The following review is one of several that I composed for the ClassicFlix site under the column title “Where’s That Been?” Most of those columns made the transition to CF’s new site but some of them stayed behind for reason or another…and since my writer’s ego is just big enough to where I don’t like having what I’ve penned shielded from the large number of folks who surf the Internets I have reprinted it here. Enjoy!
1957 marked the year when vocalist Johnny Desmond made an impressive bid for movie stardom. The popular singer, known for his long-running stint on radio’s The Breakfast Club and hit records like Woman and The Gang Who Sang ‘Heart of My Heart’ (recorded with Don Covay and Alan Dale), had dabbled in acting before, on television shows like The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse and Robert Montgomery Presents…but in Calypso Heat Wave (1957) he broadened his range (somewhat) as singer “Johnny Conroy” in a B-movie potboiler that features such diverse talents as Joel Grey, George E. “The Runt” Stone, Maya Angelou (yes, the Maya Angelou), and a grown-up Darla Hood. (Alan Arkin is also in the film as a member of the singing group The Tarriers).
In Escape from San Quentin (1957), Desmond’s second film released that year (and one of five films in the box set Columbia Film Noir Collection, Vol. 1), Johnny is Mike Gilbert—an ex-Air Force serviceman who’s doing a stretch at the titular prison for armed robbery. He’s a basically decent sort who made a teensy mistake and is now paying dearly for it…but a career criminal named Roy Gruber (Richard Devon) has taken him under his wing and arranged for the two of them to be assigned to the Q’s work farm detail—conveniently located near an air strip. Gruber wants Mike to fly both of them to any place that doesn’t rhyme with “San Quentin”…and offers him half of an $119,000 purse that he squirreled away just before being sent to the joint.
Mike and Gruber manage to make their desperate bid for freedom in a series of events that you’ll probably not want to examine too closely…and they’re joined by a third man in Hap Graham (Roy Engel), who receives the business end of a wrench from Roy as the three of them are getting ready to take to the friendly skies. The two remaining convicts find themselves on the run (the plane they swiped wasn’t holding much gasoline) as Roy tries to get his money together with the help of his father Curly (Ken Christy) and Mike attempts to reconcile with his wife, the reason why he busted out in the first place. She’s all for turning him in—though her younger sister Robbie (Merry Anders) tries to warn Mike that her sis has called the cops, and in turn is held hostage by Roy as he, Mike and an injured friend of Roy’s (William Bryant) head futilely for freedom across the border.
Escape from San Quentin was produced the legendary “Jungle” Sam Katzman, a Hollywood director-producer who started out in the business as an independent before landing a gig with Monogram in the 1940s, cranking out low-budget pictures with the East Side Kids and Bela Lugosi. In 1945, Columbia hired him to oversee their serial output and he later graduated to feature films—but Katzman had a pretty sweet deal: he got to make the movies using Columbia’s facilities (not to mention their actors) and for his efforts received 25% of the profits.
So when you sit down with a Katzman film…you pretty much know what you’re in for. It’s a cheaply-made (but undeniably profitable), entertaining (in a campy way) programmer that you’ll forget five minutes after seeing it. Escape from San Quentin is a good example of Sam’s oeuvre; the director is Fred F. Sears, a former assistant to Katzman on serials who worked his way up to the director’s chair…and often helmed five Katzman-produced movies a year. Blacklisted scenarist Bernard Gordon penned Escape, under the pseudonym “Raymond F. Marcus”—with Sam, your personal politics were of no concern to him; he wanted people who were reliable, efficient…and inexpensive.
What makes Escape from San Quentin so entertaining is that in watching Mike and Roy elude the police it’s akin to observing two people jump aboard a runaway railroad car that is sooner or later going to derail, with disastrous consequences for all involved. I’m not certain if this was intentional on writer Gordon’s part but the police element of the picture seems to consist of either bureaucratic indifference or incompetence (or perhaps a little corruption thrown in for good measure). It’s a little hard to swallow that officials at the Q would allow someone who flew planes during his hitch in the service…near an airfield with planes. Another amusing sequence has inmate Hap sharing contraband liquor with his pals and bragging that they found enough of it to get the guards schnockered. (There doesn’t seem to be too concentrated an effort in rounding up the escapees, particularly towards the end of the film when the two fugitives are in Mexico…the cops finally step into action only because they think Gilbert and Gruber are part of an operation smuggling heroin into the States.)
There are some good performances in Escape, notably from Anders (who passed away in October of last year) who worked with her leading man Desmond in Calypso Heat Wave (a Katzman production) and is probably best known for her work on the small screen, notably the syndicated sitcom How to Marry a Millionaire, based on the 1953 film of the same name (it also introduced Barbara Eden to TV audiences). Old pros Devon, Engel, Christy, and Larry J. Blake turn in solid work as well. As for feature film star Johnny Desmond: there would be other movies in his future (he’s in Arch Oboler’s 1966 cult oddity The Bubble) and roles on Broadway and television (he was a regular on the Nancy Walker 70s sitcom Blansky’s Beauties). In Escape from San Quentin, he falls back on his music only once…and that’s to sing the title tune, Lonely Lament. ‘Cause a man sings the blues when he’s marking time in stir.