Within These Walls (1945)

US / 72 minutes / bw / TCF Dir: Bruce Humberstone Pr: Ben Silvey Scr: Eugene Ling, Wanda Tuchock Story: Coles Trapnell, James B. Fisher Cine: Glen MacWilliams, Clyde DeVinna Cast: Thomas Mitchell, Mary Anderson, Edward Ryan, Mark Stevens, B.S. Pully, Roy Roberts, Harry Shannon, Charles Trowbridge.

It’s 1943 and the State Penitentiary at Arcadia is riven with breakouts and disturbances. At the forefront of those demanding a change in the prison regime is Judge Michael Howland (Mitchell); the state governor, Edward Rice (Trowbridge), responds by appointing Howland the prison’s new warden. Despite the evident doubts of Deputy Warden Mac McCafferty (Shannon), Howland institutes a hardline regime, prescribing brutal punishments of rock breaking and solitary for even relatively minor infractions; he’s in denial of the fact that analogous methods of people-management have destroyed his relationship with teenaged son Tommy (Ryan).

Eventually Tommy cuts loose from the family ties; by the time he reappears a couple years later he’s calling himself Frank O’Reilly and is facing a long stretch in the pen for his part in a holdup. His elder sister Anne (Anderson), who has always tried to reconcile father and son, has by now fallen for convicted embezzler Steve Purcell (Stevens). When she lets slip to Tommy that Steve took the fall for his brother, Tommy passes the information to tough con Marty Deutsch (Roberts), who uses it to blackmail Steve into assisting a breakout . . . By the time it’s all over, Tommy, Marty and a pair of prison guards are dead, but at least Howland has seen the folly of his rigid hardline tactics.

There are moments in this extremely modest borderline noir when our temporarily suspended disbelief comes crashing to the ground. At a trivial level, there are glitches such as that, when Tommy emerges from two weeks in The Hole, he’s still clean-shaven. A more persistent problem is that the very lovely, seemingly maidenly Anne swans around the prison in tight skirts and the like without sending the place into a state of perpetual riot.

Mitchell’s pretty dud in this, but Anderson and Ryan are really quite good (although Ryan’s death scene is worth avoiding). Oddly, both had fairly abbreviated movie careers. Anderson won a star on the Walk of Fame in 1960, by which time her movie days were numbered; after DANGEROUS CROSSING (1953) she did nothing but TV work save a small role in the thriller Jet Over the Atlantic (1959). She’s probably best known today, if at all, for her appearance as Catherine Harrington in 12 episodes of the TV shocker Peyton Place (1964–9). Ryan’s even greater obscurity is just as perplexing. He was a minor child actor who became a minor adult actor, playing uncredited parts until getting a break in the patriotic US Navy movie The Fighting Sullivans (1944). Most of his movies were fillers like Within These Walls; by 1949 his very occasional appearances were once more largely uncredited, exceptions being his bit part in the Bowery Boys movie Angels in Disguise (1949) and an embarrassing blackface cameo in Hollywood Varieties (1950).