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Canon City (June 30, 1948)

Crane Wilbur’s Canon City is a low-budget entry in the docudrama genre, a genre that began in 1945 with the Louis de Rochemont-produced espionage melodrama The House on 92nd Street and enjoyed enormous popularity in post-war Hollywood.

Docudramas were dramatizations of actual events that featured actors but that strove for authenticity by filming in actual locations, using real documents in key scenes, and featuring participants in the case playing themselves in bit parts.

After The House on 92nd Street followed more fact-based spy thrillers like 13 Rue Madeleine (1947) and The Iron Curtain (1948), and legal docudramas like Boomerang (1947) and Call Northside 777 (1948).

Some films, like Kiss of Death (1947), T-Men (1947), and The Naked City (1948), were mostly fictional, but were presented in a docudrama fashion and filmed on location to add authenticity to otherwise run-of-the-mill crime stories.

Canon City uses a combination of docudrama techniques. It begins in a straightforward documentary style, and slowly draws us into the fictional world of its incarcerated protagonists. The obligatory scroll of text that opens the film informs the viewer that all events depicted in the film are based on actual events that took place in and around the Colorado State Prison in Canon City on the night of December 30, 1947. (Canon City is pronounced “Canyon City,” and is sometimes spelled Cañon City.) It goes on to say that the convicts shown in the film are the actual convicts involved in the case, and that Roy Best, the warden of the prison, plays himself. Finally, we are told that “the details of the break are portrayed exactly as they occurred and were photographed where they happened.”

Reed Hadley narrates the opening in his signature style (docudramas provided a lot of work for Hadley). He describes the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City as “a home for those who like to have their own way too much, and have taken forbidden steps to achieve their aims. All kinds are here; murderers, kidnappers, thieves, robbers, embezzlers.”

Warden Best and the disembodied voice of Hadley lead the viewer on a tour of the prison, introducing the variety of work that the prisoners do and conducting short interviews with actual inmates of various types; a man soon to be paroled, an old man who’s been doing time since 1897, a 14-year-old murderer sentenced to 20-30 years who’s working on a hooked rug in the art shop, and a murderer whose death sentence was commuted to life by the warden, and who now hopes to be paroled in 1949.

We then see the process of nighttime lockdown, and at the 9-minute mark of the film Hadley’s narration introduces the viewer to a pair of inmates with adjoining cells: Jim Sherbondy, a 29-year-old inmate who was sentenced at the age of 17 for killing a police officer, and Johnson, a long-termer who is working on the model of a ship. (His real work — a zip gun — is hidden behind the ship. He’s part of a plan to break out.)

Hadley’s narration doesn’t stop after Sherbondy and Johnson are introduced, and the film continues in a semi-documentary style, but the introduction of these two characters marks the moment when the film moves from fact to fiction. Remember that opening text from the beginning of the film I mentioned? The one that said “The convicts you will see are the actual convicts”?

Well, this was clearly a lie, since Sherbondy and Johnson are both played by actors, not actual convicts. This is par for the course, though. Despite what they invariably claimed, docudramas in the ’40s usually had a tricky relationship with the truth.

I couldn’t figure out who the uncredited actor who plays Johnson is (if you know, please comment on this review), but Sherbondy is played by Scott Brady, the younger brother of notorious tough-guy actor Lawrence Tierney. (Lawrence Tierney and Scott Brady’s youngest brother, Edward Tierney, who turned 20 years old in 1948, also had a career in the movies starting in the ’50s.) Brady was born Gerard Kenneth Tierney, and Canon City was his first major film acting role, and the first film in which he was credited as “Scott Brady.” (His first appearance was a small role in Sam Newfield’s 1948 film The Counterfeiters, in which he was credited as “Gerard Gilbert.”)

Brady bears an uncanny resemblance to his older brother, but his face is a little softer and more innocent-looking, which works well for his role in Canon City. Sherbondy is a reluctant participant in the breakout. He has a job in the prison’s photography shop working in the darkroom, which is the perfect place for the conspirators to hide a load of zip guns, since the darkroom requires guards to wait outside until it’s safe to turn the lights on and open the door.

I wonder if anyone who saw Canon City during its initial theatrical run noticed Brady’s resemblance to Lawrence Tierney, or if there were any astute viewers who noticed the slim, bespectacled Whit Bissell and said to themselves, “Hey, wasn’t that guy in Brute Force?”

I also wonder how many viewers didn’t specifically recognize any of the actors but were able to tell that they were watching actors and not the actual participants in the case. And if they did, did they feel cheated after the opening claim of total and complete veracity?

I wonder these things because I do think that Canon City is remarkably skillful in the way it draws the viewer in and the way it manages to feel raw and real throughout. A little before the half-hour mark, the breakout kicks into high gear with an assault on a guard and a furious rush to fit all the pieces of the plan together. For nearly an hour, Canon City is as tense a picture as one could ask for. A dozen men pour out into a snowy night, disguised as prison guards. The prison alarm tolls throughout the small town. Terrified moviegoers swarm out of a theater whose marquee shows the Abbott and Costello comedy The Noose Hangs High (which wasn’t released until the spring of 1948, incidentally) and people on the streets rush to get home. But home offers no solace, as the convicts break into house after house looking for shelter, food, and weapons.

The cinematographer of Canon City was John Alton, who was responsible for brilliant work on many film noirs (most notably his collaborations with Anthony Mann). There aren’t a lot of memorable “noir” setups in Canon City, but overly stylized lighting wouldn’t have fit with the docudrama approach to the material. The darkness and the driving blizzard are terrifying enough filmed in a straightforward fashion. Canon City is the kind of movie where the cold gets into your bones just watching it.

Canon City is a film that is dated in many ways, but it still packs a punch if you can go along with the semi-documentary style. Writer-director Crane Wilbur gets the most out of his limited budget by filming inside the prison and in the rugged beauty of the southern Colorado landscape around Cañon City, and the pacing is swift and brutal once the breakout occurs.

Oh, and if you’re a Star Trek fan, keep your eyes peeled for a young DeForest Kelley as one of the dozen escapees.

Ramrod (Feb. 21, 1947)

Ramrod
Ramrod (1947)
Directed by André De Toth
United Artists

They called it God’s country … until the Devil put a woman there! screams the poster for André de Toth’s Ramrod.

That darned Scratch. Goin’ and puttin’ women where they oughtn’t to be.

The woman in Ramrod is Connie Dickason, whose slight frame and small stature belie her will of iron. She’s played by Veronica Lake (de Toth’s wife from 1944 to 1952).

Connie’s fiancé, Walt Shipley (Ian MacDonald), plans to bring sheep through public grazing land, which hasn’t endeared him to local cattleman Frank Ivey (Preston Foster), who has Connie’s father, Ben Dickason (Charles Ruggles), in his pocket.

Alcoholic cowhand Dave Nash (Joel McCrea) has worked for Shipley for the past three weeks. At the request of Connie, with whom he has a history, he backs up Shipley when Ivey and his men attempt to stop Shipley from leaving on the night stage. (If Shipley gets out of town, he’ll come back with sheep.)

Sheriff Jim Crew (Donald Crisp) cautions Dave to stay out of it. When Dave says to the sheriff, “I work for Walt,” the sheriff responds, “For three weeks? What do you owe that fool, your life?”

All of this takes place in the first 10 minutes of the film. De Toth drops the viewer into the action in media res. Without a scorecard, it’s hard to keep track of who’s who during the first reel. (And it doesn’t help that Shipley and Ivey look nearly identical.)

Veronica Lake

But things become more clear as the plot rolls forward. Shipley decides that he doesn’t love Connie enough to die for her, so he heads out of town, leaving her his ranch. Connie’s father expects that she’ll do his bidding after Shipley departs, but she throws down the gauntlet with a fiery speech: “From now on I’m going to make a life of my own. And being a woman, I won’t have to use guns. This isn’t just a fight between father and daughter. You’ve pushed Frank Ivey at me ever since I can remember. For years I’ve watched him run things his way. The town, the valley, you, and now me! No one’s ever had the nerve to stand up to him. Well I have!”

Connie hires Dave to be foreman of her ranch, the Circle 66. He in turn hires an old friend of his, a handsome, charming loose cannon named Bill Schell (Don DeFore). Dave is determined that everything the Circle 66 does to fight Ivey be above board, but Connie and Bill have their own ideas. Connie may have made the decent and honest Dave “ramrod” of her outfit, but it’s the violent Bill Schell who is the true instrument of her will.

Joel McCrea

Joel McCrea has the pleasantly handsome, soft-featured face of the dad next door, but he’s tall enough and projects enough quiet menace to be convincing as the ramrod of the Circle 66 ranch. Don DeFore, who usually played pleasant, jovial men, is excellent playing against type as a cold-blooded gunman.

Ramrod is a great western. It’s based on a novel by Luke Short, and de Toth does an excellent job of capturing Short’s hard-boiled western prose and talent for characterization. The tone of the picture is closer to the film noirs of the period than it is to the westerns.

In Ramrod, de Toth creates a grim, violent world in which the righteous are just as likely to die as the wicked. Fistfights in this film don’t end with a bunch of broken furniture, they end with blood. A group of Ivey’s men beat an unarmed cowhand to death in front of Connie. When Bill Schell slaps a man in the face to enrage him, he tells Bill that he won’t be “rawhided” into drawing, so Bill burns his hand with a cigar. When Ivey shoots a man, he steps forward and finishes him off with another shot. Ramrod ends with a shootout, of course, but it doesn’t end with a quick draw or any fancy trick shooting. It ends with a shotgun blast to the gut.

True to the noir tone of the film, there’s a “good girl” to counterbalance Connie, named Rose (Arleen Whelan). The intertwined relationships of Dave, Bill, Connie, and Rose are well-played, and evolve naturally over the course of the film. Character drives the plot of Ramrod forward as much as bullets and fists.

Ramrod premiered on Friday, February 21, 1947, in Salt Lake City, at both the Utah and Capitol theaters. The world premiere event was part of Utah’s centennial celebration as a U.S. Territory. Ramrod went into wide release on May 2, 1947.

The Killers (Aug. 28, 1946)

The Killers (a.k.a. Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers) was the screen debut of Hollywood legend Burt Lancaster. It was also an early but significant role for another legend, the beautiful Ava Gardner, who had been appearing onscreen in uncredited parts and small roles since 1941.

Lancaster plays a former boxer named Ole “Swede” Andersen and Gardner plays Kitty Collins, the femme fatale who ensnares him.

The film is based on Hemingway’s 1927 short story “The Killers,” which features his recurring character Nick Adams, who sits in a diner and witnesses two hit men come in and wait for a Swedish boxer, whom they are there to kill for unstated reasons. Nick and the black cook, Sam, are tied up in the kitchen, but eventually the killers leave when the boxer doesn’t show up. Nick gets out of his bonds and runs to the rooming house where the boxer lives. He warns him about the men who are there to kill him, but the boxer is resigned to his fate.

At first glance, the less than 3,000-word short story seems a strange choice to be adapted as a feature-length film. Hemingway once said, “That story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote.”

Instead of just using the title and Hemingway’s name to sell the picture, as many producers would have done, Mark Hellinger’s The Killers takes the story as a jumping-off point, and spends the rest of the picture filling in the details of the boxer’s life, and eventually we learn why he was murdered. The first 12 minutes are a faithful adaptation of Hemingway’s short story, except that the killers (Charles McGraw and William Conrad) don’t constantly use the N-word to describe Sam, the cook. Otherwise the dialogue is largely unchanged. It’s a reminder of how much Hemingway’s clipped prose and naturalistic dialogue influenced the hard-boiled school.

When Nick (Phil Brown) runs to the rooming house to warn the Swede about the killers, we get our first glimpse of Lancaster’s big frame, indolently lying in bed, his face in the shadows. Nick can’t understand his passivity. The Swede refuses to even get out of bed when Nick tells him that he’s about to be murdered. “I did something wrong once,” he mutters.

There’s no twist ending to this section of the tale. Conrad and McGraw walk into the Swede’s room with their revolvers drawn and calmly pump ten bullets into him.

Enter Jim Reardon (Edmond O’Brien), an investigator for the Atlantic Casualty & Insurance Company. Nick and the Swede worked together at a gas station owned by Tri-States Oil, which carries a group policy on its employees. (It’ll be hard for fans of the radio show Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar not to think of O’Brien’s run on the show when he announces his profession, since O’Brien played the insurance investigator with the “action-packed expense account” from 1950 until 1952.)

Reardon’s investigation leads him to a payroll robbery that was masterminded by crime boss Big Jim Colfax (Albert Dekker) and netted more than a quarter of a million dollars. Reardon believes the Swede was involved, and his boss, R.S. Kenyon (Donald MacBride), grudgingly gives him a week to solve the case.

The story stops and starts, which sometimes keeps the viewer at a distance from the Swede, but in exchange we are introduced to one interesting supporting character after another; a chambermaid who once stopped him from committing suicide (Queenie Smith), a Philadelphia police lieutenant named Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) who grew up with the Swede and married the girl he left behind, the Swede’s elderly, astronomy-obsessed cellmate Charleston (Vince Barnett), as well as some of his former partners in crime.

Watching this film today, it’s hard to separate Burt Lancaster from the role he is playing. Lancaster had such a long, interesting career, and he was never type-cast (except possibly as a large guy with a square jaw and big teeth). Lancaster portrayed many intelligent and sensitive characters, so it’s easy to forget what a big, dumb brute the Swede is. He feels pain, both physical and emotional, but he has no depth of character. Once he falls for the alluring Kitty, he will do anything to have her, but he probably doesn’t even understand why.

Reardon may appear onscreen for nearly as much time as the Swede, but he makes less of an impression. Lancaster’s tortured performance is the dark soul of the film.

The expanded story of The Killers has a lot of moving parts, and could have been a complete mess, but the screenplay is excellent, and keeps everything moving without becoming confusing. It’s credited to Anthony Veiller, but Richard Brooks and John Huston also worked on it. (Huston’s name was left off the credits because he was under contract to Warner Bros.) Robert Siodmak’s direction is crisp and assured. He and his cinematographer, Elwood Bredell, create a dark, beautifully lit world full of shadows and smoke. Miklós Rózsa’s score is top-notch — free of the treacly strains of neo-Romanticism that dilute the effectiveness of too many film noirs from the ’30 and early ’40s.

This is a must-see for all fans of noir.

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