Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Convict Lake in California takes its name from an 1871 shootout between a posse and a gang of escaped convicts. For Twentieth Century-Fox, the secret of Convict Lake was that its violent history could be molded into a template set by a studio western of a few years earlier, William Wellman's Yellow Sky. Wellman's film had a gang of bank robbers trekking through the desert to find an old prospector and his tomboy daughter sitting on a treasure. Michael Gordon's Secret of Convict Lake has the prison escapees trek through treacherous snowy mountains to discover a colony of women and children led by a bedridden Ethel Barrymore by the lake, their menfolk having gone off prospecting. Wellman pitted gang leader Gregory Peck, playing hard boiled at first against type, against ambitious, greedy Richard Widmark. Gordon pits Glenn Ford, who had experience playing darker western types (The Man From Colorado, Lust For Gold), against ambitious, greedy Zachary Scott, who loses some of his essential smarm as a grubby convict. In both films, the lead outlaw is redeemed by love after grooming himself proper. Overall, Convict Lake seems designed to amplify Yellow Sky at every level. There are even multiple secrets of Convict Lake, depending on how you count. As in Yellow Sky, there's loot to be had, but for Ford's character there's also a secret personal agenda that brings him to the lake. He was jailed for murder, but while he admits killing his man he claims self-defense, but a former friend testified that the act was unprovoked. That man lives in the lake community, and his fiancee (Gene Tierney) ends up being Ford's love interest while he waits for his chance at revenge. Yellow Sky was an early "adult" western, and Convict Lake is more adult, at least by 1951 standards, addressing the needs of lonely women, attributing some mild masochism to the Scott character (he enjoys being slapped by women) and including in the gang a psychologically disturbed rapist and murderer (Richard Hylton). It's a crime of violence for him, we're told; he goes berserk when women -- and men, he says provocatively -- resist him. He ends up lynched by pitchforks and heavy logs by outraged femininity after going for one of the younger ladies, while the Ford character turns against the gang, having never really thought them his friends, before getting his crack at his returning betrayer.

All the pieces seem to be in place, but Convict Lake is no Yellow Sky, mainly because Michael Gordon is no William Wellman. The narration over the escapees' trek through the mountains is an immediate vote of no confidence in Gordon's narrative skills, and the director often seems to have no clue how to make use of either the outdoor locations or the spacious soundstage where most of the action takes place. Too many scenes are shot from middle or long distance, as if Gordon were a holdover from the earliest days of movies; the action is rarely framed as dramatically as it could be. Even during its initial release, the film was criticized for Leo Tover's overly dark cinematography, and the rather poor print shown on FXM Retro compounds the problem. As it stands now, Secret of Convict Lake is simply an ugly film to watch. In surer directorial hands the story certainly would be stronger, and while Ford and Scott are effective as antagonists there are a few too many characters for Gordon to juggle competently. Ford's showdown with his betrayer is inevitably anticlimactic, since nearly nothing has been done to build the latter up as an antagonist before he returns to the lake. If my hunch is right that Fox was simply trying to ape Yellow Sky, then the failure of Convict Lake proves that the power of the adult western wasn't yet something, this early in the greatest decade for Hollywood westerns, that could be reduced conveniently to a template or formula.

No comments: