Sunday 10 May 2009

Island of Doomed Men (1940)

Director: Charles Barton
Stars: Peter Lorre, Rochelle Hudson and Robert Wilcox

Washington DC wouldn't seem to be an obvious place to begin a movie called Island of Doomed Men, but we're at the Department of Justice where Mark Sheldon is reporting for duty. He's played by Robert Wilcox, no stranger to the law himself given his rampant alcoholism and five year tempestuous marriage to John Barrymore's daughter Diana. This comes a decade earlier though when he he was apparently doing pretty well, right before an honourable stint in the army during World War II.

As Sheldon, he's in DC to dedicate his life to the good guys by forgetting his name and his past, to become a faceless man known only to the DOJ as number 64. They pair him with another operative, number 46, who's been deep into an undercover operation for quite some time as a man called Jackson. They don't even know who or what he's investigating because he hasn't filed his report yet, and he never will because the day number 64 meets him he's shot dead. Escaping a little too late from the scene of the crime, number 64 is caught, and under the obvious pseudonym of John Smith is convicted of murder.

He doesn't get much information before Jackson dies, but he is told that the man he's investigating is Stephen Danel, who runs a penal colony on the remote Dead Man's Island, which is aptly named. Apparently it's less of a penal colony and more of a slave colony, with Danel the ruthless leader who literally gets away with murder because he's far enough away from everyone else to escape their notice. And while it takes a surprisingly long time, Danel chooses to get Smith paroled into his custody, because he knew precisely who Jackson was and had been watching him from the office opposite. And if Jackson was a government agent, then surely Smith is too. And so the battle commences.

Yes, this is pretty much a loose framework for Peter Lorre to strut his sadistic and menacing stuff, but it does offer plenty of that. In addition to the battle pitting Danel against Smith, there are couple of other battles to watch too. One is what gives Lorre, unflappably cool throughout most of the film, the opportunity to lose that cool and rave like a lunatic. It's Danel versus a little monkey owned by the prisoner who works as Danel's cook Siggy, who is played by George E Stone, a prolific actor who I'm enjoying more than as just the Runt in the Boston Blackie movies. 'Keep that monkey away from me!' screams Danel the first time we see the monkey, and he gets progressively more emphatic as time runs on.

The last battle pits Danel against Mrs Danel. You see, in this stunningly inappropriate choice of movie for Mother's Day, Danel sees his wife as his personal property and treats her as much like a slave as the men under his control. She hates his guts and he knows it, and the two have awesome barbed conversations around that very subject, conversations that prove even more awesome because she's played by Rochelle Hudson, best known as the voice of Honey in the Bosko cartoons but in which you don't realise that she's about as tall as Lorre. It's so weird to see Lorre talking to someone the same height as himself; he looks too wide, as if Bert I Gordon had been hired to blow him up to a larger size.

Unfortunately the film only runs 68 minutes short and so only one of the battles really gets any real attention: Danel vs Smith. It's mostly tied up in action instead of an intellectual chess game, but it's decent enough in a B-movie sort of way, with escapes and captures and double crosses. Yet Rochelle Hudson gets precious little to do except protest that she hates her husband. Her whole background story remains mostly untold and the monkey subplot is ignored entirely. We never do get to find out why Danel is mortally afraid of monkeys, because it's all pathetically just an excuse for one moment late in the film. The whole promises a lot more than it delivers, but merely delivering Lorre for an hour and a bit still makes for happy times.

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