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The bold, innovative Canon City deserves to be better known

In The Overlook, A.V. Club film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky examines the misfits, underappreciated gems, and underseen classics of film history.

Within Canon City, there is another city: A grim place of gray stone walls…

They called it Poverty Row: the skids of old Hollywood, where B-movies were made quickly and cheaply by independent outfits that sometimes didn’t amount to much more than an office and a phone line. Honestly speaking, much of what came out of Poverty Row was pretty bad—hour-long programmers and third-rate serials that are only historically interesting as an extinct species of junk. But a lot of the best and ballsiest movies to come out of America in the late 1940s and early ’50s got made there, too. There’s something to be said about the freedom that comes with low expectations and low oversight.

Poverty Row was where you’d find the secret art pieces, cheapies made by guys like Joseph H. Lewis and Edgar G. Ulmer, who saw shoestring production values and short shooting schedules as a challenge to get creative and outré. It was also the home of the no-frills procedural—no budget, no bullshit. Sometimes, the two would cross over, producing a movie like Canon City, a noir docudrama written and directed by Crane Wilbur, the dean of the prison B-flick.

Inside and outside the prison in Canon City

It recounts a real prison break that happened on December 30, 1947, at the old Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City (then spelled without an eñe), a small town that used to be called the “Corrections Capital Of The World” due to the dozen or so prisons in its immediate vicinity. The break itself wasn’t that exceptional, apart from taking place in the middle of a snowstorm right before New Year’s Eve. Twelve men escaped, and were all apprehended or killed within a matter of days, with most of the survivors suffering some degree of frostbite.

But the way Canon City dramatizes this incident—mostly forgotten now—is remarkable. It was made just months after the break, partly on location at the real prison, with the real warden, Roy Best, playing himself. For the first 10 or so minutes, it’s a newsreel-style documentary, complete with an overreaching voiceover by Reed Hadley, a cowboy actor who had a parallel career narrating noir crime films. Best is introduced alongside his dog; the prison routine is explained, along with the newfangled technology of metal detectors; inmates are interviewed, some of them clearly actors, others so uncomfortable in front of the camera that they have to be the real thing.

And then, just like that, the movie shifts focus to the planning of the escape, and a man in the shadowspace of a prison cell stashing a zip gun in a model boat. The reality of prison life becomes a backdrop for the terse noir—quite literally, as in the next scene, a tiny machine shop set is filled out with rear-projected footage of the real Colorado State Penitentiary machine shop, a cost-cutting effect that looks seamless in close-ups.

Rear projection effects in Canon City

There’s a fair amount of ingenuity in Canon City. In one of the scenes shot on location, for instance, the camera rides on a coal cart, creating a kind of DIY dolly shot. Elsewhere, a master shot of a large group of real inmates matches smoothly to an extreme close-up of two men talking—actors in a studio set. This interplay of real and fake is interesting on a purely technical level, but it also parallels the internal tension between fact and drama, realism and flagrant stylization that defines the movie. Canon City is an art film made on the terms of an unpretentious hardboiled procedurala breathless true-crime piece in which Hadley’s delivery of the word “dreaming” lands perfectly on a dissolve from a real cell block to a prison cell set.

Its structure is almost mathematical. In the early going, the focus is squarely on process, whether it’s the running of a prison or the feat of running away from one. As the planned escape draws closer, Canon City gets more and more stylized and artificial. The breakout comes right around the midway point, which is where the movie begins to subdivide into smaller stories of men evading capture in the middle of a blizzard.

The filmmaker behind Canon City, Crane Wilbur, is not a well-known name, even to folks who are into classic film, but he had a long and varied career that left a heck of a mark. He was a leading man in the 1910s, famous for The Perils Of Pauline, the quintessential damsel-in-distress serial. In the 1920s, he was a successful playwright and Broadway star. He got lured back to Hollywood around the dawn of sound, as a script doctor for early talkies, and around 1934, he met Bryan Foy, a former Warner Bros. executive who had decided to go independent. They embarked on a decades-long collaboration, with Foy producing and Wilbur writing and occasionally directing projects inspired by his seemingly contradictory interest in social issues and the macabre.

Canon City

They made movies about forced sterilization, teen pregnancy, human smuggling, drag racing, and sham spiritualists, and a whole lot of films about life behind bars. One of those was Inside The Walls Of Folsom Prison, the movie that inspired Johnny Cash to re-write a Gordon Jenkins torch song as “Folsom Prison Blues.” Wilbur would write his share of classics for other directors—including André De Toth’s House Of Wax and Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story, the definitive small-town-corruption noir—but his prison movies were where he showed the most filmmaking ambition.

Canon City was made during the brief period when Foy was head of production at Eagle-Lion Films. This was a short-lived Poverty Row outfit owned by the Rank Organisation, the London-based company whose gong logo precedes almost every classic British movie of the 1940s and ’50s. Eagle-Lion was only in business for a little over three years, but managed to put out some fantastic movies and snag some of the top talent around Poverty Row, including John Alton, a flamboyant cinematographer who flourished in the black-and-white B-movies of the 1940s and ’50s.

Alton’s work on Canon City is remarkable in and of itself, boldly geometric and occasionally abstracted; cell blocks converge into vanishing points, and countless shots are composed around the backs of heads, positioned to one side of the frame. Here, in this inexpensively made piece of ripped-from-the-headlines sensationalism, figures are continually being framed against spaces that double as metaphors, whether it’s the vast interior of the prison or the homey living room of a farmhouse. The snow and cold provide an elemental backdrop, a broad metaphor for the social rejection that seemed to fascinate Wilbur. In some ways, it anticipates what Michael Mann—who first attracted attention with his own shot-on-location prison movie, the made-for-TV The Jericho Mile—would do decades later, blending meticulous research with minimalist archetype.

Canon City

Canon City isn’t so much about the prison break—though it does feature an excellent escape sequence—as it is about the dichotomy of inside and outside usually explored in stories of parolees struggling to stay out of trouble, including Wilbur’s own Outside The Wall. In Canon City, unwanted men break out into the freedom of the outside, only to discover that it is harsh and inhospitable—somewhere they literally can’t survive. The story of the ex-con shunned by the world gets reduced to the elemental, and then gets variated through different characters driven to desperation as the manhunt and the snowfall continue. They escape years of strict routine only to find themselves having to make some new difficult decision every minute.

One holes up with an elderly couple—a six-minute stretch of the film that plays out as its own chamber noir, shot almost entirely from low angles; another takes his chances in a shoot-out at the Royal Gorge Incline Railway, the steepest in North America; and so on and so forth. James Sherbondy, the last man to be taken, gets to experience the domestic life he never had while holding a family hostage in a snowbound house, his eventual surrender portrayed as an act of sacrifice. (In real life, Sherbondy was a mean character, killed in a shoot-out with Denver police after his final escape attempt in 1969.)

Each escapee’s capture or demise becomes it own episode, narrated by Hadley with a sensationalism (“A tornado of desperate men at large!”) that’s often at odds with the movie’s mostly sympathetic portrayal of the men. Which is to say that Canon City is a movie sold on a juicy, ripped-from-the-headlines story of bad men on the loose, but what it offers—in both its opening sequence, which goes out of it way to humanize real convicts, and in its stylized second half—are broad impressions of what it feels like to be squeezed to the margins of society. The reality of prison life and the facts of the Colorado escape serve as linework, to be colored in by Alton’s expressionism and by Wilbur’s ironies and claustrophobic themes.

Next guest: David Mackenzie’s little-loved Ashton Kutcher vehicle Spread. Come for the hunky hijinks, stay for the ennui, pessimism, and long takes. “Never show you’re impressed; it lowers your market value.”