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Duffy of San Quentin (DVD Review)

3 Jun, 2013 By: Mike Clark

Manufactured on demand through online retailers via Warner Archive
$18.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Paul Kelly, Louis Hayward, Joanne Dru, Maureen O’Sullivan.

In at least some cities, Warner originally released what was at least a fact-inspired prison picture as half of a more or less co-equal double bill with Crime Wave — an attempt for dancer-lead Gene Nelson to play it straight on screen at a time when the public’s interest in musicals was waning. But whereas that Andre de Toth jewel of L.A. location shooting eventually took on enough cult status to be included in A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, the Warden Duffy story — as in Warden Clinton T. Duffy — has been something of a lost film, ever since it failed to be included in the 1961 package of post-1949 holdings the studio sold to TV.

If DOSQ has ever shown anywhere in the last 50 or more years, I missed the boat — and this is after a concerted effort to keep my eye out for it: The irony of lead Paul Kelly playing Duffy after he himself served time for manslaughter simply gives the movie too much of a curiosity factor. As it turns out, Kelly (a good actor who was especially memorable in Crossfire and The High and the Mighty) is just right in the role, and Duffy himself was a remarkable prison reformer — though his portrayal here asks a lot of the viewer (can the guy really have been this nice in such a crummy job?). Also, as it turns out, the actor’s own prison sentence had mitigating circumstances: a fistfight amid a romantic squabble with his future wife’s then less-than-ideal husband, which turned fatal.

Given the job because the prison board can’t agree on anyone else, Kelly’s Duffy immediately puts his stamp on what is initially intended to be a 30-day interim assignment. One of the first things he does is to eliminate the system that rewards squealers. Another is to order the guards (one of them played by Horace McMahon, more often seen as sympathetic cops) to turn in their rubber hoses. The focus here is on a railroaded prisoner (Louis Hayward), which kind of loads the narrative deck. A somewhat provocative inclusion is a pretty cigarette-prone nurse of 29 (Joanne Dru) who chums it up with the cons and is attracted enough to Hayward to call him “Romeo.” Through it all, Duffy goes home to dinner amid a warmer environment provided by wife Maureen O’Sullivan — a domestic environment certainly in contrast to the one in Tarzan and His Mate.

The movie is just off-center enough to reward “curio time,” and there’s even the presence of a corrupt attorney played by the reliably malevolent George Macready, who had he lived longer and some producer risked all to bankroll a film or TV series about film criticism, would always have been my choice for lead in The John Simon Story. There’s even a little visual distinction here, and it’s no surprise: the cinematographer was John Alton, who was the King of Noir — at least in so far as cameramen were concerned. Alton has some fun here with the wall shadows that cell bars make, as if he spent the previous evening watching the Hughes-Hawks Scarface

Around this time, someone also floated the idea to have the Duffy saga turned into a television series — though it didn’t take, I’m wondering if there was more than one pilot shot because the December after the April that DOSQ opened, United Artists released a three-episode cheapie about he warden called The Steel Cage, with Kelly, O’Sulivan and the same director (Walter Doninger, who would later “helm” Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in Safe at Home!). Cage has been described as three TV episodes strung together, so you have to wonder — and I, for one, would dive into any prison picture that featured John Ireland, Lawrence Tierney, Walter Slezak, Kenneth Tobey, Lyle Talbot and Ned Glass. But even if that flop had made more of a mark, Duffy-on-screen wouldn’t have gotten too much further than its original forms. Kelly died in 1956.

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