Saturday, March 5, 2011

Social commentary to compare and contrast

TCM's Essentials returns now that 31 Days of Oscar is over. Tonight's selection is Cool Hand Luke, which is an excuse for TCM to show a night of movies dealing with chain gangs. One that I haven't recommended before is Hell's Highway, which airs overnight at 1:45 AM ET.

Richard Dix stars as "Duke" Ellis, a career criminal who has just been convicted again, for the last time: the early 1930s version of the "three strikes" legislations means that this latest conviction gets him declared a habitual criminal, which brings about a life sentence. Imprisoned, Duke is sent to work on the chain gang, which is typically brutal; watch especially for a sequence involving a "sweat box". Duke has plans to escape, but those plans are cut short by news from the outside. Duke has a kid brother Johnny (Tom Brown), who has always looked up to Duke. Despite Duke's exhortations that Johnny not follow in Duke's footsteps, Johnny too has taken to crime, in no small part because Ma needs the bills paid, and with a depression going on, what else is there to do? So, Johnny gets convicted and, this being Hollywood, gets sent to the same work gang that Duke is on. (You'd think that with crime gangs being bad enough as it is, the prison service wouldn't put brothers in the same prison together, but again, we have to have a movie plot here.)

Johnny is young and hot-headed, while Duke is much more hardened and has seen it all. As such, Duke tries to protect Johnny as best he can, but unfortunately, this leads to problems with the other convicts who think that Duke is trying to work with the wardens to keep Johnny safe. The combination of tension between various groups of convicts and the tension between the convicts and their keepers is a volatile one, and one that you know is going to explode. Predictably, it does, in a fairly spectacular (for early 1930s standards) sequence in which the prison camp goes up in flames. That leads to the climax of the prisoners escaping and being pursued by a large posse and the posse's dogs, and the ending, which you'll probably be able to guess.

Hell's Highway was released the same year as I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (which airs at midnight); indeed, Hell's Highway was released two months earlier. And yet, the later movie is much better remembered today. Why? To be honest, i think the Paul Muni movie deserves its higher reputation. First, it's much more hard-hitting than Hell's Highway. Muni's character is a relatively innocent man, and one who between his two stints on the chain gang really redeems himself. It's easier to get invested in what happens to him than what happens to Dix's character. Second, the ending of Hell's Highway is a bit predictable and just too easy. I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, however, has an ending that's more shocking and not forumlaic. Also, you can't tell it from the production values, but Chain Gang is told on a more grand scale, covering a substantial section of the man's life outside of prison, whereas Hell's Highway is more confined to prison in a way that puts it at a slight disadvantage.

Make no mistake, though; Hell's Highway is actually quite an enjoyable movie and shocking in its own way. Even if it isn't as good as some of the other chain gang movies, it's still good. And if you haven't seen it before, you probably should see it. Sadly, you'll have to watch the TCM airings, as rare as they are, as the movie hasn't been released to DVD.

No comments: