Saturday, April 30, 2016

TRAIN TO ALCATRAZ (1948)


Republic Pictures offers up a rather typical crime story in the fact that you can expect a shootout with people getting at least injured, if not killed, in the process. Also typical is a female trying to help their escape. What is not typical is that it takes place entirely on a train transferring criminals to Alcatraz. They are all under guard, in leg irons and in a separate coach from other passengers. The plan to break out from the train is masterminded by the worst of the lot, Don Barry. There are no lapses in the script. It is a slow burn film and worth a ticket.

William Phipps is the other central character. He is studied at the train depot by a young woman. She is surprised to see him handcuffed to a detective, because he does not fit her idea of a criminal. He looked guilty to me. They make eye contact and board the same train. As he is led through the prison coach, one officer gives a brief bio of the dozen, sounding like a tour guide at a museum. It reminded me of an early thirties drama when everything had to be spelled out for the audience. This scene is a bit tedious but it does have an affect on Phipps if not the audience. He recognizes the last man as the one who framed him for murder, Milburn Stone. Barry’s planned escape is aided by Stone’s girl in the passenger coach. She manages to get the key that will unlock their leg irons.

Barry is ruthless even by current standards. During the standoff with the guards he holds one hostage, threatening to kill him if the sheriff does not stop the train in ten miles. The sheriff refuses to compromise and Barry keeps his word. Upping the ante, he vows to kill another in the next ten miles. Stone’s girl, with unknowingly perfect timing, pulls a derringer on the conductor and commands he stop the train. His pull of the emergency brake throws everyone about and Barry makes a run for it, getting “spiked” about five ties down the tracks by two sharp-shooting hunters on board, anxious to hone their skills before their wildlife hunt. In the meantime the murderer is identified, apprehended and confesses. Phipps flashes his only smile in the film as he reunites with the girl who believed in him.

This is a fairly gritty crime drama despite an old premise. When Barry slaps Stone hard across the face it looks and sounds authentic. Perhaps was. And the cold blooded murder of the guard is startling, though we only hear the gunshot. There are a couple of unintentionally funny moments as two convicts are shot, both letting out loud falsetto screams. Then there is Iron Eyes Cody letting out war whoops as he starts the fight that initiates the escape. Old habits are hard to break, I guess.

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