I purchased DUFFY OF SAN QUENTIN (1954) during a Warner Archive sale a few months ago on the strength of its lead actors: Paul Kelly, Maureen O'Sullivan, Joanne Dru, and Louis Hayward.
I thought that watching it now would make an interesting follow-up to my recent viewing of the Lawrence Tierney "B" film SAN QUENTIN (1946).
DUFFY OF SAN QUENTIN was written and directed by Walter Doniger, based on Clinton T. Duffy's book THE SAN QUENTIN STORY.
Duffy was a prison administrator who was appointed interim warden of San Quentin Prison in 1940. Duffy immediately began instituting reforms even though his stint was only supposed to last 30 days. He ended up serving as warden of San Quentin for over a decade.
Duffy is played by the fine actor Paul Kelly, with Maureen O'Sullivan in a small supporting role as his wife Gladys. One of the fascinating aspects of this film is that Kelly was himself an ex-con who had served time in San Quentin, as told in an excellent Classic Images biography by my friend Kristina.
Kelly and O'Sullivan would later reprise their roles as Clinton and Gladys Duffy in THE STEEL CAGE (1956), which apparently is TV episodes strung together; the film has a good cast including Lawrence Tierney and John Ireland.
DUFFY OF SAN QUENTIN particularly focuses on Duffy's relationship with a troublesome prisoner, Edward "Romeo" Harper (Louis Hayward), as well as on Duffy shaking things up by bringing a female nurse (Joanne Dru) to work in the prison.
For a prison movie, it's fairly mellow in tone. It's a film in large part focused on the characters' relationships to one another, how they effect change at the prison and how the prison reforms, in turn, affect each lead character.
I wasn't always quite sure what to make of this episodic film. It's interesting and I learned quite a bit, especially as the movie inspired me to later do some reading online, but the film tends to jolt abruptly from sequence to sequence.
Nor is the movie always completely logical -- would a nurse really leave a prison aide with the key to the medicine cabinet and the unsupervised responsibility for injecting patients with medicine?
The script and actors have some rough moments here and there. As much as I enjoy Hayward and Dru's work, I found their performances particularly awkward at times. And when O'Sullivan enters a room to confront Dru, it was so stagy I could almost hear someone calling out "Action!" as it began.
From an historical perspective, it was interesting to note the prisoners working as nursing aides were an integrated group. It's not addressed in the film, but one of Duffy's many reforms was integration of the prison dining hall.
I enjoyed seeing this movie in light of SAN QUENTIN (1946), which was filmed prior to this film but set after the events in DUFFY. Some of the programs instituted by Duffy, attempting to provide men with job and life skills to succeed upon release, were debated in SAN QUENTIN.
The supporting cast includes George Macready, Jonathan Hale, Irving Bacon, and Horace McMahon. It's fun to spot DeForest Kelley, seen only in profile as a detective arresting a corrupt prosecutor.
It was a pleasant surprise to discover the movie was shot by the great John Alton. This isn't one of Alton's more notable efforts, and much of the movie looks rather flat and nondescript. There are a few striking scenes, however, where the use of shadows suddenly reminds the viewer who was behind the camera.
Alton would film one of his greatest achievements, THE BIG COMBO (1955), the following year.
Perhaps now I need to watch Pat O'Brien and Humphrey Bogart in SAN QUENTIN (1937)!