— Lackluster —
Your Bogie Fix:
Director – Lloyd Bacon
An army man (Pat O’Brien) is brought in to shape up the inmates at San Quentin Prison, only to find out that a troublemaking new convict (Humphrey Bogart) is the brother to a lounge singer (Ann Sheridan) with whom he’s recently become smitten.
What I Thought
Almost all of the ingredients are here for a great film– great actors, capable director, great cinematographer, etc. – but the one thing lacking is an interesting script.
Through no fault of Pat O’Brien, Ann Sheridan, Humphrey Bogart, or Joe Sawyer, there’s just not much excitement or drama to be had in this film. Everyone seems to be sleepwalking through their parts, especially O’Brien who was more than capable of carrying a good role if he got one.
Perhaps it’s the fact that O’Brien’s Captain Stephen Jameson is just written too blandly to evoke any sympathy. His range of emotion shifts back and forth between mildly uncomfortable and slightly content. Perhaps it’s the fact that every time some real motivation for drama occurs, all the tension is quickly let out of the scene with a few lines of dialogue that wraps up any conflict that was about to occur.
Am I being too hard on the film? Maybe. I’ll have to revisit it a few months from now and see if I still feel the same way. Director Bacon made quite a few films with Bogart, some far better than others. I personally feel like this is one of their less enjoyable collaborations.
The Bogart Factor
While Bogart gets a lot of screen time in the movie as restaurant thief Joe “Red” Kennedy, he doesn’t seem to have a lot to work with as far as his character arc is concerned. There are flashes of a charming con man towards the beginning when he meets with Ann Sheridan at a nightclub, but the moment that Bogart’s arrested, he spends the rest of the movie shifting between a hardened convict persona, and a naïve new jailbird who just needs to catch a break to become a better man. Neither side of the character really has time to stick, so the final payoff for the film felt a little flat for me. I wasn’t sure that “Red” Kennedy’s final act of redemption felt earned after everything we’d seen throughout the film.
Then again, I hold true to my motto that, “Any Bogart character is a good Bogart character.” I feel like San Quentin offers us a chance to see Bogart in a role that is often overshadowed by his more iconic film archetypes. We know the tough as nails gangster, the detached detective, and the loner expatriate, but there were also a number of roles where Bogart ably played a less-than-likable punk – a character who might be a gangster or a convict, but without the audacity or the wit that would make him likable.
I think it’s pretty impressive that Bogart could slightly fine tune his choices from one film to the next to make a gangster cool and dangerous in one movie (Petrified Forest), and a sniveling whiner in the next (Kid Galahad). He could be confident and in control as one convict (High Sierra), while abrasive and unlikable as another (San Quentin).
Would it have helped if “Red” had been more likable in San Quentin? I think it would have, but it’s still a great film to see a side of Bogart that doesn’t always make the highlight reels.
Pat O’Brien, as Captain Jameson, really only has a one-note character to work with. Moments for his character to display some real internal conflict (whether or not to date Sheridan, how to handle an insubordinate MacLane, etc.) are downplayed in favor of his ease and confidence as the Captain of the yard who has a plan that can solve everything. I think it would have lent a little more weight to the film if the script had allowed him just a bit of vulnerability. For goodness sakes, he even downplays being shot at the end as if it’s just an inconvenience!
Ann Sheridan gets a little more to work with here as May, O’Brien’s lounge singing girlfriend, than she had in Black Legion. Sheridan, though, suffers from character inconsistencies as well – playing the sultry nightclub act in the opening, and then switching over to the innocent girl next door type for the rest of the movie.
Barton MacLane is very good as the undermining Lt. Druggin who loses out on the Captain’s job in favor of O’Brien. I think a little more focus and interaction towards the beginning of the film would have made his payoff in the climax more satisfying.
The real standout of the movie is character actor Joe Sawyer. Sawyer has popped up a few times so far in this blog, once as a thug in Petrified Forest, and once as an anti-immigrant bully in Black Legion, but here he really has a chance to shine and play off of Bogart as the repeat offender, Sailor Boy. What I love about so many of these Classic Hollywood studio films is that some of the character actors who appear over and over again seem to really be enjoying themselves in their roles. Sawyer and Bogart have great chemistry, and their relationship is one of the film’s better components.
Classic Bogie Moment
We get a glimpse of the smooth Bogart gangster during the opening nightclub scene, and a little bit of the vengeful convict later on in prison as he utters the phrase, “I’ll make that guy eat those words if I have to spend a year in solitary!”
Perhaps the more classic moment, however, happens when we get to watch Bogart make a more subtle, physical choice. One of the skills that Bogart displays so well is the ability to shift emotions right before our eyes. Specifically, there’s a scene in the barracks as one of the convicts tells Bogart that all his prison perks come because the captain is dating his sister. Watch the close up on Bogie’s faces as it switches from a wistful smile to a frowning rage, hitting every beat inbetween, in a fraction of a second. Good stuff.
Don’t Forget to Notice
My “Don’t Forget to Notice” moments have, so far, always been little gems of greatness within a film – usually an actor in a small, but memorable role. This time, however, there was one moment in the film that I found laugh-out-loud ridiculous.
When Bogart and Sawyer are escaping from the police in a stolen car, we get a long chase scene around country roads, through meadows, and over mountains. In one abrupt cut, we go from Bogart and Sawyer on a level road, to the sudden insertion of a motorcycle cop missing a mountainous curve and flying off the edge. Wait, what happened there? It didn’t even look like they were on the same road! Was he even close to the bad guy’s car, or did he just lose his concentration and trash a piece of government property?
I can imagine the conversation that must have happened to get the scene put in, though:
Lloyd Bacon: William, what’s with the motorcycle guy out of nowhere?
Film Editor William Holmes: Well, Lloyd, I know it doesn’t really fit or make sense, but Eddie busted up his back pretty bad on that stunt, and I kinda felt like we owed it to him to get it in there somewhere.
Bacon: Yeah, that did look pretty bad. Stick it in.
The Bottom Line
It’s watchable, but not memorable. If anything, pay a little homage to Joe Sawyer as he gets more screen time than usual.
Plus – we watch as O’Brien pretends to some police officers that he hasn’t been shot so that Bogart’s “Red” can escape, but what are we supposed to think happens the next day when he shows up to work? Isn’t anyone going to find it odd that both an escaped convict and the captain of the yard have been shot? Is O’Brien going to pretend he’s not wounded forever?!?
Ah, the wonders of a less-than-stellar script . . .