The Big Nowhere (to be seen) is a short-run feature that will run for eight separate installments, all penned by Melbourne-based writer Andrew Nette. The aim of this column is to focus on the best noirs that most people have never heard of and what they tell us about what film noir is, looking at plot, production and reception.
The career of composer, songwriter, author and director Lewis R. Foster was as prolific as it was inconspicuous; his only really well-known film is Frank Capra’s 1939 classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, on which he assisted with the script. But, given just how good his little known 1955 film noir Crashout is, I wonder what other cinematic gems lurk in his large B-movie output.
The look and production values of Crashout are nothing special. The prison break that opens the film was borrowed from scenes shot for another jail noir, Don Siegel’s Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954). The cast is made up almost completely of solid but unspectacular character actors whose faces are familiar from numerous Westerns, adventure, war and noir pictures in the ’40s and ’50s, the best known of which are William Bendix (Macao, 1952, Detective Story, 1951, The Big Steal, 1949) and Arthur Kennedy (High Sierra, 1941, The Desperate Hours, 1955). But in addition to being fast paced and incredibly tense, Crashout has a remarkably sophisticated story that belies its outward appearance as a macho prison noir.
Foster wastes no time setting the scene. As Crashout opens the jailbreak has already happened. The guards shoot escaping prisoners from the walls of the unnamed prison and use dogs to track escapees through the surrounding dense scrub. “Remember, the warden said dead or alive and he didn’t say which,” a prison officer instructs his men. The story quickly shifts to a disused mine shaft where six escaped prisoners have gathered. “Listen to them out there,” says one of the prisoners to the sound of gunfire outside. “You’d think we were a bunch of wild animals the way they are hunting us.”
Five of the prisoners had a pre-arranged agreement to meet up in the cave. The sixth, Quinn (Kennedy) stumbled across the hiding place. They are a who’s-who of film noir character types: Duff (Bendix), a bank robber, murderer and engineer of the jailbreak; Remsen (William Talman) a psychopathic ex-preacher and Duff’s enforcer; Collins, a gregarious murderer (Gene Evans); Billy (Marshall Thompson), an essentially good natured young man out of his depth in such vicious company; and a sexual predator, Mendoza (Luther Adler). Quinn is a convicted thief and the outsider of the pack. He is smarter than the others and has unspecified history with Duff from their time together in the jail.
Duff was wounded in the prison escape. Hungry, cold and with their leader weakened, the men are already at each other’s throats. In an attempt to regain control, Duff promises everyone a share of $80,000 he has hidden from the robbery he went to jail for, if they get him medical assistance. They lure an elderly local doctor (Percy Helton, another well known film noir character actor) to the remote service station, kidnap him and take him back to the cave where he operates on Duff by candle light.
When Duff is well enough to travel and the police’s search for escaped criminals has moved on, the men emerge from the cave. The doctor is left tied up and with a promise from the prisoners they will alert the authorities to his location. But in an early sign of just how ruthless he is, Duff secretly sends Luther back to kill him.
The remainder of the film is taken up with the efforts of the prisoners to evade the massive police dragnet put in place to capture them. The group gets smaller as they get closer to Duff’s hidden money, various prisoners killed, either by the police or each other.
Classic film noir produced a number of excellent prison related films. The most critically acclaimed of these, and rightly so, is Jules Dassin’s Brute Force (1947), which tells of the battle of wills between the inmates of cell R17 led by Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) and a sadistic head guard. Fed up with their treatment, the inmates plan a break out. A tough film, even by today’s standards, the scene where the prisoners use blowtorches to force a stool pigeon to his death in a stamping machine is particularly memorable. Other entrants in this category include Caged (1950), in which a naive nineteen year old widow becomes coarsened and cynical after being sent to a woman’s prison and exposed to hardened criminals and sadistic guards, commanded by a sexually predatory head warden, and the aforementioned Riot in Cell Block 11. We can add the semi-documentary Canon City (1948), the story of a prison escape and the efforts of the authorities to recapture the inmates
With the exception of Canon City, the above films focus on the world inside the prison, while Crashout takes as its starting point events post-breakout. Foster utilises several common film noir devices to move the story on, including snatches of radio broadcasts to establish character details and fill the audience in on the progress of the man hunt, ever present background noises such as sirens and barking dogs, and, of course, newspaper headlines and wanted posters, which periodically flash across the screen.
This being the ’50s, the criminals eventually get their due, but the process leading up to each of these character denouements is wonderfully handled. There is a sense of tension and foreboding with each encounter between the prisoners and the outside world. Civilians versus criminals, cops versus criminals, criminals versus criminals, the power dynamics and outcomes remain uncertain.
Women play a key role in these encounters and it is through them that we get another side of the story: the sense of claustrophobia, disappointment and frustration of small town life in fifties America. There is Billy’s short lived and doomed relationship with a women he meets on the train, returning to her town after failing as a singer in the big city, and Alice (Beverely Michaels), the owner of a small farm the prisoners take refuge in. Alice’s husband, himself a criminal, is no longer on the scene, leaving her to raise a young son. She and Quinn take a shining to each other but any hope they have of starting a new life is frustrated by Quinn’s desperate and unstable criminals companions.
In addition to directing, Foster co-wrote Crashout with Hal E. Chester, a New York producer who wrote several films, among them the 1957 cult favourite, Night of the Demon. Without taking credit away from either of them, it’s interesting to speculate to what degree the relative sophistication of Crashout owes to the uncredited script work of Cy Enfield. One of many talented writers whose Hollywood career was destroyed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Enfield moved to the UK in 1951, where he continued to do anonymous script work for American productions, as well as directing films such as Zulu (1964) and the wonderful trucking noir, Hell Drivers (1957).
Crashout is available on DVD through Olive Films.
Andrew Nette is a Melbourne-based writer and reviewer, whose work on film has been published widely. He is co-editor of Beat Girls, Love Tribes and Real Cool Cats: Pulp Fiction and Youth Culture, 1950 – 1980, forthcoming in early 2016. His online home is www.pulpcurry.com. You can find him on Twitter at @pulpcurry
The header image for this series modifies a photo from the Harold Paynting Collection at State Library of Victoria and is used by 4:3 under a CC BY 2.0 license.