|Index||8 reviews in total|
This Boris Karloff movie was very entertaining though it seemed
strongly inspired by the earlier film, THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND
since there were so many similarities between the two movies. SHARK
ISLAND is an account of the real life man, Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was
sentenced to a harsh American prison in the Tortugas after he gave
medical treatment to a fleeing John Wilkes Booth. Whether or not Mudd
knew that Booth had just killed the President is debatable--especially
since word of the assassination may not have reached Mudd's home in
In much the same way, Boris Karloff plays a doctor who attends to a seriously injured man. Although Karloff knows the man was guilty, as a doctor he'd taken an oath to heal and couldn't just let the man die. As a result of his kindness, he's arrested and sent to Devil's Island, where he is abused and treated like an animal. What happens next you'll have to see for yourself, but I was very impressed by this simple film that wasn't really a horror film but a film about the human spirit and justice. Karloff, in particular, did a nice job in his role as the hapless doctor, though the script was also very good--making the viewer really care about these men in prison.
The only negative, and it's a small one, is the prologue. Because the war in Europe was just beginning, the producers wished to distance themselves from condemning this French institution and so they tacked on a nice prologue saying that this film didn't represent the French people of today. This seemed rather unnecessary, as other prison films don't have similar introductions.
"Devil's Island" is a true B-movie sleeper. It delivers more than enough
the expected prison-colony misery and escape drama. Director Clemons stirs
up plenty of outrage and excitement. At the movie's core are two excellent
performances by Boris Karloff and James Stephenson.
This is a non-horror picture, so some Karloff fans will see him in a new light: here as a tragic victim of circumstances. The humanity that this underrated performer brought to his well-known horror roles serves here to inform his character with more than enough substance to transcend the melodramatic plot. Stephenson wisely underplays the villainy of his sadistic Colonel Lucien. Behind the handsome exterior lurks an ice-cold, manipulating opportunist.
The only criticism must be for relentless, brassy music scoring. Woefully typical of the period, the music virtually never lets up, overly punctuating the more than adequate story-telling. Particuarly heinous is the 'death march' that underscores the credits and immediately outstays its welcome with a quote from the "Love for Three Oranges" March by Prokofiev.
In sum, a well-wrought adventure yarn. Worth seeking out.
Boris Karloff was my reason for seeing Devil's Island, and when I did see it I found myself liking it very much. Of Warner Archive's Boris Karloff Triple Feature collection, it is easily the best of the three films, having liked West of Shanghai and hated The Invisible Menace(Karloff is the best thing about both those films though). Devil's Island, to me, is not without its faults either, the beginning did seem rather tacked on and the music was annoying and often not really appropriate. Devil's Island however is an atmospherically shot film and the settings are suitably moody. The dialogue is thoughtful and to the point, also written in a way that allows you to care for the characters, while the story is well-paced, sustains the short length(in the way that The Invisible Menace failed to do), is tightly structured and sticks like glue to its subject rather than going on a tangent. The acting is good, very good in the case of the two leads, the supporting cast are not faced with sketchy characterisations like with West of Shanghai and there is no annoying comic relief like in The Invisible Menace. James Stephenson makes for an understated and urbane villain, something that he seemed very well-suited for, while Boris Karloff is forceful and dignified in a role different to what we are used to seeing from him. All in all, a very impressive film, worth checking out. 8/10 Bethany Cox
Devil's Island (1939)
*** (out of 4)
Gritty prison drama from Warner Bros. features Boris Karloff as a brain surgeon who is sent to Devil's Island, although he's innocent. Once there he sees the torture brought on by the warden and plans on doing something about it. I was really surprised by how good this one was. The film would have benefited by a longer running time and some deeper scenes but it's still highly entertaining. Karloff was the best of the horror actors in my opinion but he could sleepwalk through roles every once in a while. Here he gives one of the best performances of his career outside the role of the monster. He had a burning energy throughout the film that was a lot of fun to watch. The ending doesn't work but this would be a good selection for Vol. 2 of the Controversial Collection since this film was originally banned in France and had the French government put a ban on all Warner films for a couple years (so I read).
Excellent vehicle for the great Boris Karloff to branch out from
playing horror roles and play the hero in a drama. Karloff plays a
French brain surgeon who attends to a friend shot by the police. The
friend is considered an enemy of the state so Karloff is tried and
convicted of treason. He's sent to the penal colony on Devil's Island,
where he suffers under the brutal conditions and the corrupt commandant
Warner Bros. was no stranger to making prison dramas. They made some of the best. This may not take place in a traditional American prison or chain gang but, make no mistake about it, this has many of the familiar plot elements you expect from those types of films. It's a B picture that barely clocks in at an hour but it's well-paced with terrific acting from Boris Karloff and a solid cast backing him up. It's one of Karloff's best non-horror roles and definitely something his fans will want to see.
Dr. Gaudet(Boris Karloff) is a respected brain surgeon, and is unjustly sentenced to ten years' imprisonment on Devil's Island. Gaudet draws attention to himself by complaining about the in-human conditions and leads an unsuccessful revolt. As punishment, the warden sentences Karloff and his comrades to death. Boris Karloff plays the lead convincingly, making himself as pathetic a character as possible. It is a very mild acting role for Boris, and that is probably why George Raft had turned the role down. France decided not to eliminate the notorious colony and attacked the film as anti-French at the preview in January 1939. They immediately banned all future Warner Bros. films. A year later it was released, but by this time, France was too busy with World War II to object.
At this point in his career, Boris Karloff (1887-1969) was often billed
simply as "Karloff" (in all capitals), but for this 1939 WB prison
drama he is Boris Karloff. He started in films in 1916 and up until
1931 he was a bit player in B films. Then came "Frankenstein" (1931),
"The Mummy" (1932) and "The Mask of Fu Manchu" (1932) and he was off on
a whirlwind career that lasted for decades, usually playing the
villain. In this film Karloff plays the hero, one of his earliest turns
as the guy in the white hat.
The film is unremarkable, apart from the heavy handed musical score that is intrusive. Karloff does a good job as the wronged physician, and the rest of the cast do their job adequately. Some of the scenes highlight awful conditions, including the guillotine scene.
The film is reminiscent of John Ford's "The Prisoner of Shark Island" (1936) in which Dr. Samuel Mudd is wrongly convicted and sent to prison in Key West where he helped with an outbreak of yellow fever and then was pardoned. Comparing the two, I liked Shark Island better.
Looking at other films about Devil's Island, my preferences are for "Papillon" (1973) and "We're no Angels" (1955).
DEVIL'S ISLAND proved an interesting change-of-pace for Karloff but one which, I agree, is hampered by its second-feature status: as it stands, potentially controversial issues like miscarriage of justice, as well as prison brutality and corruption, are not dealt with in much detail and the expected showdown between Karloff and the callous warden (James Stephenson, who would die only 2 years later and whose best role was his Oscar-nominated turn in William Wyler's THE LETTER ) never occurs. Instead, we're made to believe that the warden's wife is so grateful for ex-brain surgeon Karloff's having saved their daughter's life that she is perfectly willing to see her husband's ruined by reporting his mistreatment of the prisoners to higher authority - when, prior to the girl's accident, she didn't seem to bother much with them since she used to frequently ride up to the labor camp, in her finest attire, as if going on a Sunday picnic! A brave and well-made B-movie all around but, ultimately, it doesn't really tread new ground and certainly doesn't carry the sheer emotional power of I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (1932).
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