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Canon City

Posted by martinteller on November 3, 2012

“You dumb apes.  You’ve been planning this break ever since you been buried in the can.  I didn’t want any part of it, but you dragged me into it, see?  There’s only one shell in this trick heater but it’s a 12-gauge, see, and it spreads.  How about it, you want a sample?”

Carl Schwartzmiller (Jeff Corey) is incarcerated in the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City.  He’s organizing a breakout, but he needs the help of Jim Sherbondy (Scott Brady), a trusted convict with access to the perfect hiding place for their makeshift weapons: the darkroom.  Sherbondy isn’t willing to take the risk, but Corey’s cronies rope him into it, and with at least 10 more years to look forward to anyway, he goes along with it.  The break is pulled off easily: the guards are overpowered and twelve men make it to the outside.  But with a blizzard raging and search parties closing in, getting out of Canon City may be the hard part.

The first thing you should know is that if you hate voiceover, stay far away from this movie.  It’s one of those docudramas (supposedly a true story, but who knows) loaded with authoritative narration.  And this one comes with a twist.  As the film goes through a very lengthy intro describing the ins and outs of the prison, we meet the warden (stiffly played by the actual warden, Roy Best).  He looks at the camera and invites it to have a seat.  “Thank you, I will” replies the narrator.  Yes, the camera takes on the role of the narrator’s POV during this odd intro.

After all that nonsense is over with, however, it becomes a pretty tight movie.  Little time is spent on the actual break, the real drama occurs as the convicts split up and start terrorizing the local citizens, using their homes for temporary hideouts.  It makes for a satisfying variety of tense situations and raw action.  The women of the film turn out to be the real heroes, fighting back or keeping their cool or using crafty tactics.  Mabel Paige has a particularly suspenseful scene, trying to sneak up behind Corey with a hammer stashed under her apron.

In my review of Port of New York, I mentioned that Brady reminds me of Lawrence Tierney.  Well, duh… turns out he’s Tierney’s brother!  He also reminds me a bit of Ray Liotta, I wonder if there’s any shared bloodlines there?  His performance here isn’t great but he pulls out some good intensity when he needs it.  The array of other escapees are a lively group of characters, including Corey’s menacing cool, Whit Bissell in an unusually vicious role for him, and a Cagney-esque turn by Stanley Clements.

The photography by the great John Alton is not among his finest achievements, but the action is filmed really well and he gets off some interesting shots here and there, as when the shadow of another inmate’s face falls across Brady’s profile.  The ending is something of a letdown too, overmoralizing with the most understanding family in the universe and a bit of Christian scripture to boot.  But besides that and the too-long opening, it’s got some memorable and often gripping scenes.  Definitely worth a look.  Rating: Good (77)


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