Why is this movie so little-known? Yesterday I was checking the day’s schedule for the Fox Movie Channel and I came across the listing for the THE SECRET OF CONVICT LAKE (1951) at 10:25 AM (EST). The onscreen description sounded really intriguing. I didn’t write it down and it’s no longer available on the Fox Retro website, so I can only tell you it said something about five escaped convicts entering a western town populated entirely by women, with a cast topped by Glenn Ford, Gene Tierney, Ethel Barrymore, Ann Dvorak and Zachary Scott, surely enough to make me sit up and take notice. This premise and that cast are not to be taken lightly. I then looked it up in Maltin’s Movie Guide (the only place I’d ever previously seen a reference for this film) and it said, simply, “Set in 1870s California, escaped prisoners hide out at settlement comprised largely of women; fine cast makes the most of script.” It gave the film a **1/2 rating, which, in Maltin, can often be taken as a *** rating. The director was Michael Gordon, who had a few credits I liked very much, including PILLOW TALK and PORTRAIT IN BLACK. So I made plans to watch it. This is the kind of minor studio film that used to play constantly on local broadcast TV back in the day when local channels ran movies during the day, at night and on weekends, yet I don’t recall this one ever playing.
Long story short: it’s quite a compelling and suspenseful movie, supposedly based on a true story, although I imagine a lot of twists were added to pump up the melodrama. It’s a tough movie with scuzzy, bearded convicts eager to survive and make their getaway and a town full of pioneer women armed with guns and not afraid to use them. (Their men are away on a silver mining operation.) If the women had just shot the convicts when they show up—something they’d clearly be justified in doing—there would have been no movie. Instead, the town’s matriarch, Granny, played by the irrepressible Ethel Barrymore, advises the women to remain vigilant while allowing the men to stay in an empty cabin with food and drink provided to them for a night’s stay, with the stipulation that they leave the next day, despite the blizzard afflicting the surrounding countryside. Invariably, complications arise which require a much longer stay for the men and, gradually, the women let their guard down and some tenuous romances begin to develop. The youngest of the men, Clyde Maxwell (Richard Hylton), is seriously ill and needs medical attention, so one of the women, who may have training as a nurse, takes care of him until he gets better. At some point, a barn fire requires the help of the men to barge through the flames and rescue the animals from it, earning them some points for courageous behavior.
One of the men, Jim Canfield, played by the star, Glenn Ford, is different from the others. He claims to be innocent of the murder for which he was convicted and sentenced to die and he is recognized as the one decent man among the escapees. If there are any contrivances in the script, they’re found in Canfield’s backstory, which provides the motive for his leading the other escapees to this town. Apparently, a man who lives there, Rudy Schaeffer, was the one who lied on the stand about the circumstances of the death of the man Canfield supposedly killed. Canfield is there to exact revenge. He meets Marcia Stoddard (Gene Tierney), who may be the granddaughter of Granny—it’s never exactly stated, but she does live with her and care for her—and who happens to be the fiancée of one Rudy Schaeffer. Canfield takes undue interest in Marcia and she quickly latches on to his knowledge of Rudy and raises the necessary questions. You can see where this part, at least, will lead. Furthermore, there’s the matter of $40,000 which Ford was supposed to have stolen from the murdered man, a mine operator who owed Ford money. The escapees believe that the money is somewhere in this town and that Canfield knows where it is. At some point suspicions arise that either Marcia or Schaeffer’s sister, Rachel (Ann Dvorak), know where it is.
So there are reasons for the convicts to stay. And this gives the unofficial leader of the band, Johnny Greer, played by Zachary Scott, license to worm his way into the affections of Rachel, a 40ish spinster who is jealous of Marcia, and use her to get what he wants. Scott was expert at playing sleazeballs—witness his portrayal of the debauched playboy Monte Beragon, who sleeps with both mother and daughter in MILDRED PIERCE—and he gives it full rein here. At first you think there’s no way any of these women would succumb to his smarmy come-ons, but thanks to the way he and Dvorak play their scenes, it comes off as thoroughly believable. Dvorak’s character could have been just a shrewish Hollywood stereotype—the sexually frustrated older woman without a man—but the actress makes her a three-dimensional, emotionally layered character. We don’t like what she does but we totally understand her. She has one superb solo scene where she enters the barn to feed the stock at night because everyone’s been too preoccupied during the day to do it and she hears a sound and believes someone is hiding there and she tries to find out who, even whispering “Who’s there?” so as not to alarm the others if it happens to be Greer and she slowly, gradually breaks into a panic that leads to an action that causes the fire. Dramatically, it may be the single best scene Dvorak ever did. Sadly, this was Dvorak’s last feature film in a career that had begun as a child actor in 1916 and included memorable performances in two films for Howard Hawks, SCARFACE (1932) and THE CROWD ROARS (1932), among many others. She made a few TV appearances after this film but left the business after 1952.
Another twist is revealed after Clyde, the youngest escapee, gets better and starts courting Barbara (Barbara Bates), one of the town’s virginal young women, whose stern mother, played by Jeanette Nolan, tries to keep her under wraps. He looks like a nice, cleancut young man on the surface, but then we learn from a concerned Greer of the nature of the crime that got Clyde sentenced to death, which means that poor Barbara is in great danger. Greer even warns Clyde to stay away from the women. This leads to quite a suspenseful encounter late in the film and one of the few sequences filmed on location. (Most of the film is shot on a large studio set replicating the town, one that’s notably lacking the drafts of snow that a blizzard would have caused.)
Eventually, the blizzard which kept everyone isolated in this mountain valley town by a lake (later renamed Convict Lake because of this incident) in the Owens River Valley in California, abates and the convicts see their chance to flee, but not without getting the money first. The men have all gotten hold of guns by this point, so the chance of ending all this peacefully dissipates quickly. These circumstances also allow for the return of the town’s menfolk and, eventually, the posse pursuing the convicts, which leads to an action-packed finale, complete with shootouts and chases.
Among other notable cast members are Ruth Donnelly, a comic actress who spiced up a lot of Warner Bros. comedies in the 1930s (when Ann Dvorak was working there as well), and who plays the second oldest town resident here (after Barrymore). Among the escapees, we’ve also got Jack Lambert, a frequent western heavy who plays Greer’s henchman and was an old hand at playing menacing characters like this. Another escapee is played by Cyril Cusack, an Irish actor best known, to me at least, for playing the fire chief (and Montag’s boss) in Francois Truffaut’s FAHRENHEIT 451 (1966). He had a long career in English films but had a brief tenure in Hollywood from 1951-53. Here, he’s a bit of a comical character, nicknamed “Limey,” and something of a calming counterpoint to his two more violent partners. Dale Robertson, who provides narration at the opening and closing of the film, was already a leading man at Fox by this point.
Ethel Barrymore deserves a paragraph of her own. While she’s only in a few scenes, she dominates the action when she’s there and her presence underscores every action the other characters take in the film. When Barrymore gives orders we don’t question their immediate obedience. She just may be the most imposing Barrymore of them all.
Both Glenn Ford and Gene Tierney were major stars at the time, and both quite popular, but they don’t give movie star performances here. They’re playing hard-bitten characters and they don’t have the time to look glamorous. (They wear winter clothing in most of their scenes.) They’re quite contentious with each other at first, but they eventually come to terms with the fact that they both want the same thing. She wants the truth and only Ford can give it to her. He clearly falls in love with her in the course of it all, but it’s not a contrived romance; they both have to work at earning each other’s trust. They even spend a chaste night in a cave together after their first kiss, after she’s left town to try to get some help and exposed herself to the elements and he’s ridden in pursuit to stop her and they’ve had a big dramatic scene revealing enough in their pasts to understand and trust each other.
Tierney had been a star at Fox for ten years and been one of the studio’s great beauties (see LAURA and LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN). She had another four years at Fox before going into a form of early retirement. Glenn Ford had a long career as a star from the postwar period to the 1970s. To me his most interesting period as an actor was the immediate postwar decade, from GILDA (1946) to THE FASTEST GUN ALIVE (1956), including Fritz Lang’s THE BIG HEAT (1953), Richard Brooks’ BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (1955), and Delmer Daves’ JUBAL (1956), but also several lesser-known films I like a lot including FRAMED (1947), a very odd noir with a lively performance by Ford as a patsy in a DOUBLE INDEMNITY-type scheme; Henry Levin’s THE MAN FROM COLORADO (1948), a Technicolor western featuring Ford as a Union Army officer-turned-Federal judge who turns on his old war comrades and starts to run his district with distinct fascist tendencies; Henry Levin’s CONVICTED (1950), with Ford as an embittered convict who is given a second chance by a reform-minded warden; and Budd Boetticher’s THE MAN FROM THE ALAMO (1953), which, now that I mention it, also had elements of strong women in a western setting and Ford’s character having to earn their trust. Ford played a wide range of characters here, not all of them good guys. He had a brooding quality that served these films well and tended to disappear from his screen portrayals by the time he became a major studio star in the late 1950s and spent his time thereafter making service comedies and bloated vehicles like CIMARRON and POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES and bigscreen sitcoms like THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER. Look for a more detailed appreciation next May 1st when we celebrate Ford’s centennial.
CONVICT LAKE has a western setting, and IMDB’s sole genre classification for it is “western,” but it’s not quite a traditional western. It has elements of crime drama, but I wouldn’t call it one. It has elements of film noir, but it doesn’t easily fit into that category. There are gothic elements, but it’s not quite a gothic melodrama. The situation in the film reminded me of only a few other films, including two westerns with mostly female casts, William Wellman’s WESTWARD THE WOMEN, also 1951, which could almost serve as a prequel to this film, since it deals with a wagon train of women headed to California to find husbands among the settlers there, and THE GUNS OF FORT PETTICOAT (1957), an Audie Murphy western in which Murphy, as a Union Army deserter during the Civil War, leads a group of women defenders at a fort under attack by Indians. The only connections between these three films are the fact that they have western settings and feature large groups of women without men. There’s also another excellent prison breakout film, CRASHOUT (1955), which has a contemporary setting and includes a scene where the escapees, led by Arthur Kennedy, stay at the farmhouse of a single mother (Beverly Michaels) who develops a relationship with Kennedy. It’s this film that most reminds me of the plot elements from CONVICT LAKE. If there are others like it, I can’t think of them offhand.
To sum it up, THE SECRET OF CONVICT LAKE is an entertaining Hollywood melodrama with a unique setting and a dramatic situation of a type that seems fairly unusual to me. As such, it was one of dozens of story-driven Hollywood releases from the golden age of the studio system which weren’t based on marketing concerns or “high concepts.” It’s the kind of thing Hollywood did really well, once upon a time. A couple of writers turned out a good yarn, wrote up a treatment and a producer liked it enough to hire more writers and turn it into a solid entertainment. The producer here is Frank Rosenberg and this is his first producer credit. Four writers are credited with the story, adaptation and screenplay. Oscar Saul, who gets sole credit for the screenplay, also adapted A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE for the screen the same year, which should give you some idea of the writing caliber involved here. It may not be a work of art like STREETCAR and may not belong in the vaunted territory of Fox’s better-known cinematic classics of that era (e.g. KISS OF DEATH, GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT, TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, PANIC IN THE STREETS, ALL ABOUT EVE, etc.), but there are times when I’m much more at home in front of the set watching a film like this than having to sit through one more example of Darryl F. Zanuck’s high-mindedness.
Why has this film been so neglected? Given all the postwar films from 20th Century Fox that played constantly on TV back in the day (think LAURA, NIGHTMARE ALLEY, CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE, A LETTER TO THREE WIVES, PRINCE OF FOXES, WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS, THE GUNFIGHTER, NO WAY OUT, THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO, PEOPLE WILL TALK, FIVE FINGERS, plus the ones I listed in the previous paragraph), why was this film never included? Given all the 20th Century Fox retrospectives that played various repertory theaters over the decades, why did no one order a print of this? Or if they did, why did no one sing its praises loudly enough to make me see it? How many other perfectly entertaining films from the studio era are waiting to be rediscovered?
Having said all that, it doesn’t help matters that the print Fox ran yesterday was notably fuzzy, as if they were running a VHS dupe. Unfortunately, this is rather typical of the Fox Movie Channel. Would it hurt them to get the best possible prints for their very own movie channel? On the other hand, another underrated Glenn Ford film, the aforementioned THE MAN FROM COLORADO (1948), ran on the Encore Western-HD Channel a few weeks ago in an absolutely stunning Technicolor print, the best I’ve ever seen it look, courtesy of Columbia Pictures. It’s quite a good movie also and something of a noir western, thanks to the element of developing psychosis in Ford’s character and its role in his campaign against his former comrades-in-arms.
Here’s how CONVICT LAKE looked on Saturday:
ADDENDUM: Ironically, the copy that was available on YouTube when I did this piece is a far better print than the one that ran on Fox, but it’s been removed from YouTube since I wrote this.