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Escape from San Quentin

Posted by martinteller on January 13, 2013

Mike Gilbert (Johnny Desmond) is a good kid who made a bad mistake.  He’s got two years left on his stint at the San Quentin work farm.  Fellow convict Ray Gruber (Richard Devon) tries to recruit him for an escape plan, relying on Mike’s flying talents to hijack a plane from a nearby airfield.  Mike promises a big payoff out of his hidden stash from a previous heist, but Mike isn’t buying it.  He changes his mind when he gets a “Dear John” letter from his wife.  The two make their move, but things get complicated when a third prisoner, Hap Graham (Roy Engel), latches on to their escape.

Like Canon City, this film is more focused on the aftermath than the escape itself.  Actually breaking out of the facility happens in the first 15 minutes or so, and is as simple as conking a guard over the head.  It’s the getting away that proves to be messy, with Graham mucking up the works, Gruber’s ruthless scheming, and a variety of mishaps that keep upping the stakes.  It’s a nice script that keeps adding tension (and raising the body count) as Mike goes further down the rabbit hole of corruption, trying to justify his role in the bloodshed.  There’s some rough-and-tumble dialogue that isn’t especially sharp, but makes its point.

The widescreen cinematography is generally pretty good, nothing too memorable but rock solid throughout.  One of the film’s strongest assets is the unusually somber score by Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida.  His quiet, restrained strumming and picking makes a lovely counterpoint to the film’s brutality.  The performances, however, are a mixed bag.  Devon shines brightest, really selling the cunning and danger behind his character.  You can tell this guy is always working the angles, trying to figure out how to come out on top and cut everyone else short.  Desmond, on the other hand, is pretty weak.  Primarily a crooner (he gets to sing a tune early on in the film), his acting skills aren’t that hot.  He keeps doing this thing with teeth and lips that’s really weird.  I think he’s trying to be Bogart.  You could argue that Mike being bad at acting tough is a smart character choice, but I’m not convinced.  It’s an amateur actor in over his head.

Desmond’s not-that-great performance aside, it’s a fine noir with a bit of edge to it.  It’s the best of Sony’s “Film Noir Collection – Volume 1” collection.  But it’s not worth holding on to the whole set for me.  I already own about 140 noirs, most of which I greatly love.  I’m not gonna keep around a set of five just for the sake of the one that I kinda like.  Besides, I ought to be able to make a profit for it on eBay.  Rating: Very Good (80)

IMDb
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