points Lewis Stone made in The Big House; 80 years later and nothing has changed.