I don't remember how this one ended up in my Netflix queue, other than I had Miklos Rozsa's main title to it on an album and always liked it and wanted to hear the rest of the score. I watched this in two pieces and was a bit "why am I watching this" after the first half hour. That all changed in the second hour. Whoa. I was on the edge of my seat from the minute Louie got called into Capt. Munsey's office until the end. It wasn't that I couldn't tell how it was going to end -- it really could go only one way -- it was just done so well that even knowing how it was going to end, I was still hoping the entire time it'd go differently. And they hit all the necessary plot points just right in the climax to make me cheer or cry.
Highly unusual for me to get emotionally invested in criminals, but really, ultimately, this isn't a true prison movie. I don't think in a true prison movie, the inmates would be this "good." Of the prisoners we follow, only Burt Lancaster's character seems like he really should have been sent up. Other's are set up, or taking the rap for someone else, or doing non-violent crimes like embezzlement. But that's okay, cuz like I said, this isn't really a movie about prison life or the people who end up there. You could swap the prisoners for any group of people suppressed, beaten, and imprisoned by another group of people and still have the same story. They just chose to make it a prison-noir film.
The cast is great in this film, from Hume Cronyn playing one of the most despicable excuses for a human being I've ever seen, to Charles Bickford and Sam Levene, to Whit Bissell in his first credited roll, to all the character actors in between. I loved the doctor, perpetually drunk and therefore free to say whatever's on his mind, helping the prisoners any way he can, condemning Capt Munsey. Sure, he's represents the morality of the story, but his dialogue is snappy and I liked it. Cronyn's Munsey... I honestly am not sure I have ever hated a film character more than I hate Munsey. He's such a nasty piece of work, hate's not even a strong enough word. I think the fact that he's a little guy and so soft-spoken really helps augment his character's power-hungry sadistic nature. You expect him to be refined and a bit of a pushover, not personally beating people to death and enjoying it. Gah!
I can't say it's an enjoyable film -- it's too violent, brutal, and sad for that -- but it's still a powerful and satisfying one. It'll stay with me for awhile.