The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)

23 08 2008

There’s still far too many John Ford films I haven’t seen to feel even remotely comfortable categorizing any one part of his career as his golden years, but so far, his work in the 1930s is certainly the front runner. This film only reinforces just how unstoppable he was during that time period, even though it isn’t up to the standards of his very best work. Still, it is really great, and one of the first examples that I’ve personally seen of Ford as a fantastic “action” director, even if he only was one in a very general sense. It makes me sound like an old guy on a porch, but Hollywood simply doesn’t make them like this anymore. Then again, they never really could.

Late one night, a wounded and suspicious young man bursts into the home of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd. Mudd quickly attends to the man’s broken leg and the man quickly leaves, almost as quickly as he came in. The next day it is revealed that the man is, or more accurately was John Wilkes Booth. With Booth now dead, the Police begins to look for possible co-conspirators in Booth’s assignation of President Lincoln. Mudd is a prime suspect and a quick trial sends him straight to jail where he is to remain for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, his wife begins gathering information to provide reason for another trial.

Ford directs himself into something of a cinematic corner within the first few minutes by choosing to show the actual assassination of Lincoln. To make things worse, the character of Booth is revealed to us before he discovers the home of Doctor Mudd. Personally, I think the opening would have faired much better if the assassination had not been shown at all and if Booth was introduced to the audience and Mudd at the same time. Perhaps modern audience have a greater awareness of who John Wilkes Booth is, thus the opening exposition seems unnecessary. Even if movie-goers in 1936 were that uneducated, it still could have been abandoned since Booth’s crime is stated only a few minutes later. This is a very insignificant problem, though, and it happens within the first five minutes so it can easily be forgotten. Still, I think dropping all the patriotic Lincoln material would have made things seem a bit more spontaneous and interesting.

Outside of that (very) minor problem, the film is pretty much perfect. Bert Glennon, who frequently collaborated with Ford in the 30s, provides some of the greatest visual moments from any Ford film. In fact, I’d say that the seaside cinematography from the latter parts of this film is even more impressive than Gregg Toland’s much more recognized cinematography in The Long Voyage Home. The very textured-filled flourishes during the prison escape inevitably bring to the mind the similar sequence(s) in Bresson’s A Man Escaped. Remarkably enough, Ford’s film is just as subdued and controlled as Bresson’s, not to mention every bit as great.

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