Subject: I have found a DVD that I think you would enjoy
Actors: Fred Keating, Dorothy Comingore, Clarence Muse, Faith Bacon, Alexander Leftwich
Director: Gordon Wiles
Genres: Drama, Mystery & Suspense
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Steven Hellerstedt | 08/11/2004
(4 out of 5 stars)
"It might be, as the running prologue tells us after the titles run on Gordon Wiles' PRISON TRAIN, that the number's racket is a "million dollar swindle," but it doesn't have the cachet enjoyed by rum runners and speak easy operators. The gangster movie was pretty much played out by the time PRISON TRAIN was released in 1938. Its demise was accelerated by stale air used to revive the rigid genre. Characters had become undemanding stereotypes and plots had become predictable. More than anything, the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 was responsible for its slow, lingering death. It's hard to glamorize nickel lottery slips.
Gang lord Frankie Terris (played by Paul Muni lookalike Fred Keating), the prologue tells us, is "cynical and ruthless... (and) when cornered he reverted to his true type - a weakling." Terris wants out of the numbers racket and offers it to skeptical rival gang lord Manny Robbins. Frankie's beautiful and saintly young sister Louise (Dorothy Comingore) comes a calling and Robbins' handsome young son Joe takes her dancing. On the trip home Joe throws a couple of short, incomplete passes in Louise's direction. The last one is intercepted by brother Frankie, who sends the young man on his way before deciding he wants to thrash it out a bit with him. They engage in a brutal street fight, a handy tire iron gropes its way into Frankie's hand and he smashes in young Robbins' skull. Frankie Terris is found guilty of murder at the ensuing trial and sentenced to Alcatraz Prison. In a couple of eerie, mumbling close-ups we see the elder Robbins vowing bloody and personal vengeance.
Louise manages to slip on the train carrying prisoners from New York to San Francisco. Another major character is introduced in the second half hour or the movie - a corn-fed, hayseed G-Man who's on board primarily to fall in love with Louise and ostensibly to make sure the threatened Terris makes it to Alcatraz alive. Considering all the malevolent minions of Robbins infesting the train and the prison car, it's a hefty challenge. One of them is a gabby character named Red who is just deadpan and annoying, another is a Pullman porter named Sam. Sam is played by African-American actor Clarence Muse. In a notable break from stereotype Sam is an intelligent character who is given a sizable role. Another of the three actors listed on the dvd-cover is Nestor Paiva, who has a small role in the movie but is remembered by old movie fans for his role in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG and his talent as a dialect actor. The obscure Fred Keating, the star of the movie, isn't listed on the cover.
The third name belongs to Dorothy Comingore, who's claim to fame was her role as Susan Kane in Orson Welles' CITIZEN KANE. I've read reports that Welles was influenced by PRISON TRAIN. If true, it had to have been the visual style. Director Wiles throws enough weird camera angles and frame compositions to keep things interesting. My favorite trick occurs whenever Wiles wants to show Keating's inner turmoil. Wiles has his actor's hair mussed and Keating wears the dazed expression of a man roused from a deep sleep, who has a thousand-watt klieg light thrown in his face while being asked to name all the islands in the Lower Antilles. It's so startlingly expressionistic I guffawed the first time it was used.
The transfer print was decent, although there's an abrupt cut to black at the end of a scene towards the end of the movie that makes me suspect a short bit of film is missing. If you're a fan of old-time, black-and-white, prison and gangster movies, PRISON TRAIN offers a pleasant and sometimes surprising take on the genre.