Monday, July 28, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Duffy of San Quentin (1954)

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.

Despite these criticisms, the film's 77 minutes pass quickly. I was interested in the story and found the movie worthwhile, even while acknowledging it's not a particularly good film. I would definitely watch Paul Kelly's other film as Duffy if given the opportunity.

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)!


Blogger Laura said...

From John Knight:

Hi Laura,

I enjoyed DUFFY OF SAN QUENTIN part of a prison trilogy from
Doniger in the Fifties. THE STEEL CAGE (1954) was a follow up
with Kelly and O'Sullivan. Lastly came THE STEEL JUNGLE (1956)
As these Fifties Warner prison flicks go I prefer INSIDE THE
WALLS OF FOLSOM PRISON with Steve Cochran and David Brian.
Lots of people don't dig prison flicks and I totally get that.
I rather like the "innocent person railroaded into prison"
type of picture and one of the best that I'e seen is PRISON
FARM (1938) directed by the ever reliable Louis King.
This is a cracking programmer and gives us a combo of the male/
female prison genre-it's a really tough little picture.
Marjorie Main of all people is the stern prison matron.
Another Paramount picture of the same vintage is WOMEN WITHOUT
NAMES (1940) directed by Robert Florey. Have never been able to
track this one down and it's incredibly rare and reputedly
a top notch film.The fact that the innocent victim this time is
Ellen Drew makes it a "must see" for me.
Paramount knew what made a great B picture in the late Thirties/
early Forties and I do wish Universal would get their act together
and release a few of these little gems!
I must say Laura, that you are spot on with your review of "Duffy"
and I totally share your opinion of the film.

8:37 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Some background on Duffy of San Quentin:
Walter Doniger, an already established screenwriter and his partner, Berman Swartz, had purchased the rights to Warden Duffy's book with the initial intention of doing both a television series and feature film. By offering a combination of serious percentages and defements they managed to get a star, or at the very lest a successful actor in just about every part, not to mention a crew headed by John Alton. The film was shot for $180,000.00 in 18 days on location and sold to Warner Brothers. Released first run in New York City and sold as top of the bill on a double feature with the fine film Crime Wave, the returns were satisfactory. The television series did not sell although several episodes were shot and worked into ;the fabric of the follow up feature, The Steel Cage. A few years later The Steel Jungle appeared, also directed by Walter. Personally, Louis Hayward liked neither the completed film nor his performance in it, but he did like Walter Doniger and about fifteen years later, when Walter was working on The Survivors television series, he worked for him a second time in what should have been, on paper, something successful, and was not as we all know. For reference The Survivors also had an all star cast, in addition to Louis, Lana Turner, George Hamilton, Rossano Brazzi, Ralph Bellamy, Kevin McCarthy, and Diana Muldaur. And more.

8:41 AM  
Blogger Kristina said...

Laura many thanks for including a mention of my Paul Kelly bio, what a full circle for him to come back and play the warden, even if the original TV idea was shelved and reworked this way. Would've made a good series though. Interesting stuff in John and Barry's comments too!

12:17 PM  

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