Cast & Crew
Fred F. Sears
At San Quentin penitentiary in California, convicted thief and rapist "Whit" Whittier waits on death row in cell 2455 for his rapidly approaching execution date. The warden visits Whit, who gives him his last will and testament, which leaves the money he has earned from a book about his life of crime to a single mother. Whit observes that despite six years spent on death row studying law and writing a successful book, he still has no understanding of why a man turns to crime. After the warden departs, Whit reflects upon his life: Whit grows up with kind, loving parents, but as he is a a sickly child, the family moves from Michigan to Los Angeles. The family settles in to their new life comfortably until a freak car accident leaves Whit's mother paralyzed. The Whittiers are quickly overwhelmed by medical bills and slide into poverty, driving Whit's father to attempt suicide. As years go by, Whit's frustration grows and as a teenager he begins stealing food and lying to his parents about having a part-time job. These petty thefts and Whit's driving skill eventually lead to his involvement with a gang of young hoodlums led by Skipper Adams. After a year of larceny and car thefts, Skip is arrested and informs on the rest of the gang, who are arrested and placed in reform school. Furious at Skip's betrayal, Whit beats him up and gains a reputation as an incorrigible. During his incarceration, Whit spends several stretches doing hard labor or in solitary. Upon his parole, Whit, still resentful of authority, purchases a gun and starts another gang that commits numerous holdups and car thefts. Whit takes up with a young blonde, Doll, who shies away from Whit's criminal activities despite her affection for him. One night Whit and his gang steal a police car and shoot an officer before destroying the car. The gang is arrested and Whit is tried, convicted and sentenced to twenty-six years in San Quentin. When a rehabilitation program is started in Chino, Whit signs up and, after a period of calculated good behavior, is moved to the Honor Farm. With the help of free gang members Monk and Al, Whit escapes from the low security prison to be reunited with Doll, but is recaptured quickly and sentenced to four years in the harsh Folsom prison. Again upon parole, Whit returns to Los Angeles and pulls together the remaining members of his old gang to take up attacks on racketeer runners. After a reckless confrontation with mob boss Johnny Albert, Whit robs him, then divides the sizeable haul among his gang before they split up for good. Shortly afterward, a series of brutal attacks begin on couples in lovers lane, with the men being pistol-whipped and the women raped by an attacker whom the newspapers nickname the "Red Light Beast." Whit returns to Doll, but is angered when he learns that she suspects him of being the "Beast." One night, another couple is assaulted and their car is stolen by Whit and Monk, who are chased by the police and apprehended after crashing. At police headquarters, Whit insists he is not the rapist, but his arrogance and bravado is abruptly deflated when the captain privately informs him that his mother died the night before. As he has not been formerly charged, Whit is allowed to go to the funeral parlor, where his father admits he managed to keeping Whit's criminal activities from his mother. Whit is also taken aback to learn that Doll has fulfilled a promise she made him long ago and given the Whittiers money over the years. Returning to jail, Whit is charged, but when his lawyer announces his withdrawal from the case, Whit decides to represent himself. Despite his diligent study of law and a court presentation he believes refutes the eyewitness testimony against him, Whit is stunned when he receives no sympathy from the jury or the judge and is found guilty. His request for a mistrial on a technicality is denied, but Whit persists and manages to get his case heard before the Supreme Court, but to no avail. In the present, as dawn breaks on the day of his execution, Whit accepts complete responsibility for his life of crime, but still wonders what purpose his death will serve. As he despairs, the warden arrives with the news that Whit has been granted a stay of execution and one hundred more days of life.
Fred F. Sears
Will J. White
Robert B. Williams
Kenneth L. Smith
Edwin Joseph Breen
Gino Anselmi California Department Of Corrections
Fred Jackman Jr.
Frank [a.] Tuttle
Cell 2455, Death Row
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
Cell 2455, Death Row
The working title of this film was Cell 2455. According to a May 1955 review in Fortnight, William and Robert Campbell, who portrayed "Whit" at different ages, were brothers. Caryl Whittier Chessman (1921-1960) had been to reform school and county jail four times before March 1941, when he was sentenced to San Quentin prison for 16 years to life on counts of robbery, assault and attempted murder. As portrayed in the film, Chessman escaped from prison, but was captured a year later and paroled in 1947.
As in the film, Chessman was arrested and accused of being the "Red Light Bandit" in 1948. Chessman conducted his own defense, but was sentenced to death, as stipulated by California law if the victim of a kidnapping was physically harmed. Along with Cell 2455, Death Row, Chessman wrote three other books, two non-fiction books on his experience with the justice and prison systems and a fictionalized novel of his life, which brought his case to widespread public attention. Chessman was executed on May 2, 1960 in San Quentin's gas chamber. For additional information on the Chessman case, please see the entry below for the 1960 documentary Justice and Caryl Chessman. A television film, Kill Me If You Can, starring Alan Alda as Chessman and directed by Buzz Kulik, was broadcast by NBC in 1977. Cell 2455, Death Row marked the feature film debut of actor Kerwin Mathews (1926-2007).