Saturday, December 12, 2009

Tonight's Movie: The Secret of Convict Lake (1951)

THE SECRET OF CONVICT LAKE was of strong interest to me due to its setting, as most summers we drive past the title lake, which is in the Sierra Nevadas near Mammoth Lakes, California. The film tells a fictional story explaining how Convict Lake received its name.

It's 1871, and six prisoners who have escaped from jail in Carson City, Nevada, flee across the snowy Sierras into California. The freezing cold claims one of the men, but the five survivors straggle into a small lakeside settlement, which curiously only seems to be inhabited by women.

The women feel they have no choice but to allow the convicts to stay in a cabin until the current snowstorm lifts. By the time the storm abates and a posse arrives, the women, along with their newly returned menfolk, have dealt with the criminals in their own way.

The movie reminded me quite a bit of an earlier Western from the same studio, 20th Century-Fox -- I thought it was sort of a snowbound YELLOW SKY (1948), with the criminals fleeing over snowy peaks instead of the desert, then arriving at a semi-deserted town. As in YELLOW SKY, which had Gregory Peck opposing fellow outlaw Richard Widmark, one of the CONVICT LAKE criminals, Jim (Glenn Ford), stands up against the others and proves himself to be a hero.

Ford and Gene Tierney have excellent chemistry as the leads. Tierney's Marcia is a girl who had fallen on hard times and feels obligated to marry her fiance Rudy (Harry Carter) for security. As it turns out, Jim is looking for Rudy, who isn't as nice as Marcia thought.

The film has a stellar supporting cast, starting with Ethel Barrymore as the community matriarch and Ann Dvorak as Marcia's future sister-in-law, whose head is turned by the attentions of calculating criminal Johnny (Zachary Scott). Interesting actresses such as Ruth Donnelly, Barbara Bates, and Helen Westcott are some of the other women in the settlement. The criminals include Cyril Cusack. The film's narrator is Dale Robertson.

Although the film incorporates some effective location photography, the settlement itself appears to have been constructed on a soundstage. Nonetheless, the movie has great atmosphere, and it looks so cold that it can easily give viewers the shivers.

THE SECRET OF CONVICT LAKE was directed by Michael Gordon. It was shot in black and white by Leo Tover. The film runs 83 minutes.

The film has not had a video or DVD release, but it can be seen occasionally on Fox Movie Channel.

This was a very good, different kind of movie which I thoroughly enjoyed watching. Recommended.

August 2017 Update: Here is a pretty photo of the real Convict Lake.


Blogger Terri said...

I love Gene Tierney movies!
Can't wait to see this one. It's new to me!

3:34 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

It's a good one, Terri, I hope you can see it soon!

Best wishes,

9:53 AM  
Blogger Moira Finnie said...

I just saw this a few weeks ago and even though I don't think that this very brief film left enough time for thorough character development, the work by Ethel Barrymore, Gene Tierney and Ann Dvorak impressed me a great deal, overshadowing the normally strong presence of Glenn Ford, Zachary Scott and Jack Lambert thoroughly.

I was especially intrigued to see Tierney in a strong, assertive role at a time when her career was in decline and her personal psychological problems were beginning to overwhelm her (according to her autobiography, at least). She blended a bit of Belle Starr and Mrs. Muir into her pragmatic character.

Ann Dvorak was, as always, a powerful actress in her role as the contentious, skittish sister of Tierney's intended husband. Dvorak's silent expressions seemed to say more than the script as her suspicions grew along with her fears. She was particularly good in the scene when she was alone in the barn at night.

It was also good to see Ethel Barrymore engaged by her character and performing with more zest than she often could bring herself to muster at this stage of her career. Barrymore's work in Kind Lady and as Hazel Pennicott in The Story of Three Loves seem to have brought out the best in her too. Thanks for drawing attention to this small, overlooked little gem.

6:30 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Moira. Although I'm often a fan of shorter films, I would have been happy if this film had had about 10 more minutes, especially to focus on the development of the relationship between Tierney and Ford.

I like the idea of Tierney's Marcia having echoes of both Belle Starr and Mrs. Muir...apt comparisons.

Best wishes,

7:56 AM  

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