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Experiment Alcatraz (1950) is a minor crime potboiler with a slight science-fiction element helping to drive the plot. It was independently produced by an outfit called Crystal Pictures, and sold outright to RKO for $100,000, an indication that the actual production budget was much lower than that amount. Veteran B-movie director Edward L. Cahn was well-equipped to turn out a feature on a low budget and a tight shooting schedule, and for this film he took on the additional role of producer.
Experiment Alcatraz opens with stock footage of the exterior of the notorious island prison as an off-screen narrator intones, "that little stretch of water between Alcatraz and San Francisco is wider than the Pacific as far as the prisoners are concerned they're not going to cross it unless they die or serve their time." Modern science intervenes in the case of five volunteer inmates, however, who agree to submit themselves to a hazardous medical experiment in exchange for commuted sentences. The men are ferried off the island and brought to a nearby military hospital. There, Dr. J.P. Finley (Walter Kingsford) details the procedure they will undergo: they will be injected with a metallic salt, then given a dose of radiation from a radioactive isotope. Finley explains that the radiation "...converts the salt in your blood into millions of little depth charges that knock out certain microbes." With this treatment, the doctors hope to find a cure for blood diseases like leukemia. The inmates receive the treatment, but afterward Lt. Joan McKenna (Joan Dixon), a nurse, leaves a pair of scissors in the recovery room. One of the patients, Barry Morgan (Robert Shayne), appears to have an uncontrollable, violent reaction to the treatment he stabs one of the other inmates to death. A primary developer of the radiation therapy, Dr. Ross Williams (John Howard), arrives late from Oak Ridge in time to see Lt. McKenna relieved of duty and his project scuttled due to the reaction of Morgan to the treatment. The press latches onto the "Atom Ray Killing" while Williams and McKenna investigate the incident, suspecting that Morgan was committing murder and not suffering from the effects of radiation.
Director Cahn makes the most of the simple premise of Experiment Alcatraz, and the story takes an unexpectedly downbeat twist or two in its brief running time. Cahn began his career as an editor in the late 1920s, cutting such prestigious films as The Man Who Laughs (1928). In the mid 1930s he was signed as a shorts director at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and for the next decade he turned out several in the Crime Does Not Pay and Passing Parade series, and more notably, many of the post-Hal Roach Our Gang shorts. Switching to features he specialized in low-budget crime and mystery dramas, quickly making a descent from MGM to various "poverty row" and independent studios. In the mid-to-late 1950s Cahn landed at American International Pictures and other studios which specialized in drive-in fare. He directed dozens of movies during this period including "bad girl" pictures like Runaway Daughters (1956), Girls in Prison (1956), and Dragstrip Girl (1957); he was also responsible for many fondly-remembered horror and sci-fi films, such as The She-Creature (1956), Zombies of Mora Tau (1957), Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), and It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958).
Art Director Boris Leven was already a twelve-year veteran of the business when Cahn hired him for Experiment Alcatraz and for another crime picture made the same year, Destination Murder (1950). Leven would go on to art direct William Cameron Menzies' visually stunning Invaders from Mars (1953), and later move on to the more prestigious title of Production Designer. In this capacity, Leven worked on such films as Giant (1956), West Side Story (1961), and The Sound of Music (1965). For director Martin Scorsese, Leven designed The Last Waltz (1978), The King of Comedy (1982), and The Color of Money (1986).
Producer: Edward L. Cahn
Director: Edward L. Cahn
Screenplay: Orville H. Hampton; George W. George (story); George F. Slavin (story)
Cinematography: Jackson J. Rose
Art Direction: Boris Leven
Music: Irving Gertz
Film Editing: Philip Cahn
Cast: John Howard (Dr. Ross Williams), Joan Dixon (Lt. Joan McKenna), Walter Kingsford (Dr. J.P. Finley), Lynne Carter (Ethel Ganz), Robert Shayne (Barry Morgan), Kim Spalding (Duke Shaw), Sam Scar (Eddie Ganz), Kenneth MacDonald (Col. Harris), Dick Cogan (Dan Staley), Frank Cady (Max Henry), Byron Foulger (Jim Carlton - Realtor)
by John M. Miller