Appellate Judge James A. Stewart isn't watching a naughty DVD. You just judged by the cover.
"My name is Clinton T. Duffy, and this is my hometown. I think that in a way it is unlike any town in the world, because its heart is locked up: San Quentin Prison, Marin County, California."
The DVD cover of Duffy of San Quentin is shocking, graced by a screaming woman, her dress ripped away at the shoulder, as we're told the movie is "NEW! TRUE! SENSATIONAL!" If you watch the movie, you'll know it doesn't sound much like Duffy of San Quentin. Of course, if you like 1950s B-movies or retro culture, you didn't take it that seriously in the first place. It is based on Duffy's memoir, though; thus it might be sort of true-ish.
Actually, B-movie fans and stuffed shirts shocked at the naughty cover might be surprised by the movie within the DVD case. There are a couple of action scenes here and there, not to mention plenty of overdone hardboiled dialogue, but Duffy of San Quentin centers on relationships and relies on strong performances.
• Clinton T. Duffy (Paul Kelly, The Steel Cage), pressed into service as a temporary warden after a prison riot, tries to carefully build his relations with the inmates, even as guns turn up, hinting at another uprising in the works. He plays it "straight down the line" with everyone, refusing even to rely on prison stoolies.
• The frame of the story is Duffy's relationship with inmate Edward Harper (Louis Hayward, The Man in the Iron Mask). Harper is an innocent man, but in prison, "his name is trouble." Although the inmate is always in conflict with the guards, Duffy sees that Harper's trying to do some good. Naturally, Harper ends up working in the prison hospital.
• Harper also finds himself building a relationship with Anne (Joanne Dru, Hell on Frisco Bay), a nurse sent into the prison to run the hospital. At first, they don't get along, since she's by the book (The Principles of Nursing, in this case). However, there could be a romantic storyline by the end.
• Harper and Duffy are both tested by the arrival of a tough prosecutor (George Macready, The Return of Count Yorba)—as an inmate. Harper has vowed revenge on the man who sent him away, and Duffy has vowed to treat all prisoners alike. Both men find that their vows could put the newcomer in danger.
Paul Kelly and Louis Hayward play their roles with the necessary hard shells, with the women in their lives allowing them to show a tough center. Kelly gets a few scenes showing his moral conflicts, while Hayward's innermost workings are allowed to play out silently, so that we can see them as the prison inmates and staff must have seen the good nature emerging from underneath the resentment created by years of unjust imprisonment. The women don't get much to do—not surprising for a 1950s prison flick—but Maureen O'Sullivan and Joanne Dru both stand out.
The hand of director Walter Doniger (The Steel Jungle) is mostly quiet and competent, although there's a heavy handed closeup as a guard clashes with Duffy early on, and a strong scene later in the picture as the frightened prosecutor is walked through the prison halls to his cell.
There's also a DeForest Kelley (Star Trek: The Original Series) appearance late in the movie, but it's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sort of thing.
The standard def 1.33:1 full frame black-and-white picture is sharp, although the usual lines and flecks show up. The Dolby 2.0 Mono track works for the film, but isn't anything special. This made-on-demand Warner Archive release has no extras (a pity since a brief text on Duffy or San Quentin would put the movie into context), and may not play on all DVD players.
Duffy of San Quentin isn't an essential release, but it's better than you'd expect, mostly on acting. It seems to be targeted at a movie buff who has seen a lot of prison movies, and that movie buff won't be disappointed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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