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During World War II, two convicts in Alcatraz Penitentiary, Champ Larkin and his cellmate Jimbo, break out of "The Rock" and make their way to a nearby offshore lighthouse station while avoiding the patrol boats. Forcing their way into the station, the escaped prisoners encounter Captain Porter, his daughter Anne, Stormy, the captain's assistant and Paul, a radio operator, all of whom become their captives as they plan their escape to the coast. Their scheme is complicated by a secret spy in their midst who is really a Nazi spy and is awaiting the arrival of some German agents who are charged with an important mission the destruction of San Francisco.
Starting off as a prison drama and segueing into an espionage thriller, Seven Miles from Alcatraz (1942), directed by Edward Dmytryk, is a typical low-budget programmer from RKO during the war years that is heavily peppered with pro-American rhetoric and broad anti-Nazi stereotypes. It also throws in a romantic subplot Champ and Anne develop a love-hate relationship and some comic relief in the form of Stormy who is obsessed with growing a vegetable garden on the semi-barren outpost. The real thrust of the film, however, is the conversion of the two convicts from their apathetic stance toward the war to a courageous patriotic act when push comes to shove.
The screenplay and dialogue by Joseph Krumgold are often so overstated and ludicrous that it becomes entertaining in its clumsy attempts to inject propaganda into a standard genre effort. At first Champ is an object of scorn. "You're a new kind of animal," the captain tells him. "You don't seem to have the faintest idea of what it means to be an American, do you?" But once Champ becomes entranced with Anne, he is more than willing to play the hero and is soon shouting lines like "We're up to our necks in Nazis!" Even Jimbo gets in on the patriot act and helps decode some jumbled radio signals of the enemy due to his exceptional crossword puzzle skills.
The villains though provide some of the biggest unintentional laughs in Seven Miles from Alcatraz and are typical of the way Hollywood depicted German and Japanese soldiers and subversives during WWII. The trio that invades the lighthouse in its final act, triggering a climactic symbolic fight between democracy and tyranny, consists of two rigid, humorless German officers aptly named Fritz and Max and an icy blonde baroness who gets some of the campiest dialogue: "As individuals we don't exist. Only one thing lives. The superior race. And to think you can deal with it is a dirty presumption." Another priceless moment features Fritz, the chief German spy, preparing to shoot Champ as he exclaims, "There is no time to convert a man to National Socialism." And just so we know that we're dealing with despicable degenerates here, Anne is tied up at one point and whipped in front of her fellow captives.
With a running time of only 62 minutes, Seven Miles from Alcatraz is briskly paced and a completely serviceable second feature for a double bill with lively performances from B-movie leading man James Craig and blonde ingnue Bonita Granville, who would be featured prominently the following year in Hitler's Children (1943), also directed by Edward Dmytryk, and once again featuring a scene where Ms. Granville is whipped.
Seven Miles from Alcatraz was Dmytryk's first film for RKO but it rates only a brief paragraph in his autobiography: "By the time I had finished Sweetheart of the Campus [1941, for Columbia], my agent had gotten me an interview at RKO. The result was Seven Miles from Alcatraz with James Craig and Bonita Granville. Nazi shenanigans in a lighthouse. Good for experimenting with techniques, and I was getting damned sick of it. But at least I was in new territory." The movie was originally slated as a project for director Al Rogell (Li'l Abner , The Black Cat ) with Robert Preston in the lead but even if that collaboration had occurred, the result would probably have been the same considering the source material, an unpublished short story by John D. Klorer called "Sou'West Pass."
Typical of the film's reception was this review in The New York Times: "If double bills are the cause for pictures like "Seven Miles from Alcatraz"...then there should be no objection to abolishing this bargain-basement-sales policy as a practical war measure. The vital chemicals wasted in the manufacture of film for such an absurd and distasteful melodrama could have been put to far greater use in the making of explosives... Seven Miles from Alcatraz is also several miles from being good melodrama. It has, however, one robust, elemental touch a knockdown drag 'em-out fight sequence that starts on the first level of the lighthouse and continues all the way up the spiral iron stairway to the tower."
Producer: Herman Schlom
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Screenplay: Joseph Krumgold; John D. Klorer (story)
Cinematography: Robert de Grasse
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Feild M. Gray
Film Editing: George Crone
Cast: James Craig (Champ Larkin), Bonita Granville (Anne Porter), Frank Jenks (Jimbo), Cliff Edwards (Stormy), George Cleveland (Captain Porter), Erford Gage (Paul Brenner), Tala Birell (Baroness), John Banner (Fritz Weinermann), Otto Reichow (Max).
by Jeff Stafford
It's a Hell of a Life But Not a Bad Living by Edward Dmytryk