Canon City is a realistic drama- based on a true story- about an unwilling participant in a prison break during a cold winter storm.
The film sports an excellent cast and crew which – on paper – would probably lead you to believe that this is a great film noir. If you like prison dramas you'll probably find this one well worth your time. It's not Shawshank Redemption, The Escapist, Le Trou or even Escape From Alcatraz. It's a b-grade Eagle-Lion film that looks more expensive and polished than most of their fare during that time. Canon City despite it's flaws somehow manages to be an OK flick from the classic film noir era.
The director of photography is John Alton. Unfortunately the film doesn't show enough of the the noir look associated with his other noir films. Maybe director Anthony Mann had more of a say in the way his collaborations with Alton looked. Maybe it's just the constant snow in Canon City obscuring the photography. Crane Wilber was a fine noir writer (He Walked by Night, The Story of Molly X) but his his stints in the director's chair usually resulted in lesser quality movies– this one could be included.
When the movie begins you start to have a sneaking suspicion that maybe you-- the viewer – is doing hard time. The warden is played by the actual man that over saw the Colorado State Penitentiary when the crash out happened a year before. Honestly, the warden comes across as a self promoter that didn't think twice appearing in a movie showing his inmates easily break out of his lockup-- thus making him look even more foolish. The docudrama opening voice over (featuring the god-like pipes of Reed Hadley) – talking about criminal justice... based on actual events... and blah, blah, blah – veers into insanity when the warden and the voice-over man begin talking to each other.
“have a seat!” the warden
“THANK YOU. I WILL” voice-over
But don't worry – after 20-minutes or so of unbearable cinema that the prisoners take over and the film takes off.
The rest of the prison workers and inmates – the opening would have you believe they're actual inmates– are a who's-who of 40s/50s b-crime drama and western supporting players.
The star – Scott Brady-- never looked more like his brother Laurence Tierney. Brady always came across as clean and honest – which works for him in Port of New York and other cop films. Despite what Larry was allegedly like in real life, brother Laurence Tierney could play bad more convincingly than anyone. Scott Brady could only do “good cop/good cowboy/good soldier” and he did it well for a long time. Smartly, the filmmakers turn the reluctant escapee played by Brady (in his first film) into someone you can root for in the end. A far cry from his brother's Dillinger in 1945.
The supporting cast is fun. Big schnozed Jeff Corey (“Blinky” in The Killers and yet another inmate role in Brute Force) is given a rare meaty part as one of the convicts. Whit Bissell is bi-speckled and spineless—but this time a killer!, and Stanley Clements (Destination Murder) is the short, scrawny, weasely, fast-talking con that always seems to have a leggy tramp stashed somewhere. Keep your eyes peeled for “Bones” DeForest Kelley. He was the star of the most low-budget (yet amazing) film noir of the time, Fear in the Night the year before this one.
Women play a strong part in the Canon City as well. When the escapees scatter around the snowy prison town looking for shelter, food and transportation away from the man hunt -- they're almost all outwitted by savvy, quick-thinking women. Corey's melon being targeted by an old dame with a hammer is one of the best sequences in the film.
The action is outstanding and I found myself drawn into each police/prisoner standoff as the coppers track down the escapees one by one. There's a chase on a kind of mountain-side elevator near a suspension bridge that shows off Alton's eye for interesting shots.
But, as I mention before, good but not great. Rent Brute Force or Caged, track down Crashout, Under the Gun, Black Tuesday, or Big House USA to experience a quality, outstanding prison film noir. Canon City – available on Netflix streaming – is worthwhile if you can get over the strange drawn-out beginning and moralizing end.