Monday 19 June 2017

Movie Review: The Secret Of Convict Lake (1951)

A Western with a difference, The Secret Of Convict Lake is a tight and tense drama set in an isolated community during an unforgiving winter storm.

It's 1871, and six convicts escape from Carson City and make their way on foot across a mountain range in a snow storm. The chasing posse has to turn back due to the harrowing conditions, and the escapees are presumed dead. One of them does perish, but the remaining five, including the level-headed Jim Canfield (Glenn Ford), conniving Johnny Greer (Zachary Scott) and the young but ailing Clyde (Richard Hylton) make it over the peak and down to the tiny community of Monte Diablo Lake.

There they find only women, including Marcia (Gene Tierney), her future sister-in-law Rachel (Ann Dvorak), the young and innocent Barbara (Barbara Bates), and the bedridden but strong willed Granny (Ethel Barrymore). The men of the community, including Marcia's fiance Rudy (Harry Carter), are away on a long-term prospecting trip.

Initially the women have the weapons and the upper hand, and the five men are confined to a lodge. Johnny is convinced that Jim has hidden $40,000 in stolen money, but gradually other truths emerge: Jim does indeed have links to the Monte Diablo community, involving a revenge motive due to false murder testimony. Tensions and emotions rise as Jim and Marcia are strangely attracted to each other, Johnny pursues the frosty Rachel to gain an edge, and Clyde emerges as potentially the most dangerous of them all at Barbara's expense.

Loosely inspired by real events, directed by Michael Gordon and co-written by an uncredited Ben Hecht, The Secret of Convict Lake is an unfortunately forgotten gem. Packing an astounding amount of plot, conspiracy and character dynamics into its 83 minutes, this is an enjoyably intricate and thoughtful Western exploring original territory.

Gordon plays with the power dynamics between men and women as well as the struggle for domination between the men themselves, as the story reveals its layered secrets on its own terms. Despite some clunky action scene staging and editing, the resolution is exceptionally clever, and the denouement pushes the boundaries of the cinematic era.

This is a Western with an abundance of narrative arcs, and the ever shifting character motivations and evolutions dramatically enhance the film. Jim, Marcia and Rachel all undergo transformations as the storm-enforced confinement unfolds, while Johnny and Clyde reveal a lot more about themselves than first meets the eye. Once the inevitable gun smoke clears, an entire community has been changed forever, and indeed Monte Diablo Lake gains a new name.

The Secret Of Convict Lake carries seeds of stories later extrapolated in better known films. The theme of sexual tension between prisoners and women standing on guard appears in the classic The Beguiled, while a group of men and women starting out on a hostile footing in an isolated setting but developing unexpected relationships was exploited for fun in Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. The Secret Of Convict Lake adds a surprisingly intriguing personal double-cross and revenge story, conflict between future sisters-in-law, and lonely women unable to resist the temptation of treacherous men.

Glenn Ford plays to his strengths as an almost honest man caught up in crooked events, Jim Canfield victimized to the point of not caring about the consequences of his grim course of action. Gene Tierney emerges as the most resilient of the local women, initially unaware of her role in the dangerous showdown looming at her doorstep but gradually distinguishing between the shades of grey.

Underrated and mostly forgotten, The Secret Of Convict Lake is well worth rediscovering.

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