Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison

I am Folsom Prison. At one time they called me “Bloody Folsom.” And I earned the name. I’ve been standing here in California since 1878. My own prisoners built me, shutting themselves off from the free world. Every block of my granite is cemented by their tears, their pain, and the blood of many men.

The above is from the opening voiceover of Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951), and it immediately conjures a grim, forbidding and uncompromising mood. Prison movies are, for the most part, an acquired taste, which is entirely understandable given the sense of confinement and despair, not to mention the fact it’s hard to find many characters to sympathize with. That notwithstanding, it’s also undeniable that those same aspects combine very well if one happens to be looking for a solid film noir setup.

That narration sets the tone right from the start, and the first act follows it up in hard-hitting fashion. The majority of the main figures are introduced, standing in line in the yard before the admin building and apparently waiting patiently to receive whatever disciplinary action is to be meted out for various instances of rule-breaking. The truth is though that these men have planned a breakout using this as cover. The illusion of order and acquiescence is suddenly shattered as  violence and pandemonium take their place. It’s tough, gritty stuff with guards and inmates alike setting upon each other, but the outcome can never really be in doubt and the bid for freedom comes to nothing. Actually, what it does serve to illustrate is the iron inflexibility of Warden Rickey (Ted de Corsia) and the desperation of the prisoners. The regime run by Rickey is a brutal one and the consequences of challenging his authority are shown to be savage indeed. One man who pulled out of the initial botched escape is Chuck Daniels (Steve Cochran), but he’s the type prepared to bide his time till he figures the odds are stacked a little more in his favor. However, the movie is not relentlessly downbeat; there is the seed of something more positive at its heart, and that’s represented on screen by the arrival of Benson (David Brian), the new captain of the guard and a man who believes in more than just the mailed fist approach of his superior.

When I hear about prison movies I find myself automatically thinking of 1930s films, and people like James Cagney, George Raft and Pat O’Brien spring to mind. Subconsciously, they seem to exist for me primarily as an adjunct to the classic gangster pictures. I guess something similar could be said of Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, particularly if one views film noir as a kind of maladjusted and disillusioned descendant of the gangster cycle. The cream of those 30s movies were produced by Warner Brothers, the studio that best represented the social conscience of Hollywood in the classic era. That same sensibility from the studio is apparent here, using a hard-edged genre movie to raise questions about and provoke discussion of how society deals with its lawbreakers. It was both written and directed by Crane Wilbur, a man who is probably better known for his work in the former category – aside from The Bat, I’m not sure I’ve seen anything else he directed – and he did seem to be drawn to what might be termed “issue” films.

The issue at stake here is one which cannot have gone unnoticed by audiences in 1951, and it reaches beyond the notion of prison reform. Ted de Corsia’s warden is a neatly drawn portrait of a domestic fascist – mean, cruel and contemptuous of anyone but himself, an authoritarian driven by his own insecurity and weakness. Perhaps it’s all a bit one-dimensional, but it’s hard to complain when an actor as accomplished at playing callous, self-serving types as De Corsia was is on such good form. David Brian is an effective foil, confident of and comfortable with his innate compassion. And drifting somewhere in the middle, occupying those grey shadows that are too murky for the stark blacks and whites of De Corsia and Brian, is Steve Cochran. He has the brooding insolence down pat as he slouches around like some overgrown teenager with murderous tendencies. In addition to those three at the top of the bill, there’s fine support provided by the likes of Phil Carey, Paul Picerni and William Campbell.

Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison is available as part of the Warner Archive and it’s been given a strong transfer to DVD. The print used is in very good shape and the clarity and contrast combine to make the noir visuals  particularly attractive. I had a good time with this movie,  appreciating the pace, the toughness and the credible performances. I reckon it’s a well-made and engrossing crime picture which is certainly worth checking out, even for those who might not normally be drawn to either the setting or characters involved.

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The Turning Point

Organized crime, corruption and graft became increasingly common features of film noir as it moved into the 1950s. Those unattractive yet perennial problems seemed even less savory in a world just beginning to find its equilibrium again after the trauma and devastation of the war years. The desire to root out such rottenness, particularly after so many had sacrificed so much in pursuit of something finer, had the potential to provide powerful drama. Still, alongside this, it has to be acknowledged that there was a correspondingly strong chance of any movie going down this route declining into a dry, or even pompous, affair. The surest way to combat that unwelcome effect was to ramp up the human interest, to emphasize the personal angle while holding the preaching in check as far as possible. The Turning Point (1952) represents a broadly successful attempt to ensure this balance is achieved.

There is an especially nasty flavor to organized crime. It dresses itself up in a sneer, celebrates its own conceit and smirks at its own soullessness. It’s a crime without passion, an offense keen to court glamor yet one which leaves behind huge numbers of victims as it swaggers nonchalantly towards the next big score.  The Turning Point clearly acknowledges this as it follows prosecutor John Conroy (Edmond O’Brien) on his crusade against the mob in an unidentified Mid-West city (despite the fact the location work makes it abundantly clear the film was actually shot in Los Angeles). Superficially, there’s nothing new here and one might be forgiven for expecting another straightforward racket-busters yarn. However, there are elements introduced that muddy the ethical waters somewhat and thus raise the bar a few notches. To begin, there’s Jerry McKibbon (William Holden), the newspaperman whose friendship with Conroy will be tested both by his own inherent cynicism and his growing attraction to his friend’s girl (Alexis Smith). There’s the makings of an interesting moral dilemma shaping up there, but all this is somewhat overshadowed (although one could argue it’s also complemented) by the fact Conroy’s policeman father (Tom Tully) has secretly been in the pocket of the mob boss for some time.

As I alluded to above, films based around the mob and/or those tasked with taking them down can become wearisome in their predictability. There’s a tendency perhaps to focus on the  tough cool of the knowing gangster, the high-living wiseguy who’s got society’s number and plays it mercilessly. Either that or the audience is placed in the shoes of the straight arrow agents of the law, and all the grey sanctimony that inevitably follows in the wake of that approach. There’s something refreshing about the way The Turning Point enthusiastically embraces the flaws in human nature – the use of the source material by Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?) can’t have hurt.  Nor can the smooth and sensitive direction of William Dieterle, yet another of those who brought their European filmmaking sensibility with them and thus enriched Hollywood in the studio era.

Good casting goes a long way, in my opinion. Both Holden and O’Brien play to their strengths, the latter projecting businesslike  solidity, while the former exudes worldly (indeed world-weary) charm. Crucially, neither one overcooks it or allows it to slide towards parody. Alexis Smith was both capable and beautiful, working on a number of good movies over the years but maybe too many middling ones kept her star from rising as high as it could have. Tom Tully had the pivotal of the compromised cop, one that needed to  be written and performed well if the story was to retain its credibility. Happily, both the actor and the writers seem to have grasped this fact and the emotional core holds up as a result. Good villains are also essential in such tales, and small but memorable appearances from Ted de Corsia, Neville Brand and Carolyn Jones help things along. Ed Begley, a champion of bluster and indignation, does well as the crime boss; the scene where he calmly orders the firebombing of an entire building just to protect his interests is chilling in its calculation, and also heartbreaking in the dispassionately filmed aftermath.

A fair bit time has been taken up on this site bemoaning the lack of attention given to certain Universal-International tiles. The same can certainly be said of Paramount material – while a fair bit has leaked out over the years, plenty more remains either unavailable for viewing or  only exists in inferior form. This is true of The Turning Point, a film which was once announced for release on Blu-ray but then pulled as the elements were said to be sub-standard. At present, there are DVDs to be had from Spain and Italy but the transfers are pretty weak by all accounts, and I have a hunch they may not advance much, if anything, on what can be found quite easily online. A pity really, and it would be great if a more visually appealing version could be found and put on the market.

The Price of Fear

Hybrid movies, or those which blend and mix genres, can be fascinating when done well. When the recipe is a winner the results can be stimulating, the unexpected seasoning adding  freshness to even the most familiar servings. On the other hand, a poor choice of ingredients tends to produce something stodgy and rather bland. Sadly, I think that’s what happened with The Price of Fear (1956), a movie whose frankly generic title hoped to combine the fatalism of film noir and the soulfulness of melodrama, but it doesn’t really come off and, in spite of a few neat touches and smooth visuals, I came away from it feeling vaguely dissatisfied.

It opens in suitably noir fashion with dog track owner Dave Barrett (Lex Barker) finding out that his partner has sold his share in the business to mobster Frankie Edare (Warren Stevens), leading to the usual threats and recriminations. At about the same time financier Jessica Warren (Merle Oberon) is just leaving a night spot after an evening out. So, we have two strangers, the kind whose paths are unlikely to cross in the normal course of events. This is all about to change though for both when, to borrow a well-worn phrase, fate decides to put its finger upon them. In short, carelessness at the wheel sees Jessica run over an old gent out walking his dog, while Barrett has the misfortune not only to fall victim to a frame-up for the murder  of his ex-partner but then doubles up by stealing the hit and run vehicle while trying to duck out on a tail. Superficially, it’s  bad break for Barrett but an apparent stroke of luck for Jessica yet this is before their alibis get entangled with their passions, not to mention the relentless external pressure being applied by both the mob and the police.

Abner Biberman started out as an actor, playing parts ranging from comic hoodlums to a whole raft of east Asian types, before graduating to the director’s chair. The bulk of his work was in television, working on a host of well-known shows including The Twilight Zone and The Fugitive, but he also took charge of a number of cinema features. I found his handling of Gun for a Coward, for example, to be solid if fairly unremarkable. I think the same could be said of The Price of Fear, where it all looks attractive enough with a the kind of glossy patina one would expect of a mid-50s Universal-International picture. Still, it never really grips or fully engages you; the script is altogether too languidly paced for my liking and expends far too much time and energy on a not very interesting romance while simultaneously failing to exploit the underlying tensions and also skimming over the potentially absorbing ethical conundrums at the core of the tale.

Overall, I’d say the performances could also be categorized similarly – fair to middling. I can’t say I’ve ever been all that excited by Merle Oberon, frequently finding her a little too distant and emotionally detached. Former Tarzan Lex Barker is another who I find perfectly watchable but not a major draw. I think he does better, at least as his part is written, but the fact remains there’s not a lot of chemistry between the two stars and the central relationship, upon which so much of the drama depends, feels rather flat as a consequence. Charles Drake is usually worth watching in those third-billed roles he made his own and he doesn’t disappoint as the cop in charge of the investigation and Barker’s friend. Unfortunately though, his is essentially a supporting part and the film needed more punch from above. The tragic Gia Scala does catch the eye in her first credited role but it’s underwritten and represents something of a missed opportunity as far as I’m concerned. Warren Stevens is generally a good bet as oily types of questionable morality and provides good value – of course he was doing some interesting work around this time in various genres, taking one of the major roles in the fabulous Forbidden Planet that same year.

The Price of Fear is easy enough to track down for viewing. It was released in the US some years ago as part of a box set of noir-lite thrillers and then as (I think) a stand alone MOD disc. Additionally, there are Spanish and German DVDs available and there’s usually a very good quality online version to be found too. It’s an OK film, but hardly essential and, as I’ve mentioned on this site many times now, there are far better Universal titles that could be released yet remain frustratingly out of reach. All in all, it’s not an unpleasant way to pass an hour and quarter or thereabouts but don’t expect to be bowled over.