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 the island is “small and insignificant”. 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 one of the new prisoners 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: Stacia Kissick Jones at the delightful She Blogged By Night points out that this thriller was intended to fill out the bottom half of double-bills when it premiered in 1940. Movies like this, she reminds us, were designed as filler. Few people went to the theater with the express intent of seeing them, they weren’t expected to be very good in any case, and perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much from them.*
And that’s true! Nevertheless, like all films we must judge this one on the merits. The plot holes appear early in Island of Doomed Men, and they just keep accumulating. Dead Man’s Island, we’re told by agent 46, is under US jurisdiction. If this is so (and it must be, in order for federal agents to be concerned about it) than why is all the cloak-and-dagger stuff necessary? Since slave labor is illegal in the United States, why not just openly send some federal agents to check it out?
The situation just gets more puzzling when we learn that Stephen Danel gets his slave laborers from America’s prison population. This would provide all sorts of avenues to federal oversight into Danel’s operation — through the Bureau of Prisons, the IRS, the Department of Labor, etc. The idea that the warden gets a snapshot of the erstwhile prisoner, supposedly happy in his new life, and then hears nothing ever again seems pretty far-fetched. Surely there must be some follow-up from the parole board; and surely someone would eventually notice that the men who depart for the ominously-named Dead Man’s Island are never heard from again. Perhaps it would make more sense if it were revealed that Danel was bribing prison wardens to release certain convicts into his custody, with no questions asked; but the Hayes code probably wouldn’t have allowed prison officials to be shown as corrupt, and in any case the movie brushes right by the question of just how Danel’s operation is set up, determined to get Mark Sheldon to the island as quickly as possible.
But that leads to another question: how Danel maintains control over the island at all. While it’s true that his zeal for brutal punishment would help to intimidate the inmates, it would also increase their incentive to rebel, should the opportunity present itself. And the opportunities seem endless. The ratio of prisoners to guards is absurdly high; when the prisoners finally turn on the (very few) armed men in evidence, we have to wonder why it didn’t happen much sooner.
In previous reviews of this film I’ve wondered about Danel’s motivations; while he seems to enjoy lording over his private fiefdom, the life he’s made for himself doesn’t seem very fulfilling. His hacienda is nice enough, but certainly not palatial. His wife humors him out of necessity but spends her time moping around the house in various frowsy outfits. The pet monkey owned by his dogsbody Siggy constantly irritates him. He appears to have no friends, no hobbies, no social life, nothing to do for diversion. He shows little interest in the lurid punishments that the one-sheet pants over. He doesn’t even stay to watch the whippings he orders — a real sadist would at least stick around for that. Instead, he goes home to his depressed wife and bitches about what an awful day he’s had.
Kissick Jones does note that Danel always has Siggy light his cigarettes for him, and looks the men tied to the whipping post up and down, but there’s not enough there for even the most avid revisionist film reviewer to hang much homoerotic subtext on.
Ultimately, the only performances that really matter in this low-budget affair are those of Robert Wilcox as ostensible protagonist Mark Sheldon, Peter Lorre as Danel, and Rochelle Hudson as Lorraine. Of Wilcox, the best thing you can say is that he is forgettable; the part is a stolid hero-type without much to distinguish him.
There are more acting possibilities to be found in the character of Lorraine, but Rochelle Hudson doesn’t take advantage of them. She is entirely uninspired, and in the few scenes where the script clearly calls for irony or rebellion from her, she drops the ball. The only interesting performance in the movie is from Peter Lorre himself, and what struck me while watching this movie again was recognizing the extent to which Lorre carries this movie. While I might be mistaken, I think Lorre added an element to Danel’s character that wasn’t there in the script — that is, the idea that Danel is a pitiable character, that in spite of his cleverness and his merciless grip on the island he is deeply unhappy and doesn’t know why. Danel’s misery is never stated openly but comes across clearly in Lorre’s performance. It’s a case where a clumsily-written script is salvaged — at least partly — by a talented actor.
*In the newspaper ad above, we can see that Island of Doomed Men is playing at the RKO Hillstreet, a 2800-seat cinema that stood on the corner of 8th and Hill in downtown L.A. The theater’s vertical sign was briefly visible in the climactic scene from The War of the Worlds (1953).