Benevolence behind bars is the order of the day in director Lloyd Bacon’s San Quentin (1938); a lackluster prison break flick that nevertheless features an engaging performance from Humphrey Bogart as Joe ‘Red’ Kennedy, a man who cannot seem to stay out of trouble.
Barely released from prison he is caught for a botched burglary and reassigned to San Quentin where newly instated captain of the guard Steve Jamison (Pat O’Brien) is determined to weed out corruption and brutality.
Previous captain, Lieutenant Druggin (Barton MacLane) made his rounds with an iron fist and penchant for sadism. But Jamison preaches a clean nose and the high road as his ideals. Druggin vows to ruin Steve’s fledgling career, particularly after Jamison’s approach to treating inmates with kindness wins him both the favor of the men and the warden.
However, two new arrivals threaten Steve’s on the job integrity: Carl G. Hansen (Joe Sawyer) who is an unhinged hardened criminal and Joe – whose only desire in the joint is to disrupt its regiments long enough to break free. Steve, however, takes pity on Joe, having befriended Joe’s sister, May (Ann Sheridan) on the outside.
Initially May despises Steve, assuming that he is partly responsible for the way her brother has turned out while in prison. But eventually she comes to realize that Steve’s compassion toward Joe is genuine rather than predicated on his love for her. Will that understanding be enough to reform Joe, or is he doomed to a life of repeat offending and botched escapes? Only time will tell.
Director Bacon infuses some genuinely compelling moments into this hodgepodge of narrative clichés, but the overall story is rather imperfectly realized by a script that spreads its time too liberally on vignettes between the outside world and the big house. Eventually these two worlds collide under tragic circumstances but the dénouement is unsatisfactorily brief.
San Quentin comes to DVD in a rather impressive transfer. The B&W image exhibits a slightly overly contrasted/soft image with considerable grain and age related artifacts. Occasionally there is a hint of edge enhancement and some minor shimmering of fine details. For the rest, whites are not terrible clean and blacks are rather dull and faded throughout. Contrast levels are weak during night scenes with blacks appearing more muted gray than black.
The audio is mono and well represented. Extras include news reels, short subjects, a featurette with expert commentary and an audio commentary track that runs through the entire film. A very solid effort from Warner Home Video with regards to their supplementary materials; one simply wishes that the transfer of the actual film was more of their usual vintage in quality.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)