Note: Because of a 12:30 start, there is only one feature on tonight’s Horror Incorporated.
Synopsis: Federal agent Mark Sheldon (Robert Wilcox) is on his first day on the job as an undercover operative. He is told that once sent on his assignment, the agency will be unable to assist him if he gets into trouble. He’s given the code number 64, and sent to a meeting with his counterpart, agent 46.
46 tells him that a man named Stephen Danel is running a slavery operation on the appropriately-named Dead Man’s Island. The island is owned by Danel but it falls within U.S. jurisdiction. Up until now Danel’s activities have attracted little notice from the government, because no one who goes there ever returns. Neverthless, 46 says that Danel is running a slave-labor operation on the island. “Lincoln freed the slaves,” 46 says. “Mr. Danel is back in the trade and doing very well at it.”
It’s clear that 46 wants Sheldon to do something about all this, but before we find out the details, 46’s briefing is cut short by a bullet fired through the window by an unseen assailant. 46 is mortally wounded. Knowing he will be blamed for the crime, Sheldon runs for it, but he’s caught by the police. He stoically refuses to answer any questions about the shooting, merely stating that he didn’t commit the crime. He also gives the obviously phony name of “John Smith” to his interrogators.
Meanwhile, we learn that Stephen Danel (Peter Lorre) was very near the scene of the crime, and it was he who dispatched the gunman that killed 46.
“Smith” is convicted of murder, and the judge — sensing that there is more to the story — expresses sympathy to his plight. Nevertheless he has no choice but to sentence Smith to life in prison.
There follows a montage of prison life. Smith spends a year breakin’ up rocks in the hot sun, yet he is still determined to complete his task and find out the secrets of the mysterious Dead Man’s Island.
Help comes to Smith from an unexpected source. It turns out that Danel gets his slave labor from the ranks of prison parolees; and because he is uncertain as to how much Smith knows, he convinces the parole board to remand Smith to his own custody. His island, he tells the board, is the perfect place to rehabilitate ex-convicts, what with all the fresh air and honest work.
Soon Smith and a half-dozen other prisoners are being transported to Dead Man’s Island. The men quickly learn that conditions here are far worse than the prison they just left. They are forced to work long, grueling days in the open-pit mine, and are chained to their bunks at night. Men are whipped mercilessly for the slightest offenses, and shot if they should attempt to get through the electrified fences that surround the mining camp.
The men are miserable, but just as unhappy is Danel’s long-suffering wife Lorraine. It seems that she had been dazzled by Danel’s money and promises of the good life, but has since discovered that she’s now living in a gilded cage – Danel won’t allow her to visit the mainland, and she is just as much a prisoner as the parolees working in the mines.
When Lorraine learns that Sheldon might be a federal agent, she is determined to meet with him — even though a meeting may come at the cost of her own life ….
Comments: Agent Mark Sheldon is ostensibly the protagonist of this modest Columbia thriller, but everyone knows this movie really belongs to Peter Lorre. He’s so deliciously evil in this picture that the only other actor you could imagine playing the part would be Vincent Price, who in 1940 would still have been too callow for the role. The script would have to be tailored to fit Price’s oily, ironic charm anyway – and could Price have so effectively strolled around a tropical island in a pith helmet and a white linen suit, gently ordering 20 lashes for insubordination? It’s hard to imagine. What we have in Island of Doomed Men is the laconic Danel behaving like a coiled snake, seeing everything and striking quickly when the moment is right, taking everyone around him off guard.
That’s the sort of thing Lorre excelled at, and it’s delightful to watch him work. Lorre’s Danel is tightly wound, quiet and controlled right up until the moment his volcanic temper gets the better of him. It works for the most part, though Lorre’s bulgy-eyed outbursts sometimes veer toward self-parody (“Keep that monkey away from me!” he shrieks at one point) and he is not physically large enough to be imposing — he seems quite small even in comparison with his wife Lorraine, a thinly-written part thinly played by Rochelle Hudson.
In spite of Lorre’s brilliant performance, Island of Doomed Men is another example of Columbia’s squeamishness as a studio. The exploitative intent of the material is clear (WOMEN SHUDDERING AT HIS CRUEL CARESS! the one-sheet screams. MEN DYING UNDER HIS TORTURING LASH!) yet there isn’t a lot of exploitation to be found; the camera doesn’t linger on the scenes of torture or on Danel’s psychological domination of Lorraine. It all seems quite tame and perfunctory, even by the standards of 1940. One can only imagine how eagerly Universal would have seized the more lurid aspects of this material, as they did with Tower of London.
Director Charles Barton soft-pedals the privations — both physical and psychological — that men in such a place suffer, and he seems reluctant to demonstrate the sadism that is ascribed to Danel himself. Sadism, after all, is what we’re led to believe motivates him – but his actions don’t really suggest a sadist. In fact he doesn’t even stick around for the punishments he orders his subordinates to carry out. By the end of the picture it seems more like a control freak with an eye toward enhanced productivity from his staff. He just wants more of what he’s already got, hardly a novel motivation for any villain. “Everything on this island belongs to me,” he mutters during his (inevitable) death scene
It wasn’t until the end of World War II that Americans first saw the films brought back from liberated death camps, and perhaps for the first time in history civilians got a good hard look at the drepavity that had been heretofore witnessed only by soldiers at the front lines. If Island of Doomed Men seems timid, perhaps it’s only because Barton wouldn’t — or couldn’t — imagine the true potential of human cruelty. He wouldn’t be the first to have failed in that department.