Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. USA, 1930. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Story and dialogue by Frances Marion, additional dialogue by Joseph Farnham, Martin Flavin. Cinematography by Harold Wenstrom. Produced by Irving Thalberg. Music by William Axt. Production Design by Cedric Gibbons. Costume Design by David Cox. Film Editing by Blanche Sewell. Academy Awards 1929/1930.
Robert Montgomery is sent to prison for manslaughter, having killed a pedestrian while driving under the influence, and before long this soft and affluent member of society is learning who to be friends with and how to avoid the consequences of screwing over your fellow inmates to save your own skin. Wallace Beery and Chester Morris are his fellow jailbirds, Beery the tough alpha male whose style of teaching Montgomery the ropes takes brutal forms, Morris the clever schemer who manages a jailbreak and then, after returning, takes part in pushing the overcrowded prison to a crisis point. It’s amazing how fresh and vital this film seems despite all its drawbacks: just about every movie cliche has its origins here, and the early sound recording technology means that you can tell the actors are projecting for the microphones hidden on the set, but for some reason the drama still packs a dark and compelling punch. Gritty production design and good cinematography are a plus, as is a strong screenplay by Frances Marion whose familiar plot is enriched by terrific dialogue and nuanced interpersonal relationships between characters.