Hell on Devil’s Island (1957, USA)
Who would have thought that a film set entirely on Devil’s Island would have not all that much to do with prison… and ultimately more to do with tax evasion?
Set in 1946 - the year that (real life) Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni Prison and the entire colonial penal system on French Guiana were abolished - the film’s start is prisonny enough; it introduces us to St Laurent’s brutal, whip-wielding prison commandant, Bayard (William Talman), and to Paul Rigaud (Helmut Dantine), the convict who won’t back down and who has the dubious honour of being the one Bayard most likes to flog. Early in the piece Rigaud has to be carried back into the prison by his best friend Lulu (Rex Ingram), after being whipped for trying to stop Bayard from flogging the prone body of a prisoner who has collapsed from exhaustion at work. “Oh, well. I hope you’ve killed him this time,” says a guard to Bayard. “A man doesn’t break his favourite toy,” Bayard replies. “He’ll live.”
Rigaud, we learn, is serving a sentence for treason. He was a newspaper editor who accused the French Government of over-friendliness with the Germans during WWII. He is good looking, intelligent, well-informed, and occupies the high moral ground; all natural enemies of the whip and the bully.
Bayard, we don’t need to learn, is corrupt. He receives kickbacks for getting his prisoners to do work for private landowners - a practice to which the island’s new Governor, Pierre Renaud (Robert Cornthwaite), puts a stop. Bayard is displeased. But a solution is quickly found. The local bar, run by Bayard’s sexpot lover Suzanne (Jean Willes), allows the released men - ‘libérés’ - to run up big debts, which are then called in and converted to prisonesque time in which the prisoners have to work for the very same sugar plantation owner, Jacques Boucher (Peter Adams), for whom they worked before.
Rigaud gets released. He is immediately encouraged to meet with Renault, who tries to enlist his support in opposing the prison regime. Rigaud sees Renault as establishment, insincere and not to be trusted; he refuses to help and is exceptionally rude to the Governor’s beautiful daughter, Giselle (Donna Martell) - making it an absolute certainty that he will fall for her later.
Despite solemn warnings from Lulu, who has been released ahead of him, Rigaud remains strongly attracted to Suzanne, and the attraction is mutual (and more than a little dangerous). She even wipes his bar slate clean (which, I hasten to add, is not an euphemism).
Apart from seducing Bayard’s girl, Rigaud’s major achievement back in the free world seems to be staying immaculately dressed at all times, with beautifully pressed, overly unbuttoned shirts and (fortunately buttoned) trousers, despite his lack of money and the sticky, sweaty, clammy climate. Sadly, Bayard and his men turn up in the bar one night, shoot and kill a sozzled libéré colleague at the perfectly attired Rigaud’s table, and badly beat Rigaud up when he flies the flag in support of his friend.
Lulu is required to once more carry his half-dead mate… this time to the Governor’s residence, and soon Rigaud has accepted an invitation to pore over masses of the colony’s records - largely import and export receipts, many for explosives, and death certificates - with Giselle assisting as his unwanted secretary. It is demanding, unrewarding work. In due course they fall in love (surprise!) but are on the verge of giving up… when they come across Lulu’s death certificate. Rigaud is devastated, until Lulu walks into the room, ten days after his supposed death. They conclude that the death certificates are to stop people looking for those sent to work for Boucher to pay off their debts.
Lulu tells Rigaud he been crushing up rock at the sugar mill to pay off his debt, and the two then set out to find what they deduce is a secret mine operated by Boucher in the middle of the jungle. They locate it with some reluctant assistance from Suzanne, and soon find themselves in a fight-to-the-death with Bayard and Boucher, having worked out that the whole scam was about trying to avoid paying the 90% export tax on precious metals.
All ends well, of course. The scam is exposed, St Laurent Prison is closed, Rigaud is pardoned, libérés have their citizenship restored, true love runs deep, Rigaud accepts the position of local administrator of the rehabilitated island, and his pressed shirts acquire a reason for being pressed.
There are precious metals but precious little actual prison drama; while it’s a short film (around 71 minutes), it takes less than ten minutes for the prison scenes to evaporate in the heat. It’s then more ‘Hell in Suzanne’s bar on Devil’s Island’.
Posted on September 16th, 2017 at 11:00 pm. Updated on September 16th, 2017 at 11:00 pm.