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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