THE SECRET OF CONVICT LAKE has remained relatively obscure and secluded since 1951, when it was shared with just enough witnesses to tuck it away as 91st among the year’s money earners. Unwrapping its dark veil of noir disguised as a western makes for a neat surprise. Directed by Michael Gordon, written by Oscar Saul (Ben Hecht also worked on it, without taking credit), it’s very loosely based on a real convict escape that occurred in Nevada in 1871. That ended in a gun battle in the California Sierras, at the title lake, then known as Monte Diablo. *
“I’m a poor old woman lying in a bed of pain reading my bible, you blood thirsty weasel.”
Exhausted, hungry and ill, a desperate band of escaped convicts stagger into a remote mountain community during a blizzard. All the hamlet’s men are away, leaving eight women and a few kids behind. Quickly realizing who and what the strangers are, the women, who have weapons, hold them at bay. But human nature, both ends of it, will determine what plays out.
The men are played by Glenn Ford (the one who seems somewhat reasonable), Zachary Scott (slick & shifty, as usual), Cyril Cusack (shady), Jack Lambert (group brute), and Richard Hylton, as ‘Clyde’, the group’s psycho sex murderer. Among the ladies of the lake are Gene Tierney (wasp-waisted and a good shot), Ethel Barrymore (Grandma in charge, outfitted with some of the best lines), Ann Dvorak (bitterness time), Barbara Bates (frisky means risky) and Jeannette Nolan (someone has to get hysterical).
Apart from location exteriors done near Bishop, California and Durango, Colorado, the action takes place on well-crafted sets, accenting the isolation and claustrophobia elements. Filmed in black & white to good effect by cameraman Leo Tover.
When Ford tells Tierney (she’s holding a Winchester on him) that “No decent human being can kill a person in cold blood” and in turn she lets him know “Start any trouble and you’ll find out different” you can guess they’ll end up together eventually. At 34, Ford was steadily building a solid rep, mixing a resume of adventures, comedies and crime pictures: this is a nifty entry.
The entire cast deliver with conviction and the tension, bolstered by Sol Kaplan’s moody score, is maintained for a trim and taut 83 minutes. With Helen Westcott, Ruth Donnelly, Harry Carter, Ray Teal (once again as a sheriff). Grosses tallied $3,900,000.
* Screenwriter Oscar Saul had a major success that year, adapting A Streetcar Named Desire for the screen. He’d later co-write the script for Sam Peckinpah’s cavalry epic Major Dundee. Director Michael Gordon had a solid track record, and had just delivered back-to-back hits Cyrano de Bergerac and I Can Get It For You Wholesale. Right after this project, he was blacklisted, not directing again until Pillow Talk eight years later.