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Caryl Chessman just had one of those names. Like murdered Kew Gardens bartender Kitty Genovese, Chappaquiddick drowning victim Mary Jo Kopechne and Right to Die poster child Karen Ann Quinlan, Death Row notable Caryl Chessman's catchy moniker, while lacking the instant recognition factor of a Lee Harvey Oswald or a Sharon Tate, holds talismanic properties for those born before the advent of instant fame via misfortune or misdeed. A repeat offender who served sentences at San Quentin and Folsom prisons, Caryl Chessman became a national celebrity when he defended himself in court against charges of being "the Red Light Bandit," a lovers lane stalker who posed as a policeman to prey (as would the later Zodiac killer) upon parking couples. When Chessman allegedly dragged one victim from her automobile to assault her sexually, he was in technical violation of "the Little Lindbergh Law" (so named after the 1932 abduction and murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh's 20-month old son), which punished any violent assault by forcible removal with the death penalty. Chessman kept appeals going for twelve years while he studied law, wrote four books and became a cause celbr to the likes of Norman Mailer, Marlon Brando and Aldous Huxley. Two films specifically related to his case bookend his 1960 execution: Fred F. Sears' Cell 2455 Death Row (1955), starring William Campbell and based on Chessman's book of the same name, and the 1977 telefilm Kill Me If You Can, with Alan Alda.
The film Cell 2455 Death Row retains Chessman's authorial device of referring to himself as "Whit," a nickname derived from his middle name of Whittier. (The recidivist was a descendant of famed poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier.) While the Machiavellian William Campbell isn't an exact fit for the dough-faced, acne-scarred Chessman, he does nail the requisite defiance. A Schwab's Drugstore discovery, Campbell had already done time in Warners' Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951) and had good roles in The People Against O'Hara (1951), The High and the Mighty (1954) and Battle Cry (1955).
Fred Sears scored a casting coup by hiring Campbell's kid brother Robert to play the young Whit Whittier. While Bill Campbell would go on to several cult film collaborations with Roger Corman, Robert became a film scenarist and a science fiction writer. (R. Wright Campbell is credited with coining the Hollywood sobriquet "La-La Land.")
Playing bits in Cell 2455 are a number of unsung character actors and future leading men, including Vince Edwards (put to better use in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing the following year), Roger Corman trouper Jonathan Haze, The Shining's (1980) Joe Turkel, Cool Hand Luke's (1967) Buck Kartalian and both Kerwin Mathews and Kathryn Grant two years before starring together in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958). If scenarist Jack DeWitt trowels on the hipster argot, the cinematography of Fred Jackman is impressive throughout (especially during the Red Light Bandit's nocturnal raids) and Fred Sears stages an impressive car chase involving a roadster eluding the cops while engulfed in flames from a ruptured gas tank.
Of all the possible charges that could be lodged against the director of The Giant Claw (1957) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), no court could ever convict Fred F. Sears of laziness. The Depression had driven Sears out of Boston College after only one semester but he kept himself afloat as a Vaudeville dancer and stage manager for John Barrymore's touring company. In Memphis, Sears signed on as the director of the Little Theater and taught classes at Southwestern University. In Hollywood after his wartime service, Sears got his foot in the door playing bit parts at Columbia. A friendship with cowboy star Charles Starrett led to an opportunity to direct films for Columbia's B-unit, where the chain-smoking workaholic turned his hand to westerns, jungle adventures, combat and espionage films, crime dramas and science fiction tales. He had hoped that Cell 2455 Death Row would be his ticket to the A-list and Columbia gave the film a massive publicity campaign. (The film's pressbook ran 16 pages, double the average size.) Despite the big push, audiences stayed away and Sears returned to the "B" hive to crank out second features. He completed nearly two dozen more films before his death by heart attack at age 44 in November of 1957. (Sears' last four films were released posthumously.)
Caryl Chessman survived the man who told his life story by less than three years. He'd had it good for a while, holding court in his San Quentin Prison cell and auditioning producers interested in his case. Before giving Fred Sears his blessing, Chessman had turned down Alan Ladd's Jaguar Productions, who were forced to fictionalize their cash-in as A Cry in the Night (1956), with Raymond Burr as a Lover's Lane stalker menacing nubile Natalie Wood.
Producer: Wallace MacDonald
Director: Fred F. Sears
Screenplay: Jack DeWitt; Caryl Chessman (book)
Cinematography: Fred Jackman, Jr.
Art Direction: Robert Peterson
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff (uncredited)
Film Editing: Henry Batista
Cast: William Campbell (Whit Whittier), Marian Carr (Doll), Kathryn Grant (Jo-Anne), Harvey Stephens (Warden), Vince Edwards (Hamilton), Allen Nourse (Serl), Diane DeLaire (Hallie).
by Richard Harland Smith
Lost in the Fifties: Recovering Phantom Hollywood by Wheeler Winston Dixon
Fred F. Sears biography by Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide
When You Read This, They Will Have Killed Me: The Life and Redemption of Caryl Chessman, Whose Execution Shook America by Alan Bisbort
Jonathan Haze interview by Justin Humphreys, Psychotronic Video No. 27