Within These Walls (1945, USA)

Within These Walls - Thomas Mitchell as Warden Michael Howland

How many versions of the one film do you need? Within These Walls borrows very heavily from The Criminal Code (1931) and Penitentiary (1938), films that were to be remade a second time in Convicted (1950). Maybe it was an austerity measure imposed during the war: re-use old scripts rather than waste munitions money on new ones. The best that can be said of this apparent lack of imagination is that at least this offshoot has a slightly divergent plot line.

Things aren’t so good down at the State Penitentiary. Rioting has become commonplace, and Judge Michael Howland (Thomas Mitchell) has become the prison’s fiercest critic, demanding in the press that the Governor appoint a new Warden and “a more stringent set of rules.” The Governor responds by appointing him Warden.

In what is now a very familiar scene, the tough Judge is greeted on his first day as Warden by a mass of prisoners protesting at his appointment… to which he responds by wading alone into the throng and quietening the lot. Because this a wartime film, he is also able to shame the unruly mob for their lack of discipline at a time when men and women are giving their all for the war effort. He rips up the old rules, makes new ones, sacks corrupt staff and generally means business.

The Warden is widowed, one presumes, but is accompanied by a doting daughter, Anne (Mary Anderson) and an immature, thoroughly unlikable son, Tommie (Edward Ryan). Tommie resents moving into the prison, resents not being able to join the armed forces (he’s too young), and resents being told who (of the trustee prisoners) he should mix with. Inevitably, he’s used by some of the prisoners to traffic letters out of the prison, which brings shame on his father and gets him sent away to school. He soon cuts all ties with his family and it’s no real surprise when he pops up amongst a group of newly received prisoners at his father’s jail.

The Warden makes his position on Tommie clear: “No special treatment.” Tommie adds being locked up to his long list of resentments. He takes a swing at a guard with a sledge hammer and cops solitary as punishment, as would any other prisoner. When he gets out he is no less bitter and is soon embraced by some hardened cons who are keen to use him in an escape bid.

Tommie also resents being placed in a cell with Steve Purcell (Mark Stevens), who has been given the job as trusted family chauffeur. Already jealous of Steve’s closeness to his family, it doesn’t help to learn that his sister Anne has fallen in love with him. To make their romance a little less taboo, Anne has discovered that Steve is innocent - that he has selflessly taken the rap for his brother to prevent his brother’s family from being destroyed. She confides in her brother and Tommie duly passes this information on to Marty Deutsch (the leader of the escape plotters, and victim of a the most unsubtle anti-German moniker imaginable), who then blackmails Steve into allowing a group of them to sneak out the gate in the Warden’s car.

The escape bid doesn’t go entirely as planned. Tommie knocks Steve out and takes charge of the car himself, rather than have Steve and Anne’s future happiness jeopardised. The escapees, armed with smuggled guns, jump in the car but are foiled at the gate. They take hostages instead and when their demands aren’t immediately met, Deutsch starts shooting guards. The chip on Tommie’s shoulder magically evaporates and when used by the desperate cons to up the ante, sacrifices himself, gasping “Dad, I’m sorry for everything” with his last breath. His son dead, Dad then pits himself against Deutsch in a bit of OK Corral action… and naturally triumphs. As if anyone named Deutsch was going to succeed against an honest, decent US lawman in 1945.

Tommie’s story is essentially that which distinguishes it from the other versions, although this version also relieves Steve’s character of the burden of having to decide whether to be loyal to the Warden or observe the criminal code, which is central to the other films’ plots.

It’s a good story, with or without the variations. Just not good enough, I’d reckon, to be told four times in under 20 years.

Within These Walls #2 - Warden's daughter Anne Howland (Mary Anderson) snuggles up with prisoner Steve Purcell (Mark Stevens) Within These Walls #3 - Edward Ryan as Tommie Howland

Posted on July 17th, 2011 at 7:55 pm. Updated on July 17th, 2011 at 7:55 pm.

#229 in the Top 500

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