Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Hell's Highway

1932, US, directed by Rowland Brown

Like Scarface, which appeared the same year, Rowland Brown's film takes a social problem and exposes it to the harsh light of day as part of a call to government action, though on this occasion the issue is the treatment of miscreants behind bars rather than the actions of those same miscreants in the streets. That alone marks the gulf with today's cinema. It's hard enough to imagine a mainstream drama concerned with the treatment of prisoners in quasi-privatised work camps, never mind one that sees the government as a likely source of assistance, since these days prison administrations seem as likely to be in cahoots with private enterprise as they are to be concerned with prisoner welfare. Where's the Hollywood exposé of Joe Arpaio's methods?

There's a fierce energy to Rowland Brown's filming, and a bluntness in the way he depicts the physical realities of the prison camp - the dreadful food, the constant effort to save money at the prisoners' expense, the brutal work regime in which any hint of exhaustion is interpreted and punished as serious insubordination - that's mirrored in the physical presence of his lead, Richard Dix, the alpha male among the prisoners. Both Brown and Dix's character, Duke Ellis, pair a certain bullishness with strategic cunning, eyeing opportunities to make their points with either fists or brain as the occasion demands. 

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States