The Secret of Convict Lake

Poster

One of the joys of collecting and watching movies is that, from time to time, you chance upon a little neglected gem. Sure, there are the disappointments too but that’s more than balanced out by the buzz of seeing something previously unknown for the first time and liking it. The Secret of Convict Lake (1951) was a movie I’d never heard of before I acquired it. Anyway, I thought I’d give it a go for a number of reasons: the cast was great, the title was evocative, and the cover looked quite cool. Having seen it now, I have no regrets about this particular purchase and it’s a film I can see myself revisiting. It’s a compact little western with noirish undertones and good performances all round.

Any western involving snow inevitably gets the thumbs up from me, and this one opens with a group of men fighting their way through a white, mountainous landscape. The voiceover informs us that we’re looking at six convicts (soon to be five as one freezes to death) who have broken out of prison and are trying to keep ahead of the pursuing posse. When a blizzard forces the hunters to abandon the chase, the remaining fugitives find themselves on a ridge overlooking a small settlement. After the hellish trek the collection of small dwellings with soft lights spilling from them look very inviting. A quick reconnaissance reveals that the only inhabitants are women, their men having yet to return from prospecting. Right away the conflict at the centre of the picture is before us: a bunch of frozen and half-starved criminals fresh out of prison are confronted with a community of frontier-hardened females who aren’t shy of guns but nor are they without compassion. An uneasy compromise is struck whereby the convicts are to be fed and lodged long enough to allow them to regain enough strength to continue on their way, but they must keep to their assigned quarters. The women are dominated by a trio of well-defined stock characters: Granny (Ethel Barrymore) is the tough old matriarch, Rachel (Ann Dvorak) a spinster who hears the clock ticking louder every day, and Marcia (Gene Tierney) an outsider with a questionable past who’s engaged to Rachel’s brother. The balance of power among the fugitives rests uneasily between Canfield (Glenn Ford) and Greer (Zachary Scott), with the latter counting on the greed of the others to bolster his position. The thing is that Canfield was convicted of robbery and murder, and the $40,000 he is said to have stolen has never been recovered. Greer wants that money badly but Canfield wants something else, the man whose perjury delivered him to the hangman. The rest of the convicts comprise a thug, a bragging Englishman and a mentally unstable young man with a penchant for killing women. Factor in the added complication that the man Canfield’s seeking happens to be Marcia’s betrothed and the situation bristles with explosive potential. The film’s hour and twenty minute running time packs in a powerful mix of sexual tension and the looming threat of violence before coming to a satisfying conclusion.

Breaking the ice - Glenn Ford and Gene Tierney in The Secret of Convict Lake. 

The Secret of Convict Lake comes near the mid-point of director Michael Gordon’s career, one derailed by the blacklist. Until then he’d been making B programmers and a few noir pictures, the enforced break would be followed by a move to glossy Ross Hunter/Robert Arthur productions. While this isn’t a straight film noir Gordon’s direction, Leo Tover’s moody photography and Sol Kaplan’s doom laden score all combine to create a darkly atmospheric western. The casting of Ford, Tierney, Scott and perennial heavy Jack Lambert add to the noir feel of proceedings. Glenn Ford was able to play these kinds of uncomfortable outsiders with his eyes closed and Canfield is another in a long line of basically right guys who’ve been screwed over by circumstances. He’s a man who’s been brought face to face with death and has only his quest for justice or vengeance to keep him going. Zachary Scott, on the other hand, is all slime and self interest, prepared to use everyone to get what he wants. His calculating seduction of Ann Dvorak’s frustrated old maid is both creepy and (from her point of view) tragic. Gene Tierney’s natural beauty could never quite mask the demons struggling inside her, but that often worked in her favour on screen. Her Marcia is a similarly troubled soul, a woman with a past she desperately wants to leave behind and who is on the point of marrying a worthless man in order to try to make a fresh start. Canfield’s arrival and his subsequent revelations offer hope and despair in equal measure. Ethel Barrymore gives another variation on her wise old owl turn with a hint of that mischievous eccentricity peeping through – I always appreciate her presence in a movie. A word too for Cyril Cusack, not an actor you expect to see in a western, whose talkative cockney provides Canfield’s ruthless comrades with their most human and sympathetic face.

As far as I’m aware the only release of The Secret of Convict Lake on DVD at the time of writing is the Spanish disc from Fox/Impulso. The film hasn’t had any work done on it but, fortunately, for the most part the image is very strong. There are cue blips and some very minor damage but the elements are generally in good shape leading to a sharp picture with contrast levels that looked fine to me. The downside is that it appears to be interlaced, although I didn’t find that a huge problem to be honest. The mono soundtrack is clear and the Spanish subs are removable by deselecting them via the main menu. Extras are limited to text bios and a gallery. I found the film to be a very entertaining and tightly paced production. There are fine performances all round and, as I mentioned before, a welcome hint of film noir in the script, casting and direction. It’s a strong movie that really ought to be better known, and it gets my approval.

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