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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40 thoughts on “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison

  1. Glad to hear this is in good nick on DVD. There must be a subgenre of films in which the narrator is either dead (THE SEVENTH CROSS; SUNSET BOULEVARD) or an inanimate object (isn’t the 1948 ENCHANTMENT also narrated by a house?). Which is fascinating given an otherwise realistic topic like this. Prison movies are such a weird genre, with some truly great ones (20,000 YEARS IN SING SING; BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ; Aldrich’s THE LONGEST YARD / MEAN MACHINE; SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION) and yet one would not, notionally, want to go near them, right? So where would you place this in your pantheon of incarceration cinema?

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    • That’s a good question, and one I find a bit difficult to answer as I’m not so well up on prison movies. It’s been quite a while now but I remember being quite impressed by Each Dawn I Die, and I think Brute Force is terrific. I liked this one but it’s probably a notch or two below those in fairness.
      And then, of course, there are POW movies, but I think they’re a different sub-genre entirely.

      On the narration, I agree there is a bit of an otherworldly vibe to it that is a strange fit with the tough realism of what follows. It works though.
      And you know, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen Enchantment now that you mention it.

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        • Yes, I looked it up when you mentioned it. Even if it’s not considered a world beater, I will keep an eye out for it. It sounds like the type of thing I’m not averse to if I’m in the right mood.

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          • I think Siegel’s RIOT ON CELL BLOCK 11 was the prison movie that first got my attention probably around the time of the release of ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ … Frankenheimer’s BIRDMAN may be my favourite even though it departs massively from the real Stroud story. Warners definitely made the best of them though in the 30s. Ending of ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES is peerless to me.

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            • No arguments from me on Angels With Dirty Faces.
              And I quite forgot about Riot in Cell Block 11, which I think I only saw once on TV but was impressed by. I do have the DVD but that’s still unwatched, like too many others!

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            • I had the opportunity to watch RIOT ON CELL BLOCK 11 a few nights ago. If I hadn’t known better it viewed so raw it could have been pre-code stuff. A really gripping portrait of prison life and the institution itself. Mentioning pre-code, the prison/reformatory film that stands out to me is THE MAYOR OF HELL (1933), which featured James Cagney and a bunch of pre-Dead End Kids juvenile delinquents. When I was a kid, I was completely enthralled in watching every Dead End Kid movie ever made. ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES was the best of them all, and I was quite taken with post-code CRIME SCHOOL and HELL’S KITCHEN. Some years later, THE MAYOR OF HELL was shown on TCM. Wow….what a movie, it by far bettered post-code remakes of CRIME SCHOOL and HELL’S KITCHEN.

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              • Hmm, more “stuff I need to do” there. The Mayor of Hell is not only one of those films I still haven’t watched but, until you mentioned it, also one I clean forgot I actually bought.

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  2. Interesting choice and an informed write up.
    As you quite correctly state Wilbur is more known as a writer than as a director, in fact Arnold Laven who worked with Wilbur in their early Eagle Lion days said that he preferred Wilbur as a writer as opposed to a director. I think that’s a tad unfair as I’ve always found Wilbur’s efforts as director pretty solid, although I have always felt Laven somewhat underrated as a director.

    Colin,you are correct about Wilbur’s liking for “issue” films, of which INSIDE THE WALLS OF FOLSOM PRISON is certainly one. I understand the film is set around the 1920’s when some American prisons were certainly lice infested hell holes as the film so aptly indicates. In some ways the film is a “prequel” to Wilbur’s CANON CITY which attempts to show the more humane prison system aimed at rehabilitation as opposed to mere punishment. In CANON CITY, partly filmed on site, we see that the prisoners have a fully equipped gym a proper in house cinema (as opposed to a hall with a makeshift screen) and classes for creative pursuits. There’s a very telling moment in CANON CITY where a young Native American inmate is weaving a beautiful tapestry of a sailboat, a symbol of freedom. It’s not all cushy inside ‘though the solitary confinement block of CANON CITY is very foreboding,to say the least. Still,when all is said and done CANON CITY is light years away from the horrors of Folsom Prison.

    Crane Wilbur made more or less 4 prison films at the same time the other two at Universal OUTSIDE THE WALL and THE STORY OF MOLLY X. The former is about what happens to a prisoner upon release and the latter is set in a women’s prison again with rehabilitation the main issue. I like all four of these films and would give CANON CITY the edge, with it’s terrific John Alton photography. It’s interesting that a young Johnny Cash having seen INSIDE THE WALLS OF FOLSOM PRISON was inspired to write his classic Folsom Prison Blues. Crane Wilbur as a writer had a very successful partnership with producer Bryan Foy, they worked on several interesting projects at Warners and struck gold with mega smash HOUSE OF WAX.

    You mentioned THE BAT Colin,I saw this years back and remember it as a let down, especially with Vincent Price and all. Crane Wilbur had a career going right back to the silent era, and despite this lackluster effort was still writing high profile movies like SOLOMON AND SHEBA and MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. All in all, Crane Wilbur had quite a career with many worthy and interesting films in his portfolio, but I guess it’s as a writer that he will be best remembered.

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    • Seeing as you mention Arnold Laven here, John, I would be keen on seeing both The Rack & Slaughter on 10th Avenue at some point in the future.

      On Wilbur and The Bat, I’ve not seen it for years either but I also recall finding it a bit flat – I think I have the novel it’s based on kicking around somewhere.
      Canon City sounds like it should be worth a look, Alton’s participation alone piques my interest.

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  3. Laven’s early Noir/Crime Thrillers are worth a look too WITHOUT WARNING,VICE SQUAD and DOWN THREE DARK STREETS.
    So much talent knocking around Eagle Lion in the late 40’s – Wilbur, Foy, Laven, Alton not to mention Alfred Werker and Anthony Mann. I hope CANON CITY gets the restoration it deserves someday, like several other Eagle Lion classics recently. It works as both a social drama and a cracking prison break film.

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    • I’ve seen, and liked, Down Three Dark Streets, which is something of a prequel to Blake Edwards’ Experiment in Terror and has Broderick Crawford in the role Glenn Ford would later play.
      I also have a copy of Vice Squad but I’ve not worked my way round to it yet.

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      • I viewed VICE SQUAD tonight. I loved all the twist & turns within the subplots and yet it was able to maintain a congruent flow…….of course, it was EG Robinson that was the glue that kept it moving and held it all together. A must see for Robinson followers.

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        • As I said, I have a copy of this but it’s not something I’ll be able to catch up with for a couple of months – good to have it to look forward to though.

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  4. Hmmm, I like and enjoy prison movies.

    Especially, as a group, those older Warner Bros. one–they have so many familiar moves, dialogue, casting that I just get pleasure out of the way those people practice it. And after all, it’s not like really being in prison!

    Later on, one of the best scenes in the history of the cinema takes place in one of those Warner Bros. prisons, though the prison part of it is only a part of a longer, more elaborate movie. That’s in WHITE HEAT (1949, Raoul Walsh), with James Cagney. I’m sure everyone knows the scene I mean.

    I haven’t seen INSIDE THE WALLS OF PRISON FOLSOM but do know Crane Wilbur a little and plainly this was a sphere of interest for him. Of American movies, the best (post 30’s, it’s 1947) I most like BRUTE FORCE and it sounds like this has some affinities. That’s pretty forceful, a lot of artistic virtues of all kinds, great cast and direction by Jules Dassin (and writing by Richard Brooks, no less). Hume Cronyn plays a head prison guard; there isn’t even an argument that he is a fascist–he acts that way all the way through and even plays Wagner; a very effective performance.

    But the greatest of all prison movies is the French LE TROU (1960), the last film directed by Jacques Becker. It is just amazingly powerful, brilliantly realized in every way. I’m mainly contributing to recommend this to anyone who hasn’t seen it (available on Criterion) and has any taste for prison movies. Because it is (to use a word Colin wishes I wouldn’t) a Masterpiece.

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    • Ha! I remember that “masterpiece” exchange, Blake. It’s not that I object to it as such – I may even have used it myself since – rather that I don’t entirely trust myself to use it appropriately.

      You may have recommended Le Trou to me before, I know somebody definitely did, and I’m glad of the reminder.

      And good point about White Heat – of course, if we were to include all the movies which had sequences taking place in prison, as opposed to those wholly set there, then the list would surely be a long one.

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  5. Yeah, I’m just amused thinking about that “masterpiece” exchange, Colin. Though more seriously, you may have influenced me to use the word less than I once did.

    Incidentally, I think you are on the right track with Arnold Laven with the two movies you mention, which I think are his best (of ones I’ve seen, which is most of them). I had a chance to talk to him one to one once and was very complimentary about SLAUGHTER ON TENTH AVENUE, especially a very beautiful and unusual ending which, as it’s realized, he plainly was most responsible for creating, and he appreciated that someone had noticed.

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    • Sadly though, Slaughter on 10th Avenue is one of those U-I movies we often end up talking about here, that is one which is particularly difficult to track down. I did find it online some time ago but then it was taken down before I had a chance to view it. Hopefully, it will turn up again somewhere.

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      • Colin……..I just watched a fairly crisp version online. You can Google it. Pretty darn good movie. Most impressed with Dan Duryea in the courtroom. Charles McGraw (with a full head of white hair of all things) was excellent along with Jan Sterling. I expected throughout the movie that McGraw would turn out dirty…….I’ll leave it at that.

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  6. Very enjoyable piece here, Colin, on a film I saw for the first time quite recently. As you say, the Warner Archive transfer is excellent. I would echo John’s comments on “CANON CITY”, with its great cinematography courtesy John Alton, and Scott Brady at his best maybe.

    Crane Wilbur wrote some very enjoyable screenplays – “PHENIX CITY STORY” is another ‘issue’ film that is very well done. Also from WB around the same time as “FOLSOM” is “I WAS A COMMUNIST FOR THE FBI” (screenplay by Wilbur) and starring the underrated Frank Lovejoy.

    Steve Cochran had a contract with WB at this time and was very effective in a number of good films for them. His peak years.

    No studio could quite match Warners for these type of hard-hitting ‘social’ stories.

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    • Yes, WB owned these types of movies and consistently produced interesting and absorbing variations on a whole range of subjects.
      This is the first title with Cochran I’ve featured but there will be others for sure.

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  7. Yes, despite a title that kind makes me recoil from the film (this was the McCarthy era), I WAS A COMMUNIST FOR THE F.B.I. is a excellent movie, solid drama and dimensional characterization by the underrated Lovejoy. Many a movie directed by Gordon Douglas is deserving of better reputation and that is one.

    Strangely, in the present era, we are at an opposite point. Too many once patriotic Americans now seem perfectly happy for the Russians to take over–and thanks to a willing Donald Trump, they are doing a pretty great job of it.

    There, I said it. And I’m not sorry I did. Because I’m feeling especially fed up with all this today.

    Anyway, three sentences in Colin’s review of THE TURNING POINT read like a deliberate parable about the present.

    Where is a hard-hitting Warners ‘social’ story when we need one?!

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    • Blake, I think many of us share your frustration with the current state of affairs worldwide these days, it’s hard not to.

      Gordon Douglas, that’s a director I’ve not featured for a while and I ought to get back to as I also feel he deserves some more attention.

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    • @BLAKE……As I viewed ‘I WAS A COMMUNIST FOR THE FBI’ it depicted to me, a patriotic American, what the FBI once stood for….Truth, Justice and the American way. Sadly, the parallels of today suggest major corruption at the top end of our Intel Agencies. Many in the Deep State have been fired with many more to come. The results of the Mueller report must of been quite disappointing for you Blake.

      Sorry Colin, I didn’t want to make a political statement, but I needed to respond directly to Blake. Like Blake said, “There, I said it. And I’m not sorry I did. Because I’m feeling especially fed up with all this today”………..ditto.

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      • Perhaps, best just leave it at then, Scott, we don’t need to indulge in any baiting. Overtly political discussions can all too easily become unpleasant, and while there are many internet sites where such exchanges can be facilitated this really isn’t the place for them. Thank you.

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      • From an overseas perspective, Scott, the high levels of corruption look to be coming from the highest levels. Sad situation indeed and very frustrating.
        Please excuse my commenting but regrettably we are all affected by what goes on.
        Pardon this please, Colin.

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        • Not at all, Jerry. I quite understand and share your frustration with much that is developing worldwide.
          While I don’t share Scott’s opinion, I accept his right to hold it and have no wish to get into arguments over that.
          However, I would prefer not to get into too much political back and forth as I’ve seen the way that can develop in the past.

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      • I read what you said and the followup comments of others too.

        I’m not responding here in this public forum out of respect for Colin’s wishes. Truth to tell, I’ve tried to avoid political comment here despite the gravity of things in the present world, but I will note that it’s something that you yourself did not do in an earlier thread, when you made an incendiary comment to which neither I nor anyone else responded.

        But I will say one thing just about movies–I believe that you do not allow as nuanced a reading of “I Was a Communist for the F.B.I.” as the realized film encourages and deserves even in the face of the obviously narrow intentions
        of its premise.

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  8. Its been a long, long time, I have seen a movie with prison theme . I remembered viewing ‘Why must I die’ starring Terry Moore and Debra Paget and House of Number starring Jack Palance ages ago. I am captivated by your review and will look for it.

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    • Both of those are new to me but I’ll look out for them now that you’ve brought them to my attention.
      And I’m very pleased to know I got you interested in this film.

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  9. This ‘n That…………..
    Just backtracking on the talent that passed through Eagle-Lion, apart from those already mentioned,it’s interesting that Howard W Koch and Aubrey Schenck were also there. One of Koch’s first gigs was as assistant to Lesley Selander on Eagle Lion’s Cinecolor Western RED STALLION. Later, Koch and Schenck formed Bel Air pictures and Selander became more or less their “house” director. While Schenck carried on making programmer type movies Koch became closely associated with Frank Sinatra and ended up running Paramount for a while. I should imagine it was Koch who brought in Selander to direct a few A.C.Lyles Westerns at the tail end of his career.

    An interesting tale; Clint Walker had already made a Sinatra War Picture for Paramount as part of a two picture deal. As Koch did not have another suitable project for Walker at that time he offered to pay him anyway. Big Clint was having none of it-he just did not like the idea of being paid for work he had not done,however, he did say he had a project of his own NIGHT OF THE GRIZZLY which Koch green lighted, that’s how that one came about.

    Steve Cochran was obviously a favourite for the Foy/Wilbur team, he did several movies for them. The Bryan Foy production HIGHWAY 301 is one of Cochran’s best and still sits in Colin’s to be viewed pile. More Gordon Douglas is always welcome at RTHC may I suggest BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN a very underrated Noir/Crime Thriller with a virtually unstoppable bad guy (Donald Buka,excellent) Good to see some love for Arnold Laven on this thread,I’m quiet an admirer of his two 60’s Westerns THE GLORY GUYS and ROUGH NIGHT IN JERICHO which I viewed recently after over 50 years, and I must say it stood up very well,I thought.

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    • Don’t mention the to-watch pile! But yes, I’ve not forgotten your recommendation of Highway 301, and I promise I will get round to it. I”m also making a note of Between Midnight and Dawn (which I have on disc too) for future reference.

      I wrote about Rough Night in Jericho years ago here and thought it fine if perhaps unremarkable. On reflection, and bearing in mind how uneven a lot of late 60s westerns were, I might have been a little more critical that necessary.

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  10. “Where is a hard hitting Warners “social” story when we need one.”
    Well it seems Warners “Homeboy” Clint Eastwood may just have one if things pan out. I don’t know if “fake news” or “trial by media” counts but THE BALLAD OF RICHARD JEWELL is the true life saga of someone who commits an heroic act and ends up getting vilified by the media with his life going into free fall.
    THE BALLAD OF RICHARD JEWELL is a project that Leonardo Di Caprio (producer) and Eastwood (director) have had on the back burner for several years ,recent reports say it now may actually happen. The script by the prolific Billy Ray looks as if it’s set to go. I recall a film Billy Ray directed,BREACH (2017) was outstanding, one of the very few current…ish movies I’ve actually really enjoyed. If THE BALLAD OF RICHARD JEWELL actually happens it will not be through Warners however, it’s a Fox/Disney project.

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