The Secret of Convict Lake
Cast & Crew
On 17 September 1871, twenty-nine prisoners escape from the penitentiary in Carson City, Nevada, and five weeks later, the six who have not yet been captured trek through the mountains to California. A fierce blizzard forces the sheriff's posse to return to Nevada, although they are certain that the convicts will freeze to death. One of the men does die, but the remaining escapees--James Canfield, Johnny Greer, Edward "Limey" Cockerell, Clyde Maxwell and Matt Anderson--struggle on until they reach a small settlement near Monte Diablo Lake. Inhabiting the outpost is a group of women whose men have been gone for months in search of silver. The women, including Granny, Marcia Stoddard, Rachel and Harriet Purcell and her teenaged daughter Barbara, are unnerved by the convicts' appearance, especially when Marcia notices that they are wearing leg irons. Canfield upbraids Marcia for her condemnation of them, and his plea for decency persuades Granny to give them supplies and the use of an empty cabin. Canfield reacts strongly when he learns that the cabin belongs to Rudy Schaeffer and that Marcia is engaged to Rudy, but will not explain his interest. Granny organizes the women and orders them to hide their firearms under her bed, while the unscrupulous Greer plots on how to steal the guns. He also pressures Canfield to reveal the location of money Canfield allegedly stole when he killed mine owner Clifford Morgan. Canfield denies that he stole the money and refuses to explain his insistence on coming to Monte Diablo. The next day, Clyde's fever worsens, and Rachel and Marcia take medicine to the men's cabin. While Greer aggressively flirts with Rachel, Canfield questions Marcia about Rudy. Although she is intrigued by Canfield, Marcia is wary of his questions, and the women soon depart. That night, Rachel, nervous about being outside alone, accidentally sets the barn on fire. The men aid the women in salvaging the stock and supplies, and in gratitude, the women cook dinner for them. The next day, Greer sends Anderson and Limey to search for guns, then orders the recovered Clyde not to go outside because of his propensity for harming women. Meanwhile, Canfield talks with Marcia and Granny in Granny's cabin, where he succeeds in grabbing Granny's pistol. Nonetheless, Granny assures Marcia that Canfield is "no gallows bird," and Marcia rushes out to him. Canfield reveals that he has come to kill Rudy, whose perjured testimony helped convict him of killing and robbing Morgan. Hoping to find the missing money and prevent Canfield from killing Rudy, Marcia asks Rachel for permission to search Rudy's trunk, but she refuses. Marcia then rides off to find Rudy, while Barbara innocently flirts with Clyde. Upon learning that Marcia has left, Greer wants to send Anderson after her, but Canfield goes instead to protect her. While Canfield looks for Marcia, Greer sneaks into Rachel's cabin, and she succumbs to his embrace. Canfield finds Marcia taking shelter in a cave, where she pleads with him not to kill Rudy because he has been so kind to her. Canfield confesses that although he did kill Morgan, an embezzler, in self-defense, he did not steal his money or kill him in cold blood, as Rudy had testified. Canfield then wonders if Marcia is marrying Rudy out of gratitude rather than love, and unable to deny their attraction, they kiss. Marcia then asks Canfield to forego his revenge, for her sake as well as his, but Canfield regretfully asserts that it is too late. Back at the lake, Greer makes himself at home in Rachel's cabin, and Rachel, fearful of spending the rest of her life alone, begs Greer to take her with him when he leaves. Rachel even reveals where the guns are hidden, and Greer, Limey and Anderson steal them from Granny. Meanwhile, in a nearby town, Rudy and his friends see wanted posters for the convicts and, fearing that they have reached the lake, immediately head for home. In the morning, Harriet searches for Barbara, who has snuck off with Clyde, while Greer and his men prepare to leave. As Canfield and Marcia ride back to the lake, they see Barbara walking with Clyde, and Canfield sends Marcia ahead while he investigates. Clyde tries to kiss Barbara, and when the frightened girl pushes him away, pulls a knife on her. Canfield fights with Clyde for the knife, while the women, responding to Barbara's cries, arrive and kill Clyde with pitchforks. Barbara prevents them from attacking the wounded Canfield, but he is captured by Greer. As Greer is beating Canfield to find out where the money is, Marcia goes to Rachel, who confesses that she found the money in Rudy's belongings. After Marcia gives the money to Greer, however, the men arrive and a shootout begins. Anderson and Limey are shot, and the men pursue the fleeing Greer, who falls off a cliff to his death. Canfield remains behind to confront Rudy, and resisting his impulse to kill him, Canfield orders him to confess his crimes when the others return. Unaware of Canfield's intentions, Marcia distracts him by shouting, and when Rudy attempts to shoot him, Canfield kills him. Later, after the convicts and Rudy have been buried, Marcia tells her friends that Canfield is a good man and should not be punished. When Sheriff Bramwell arrives, Granny lets him believe that the five graves belong to the five convicts, and not even Rachel speaks against Canfield. Later, Canfield and Marcia strike out on their own, and the lake is renamed Convict Lake.
Howard B. Chapman
James B. Clark
Harold H. Clifton
R. L. Hough
Arthur L. Kirbach
Harry M. Leonard
Fred J. Rode
Frank P. Rosenberg
The working title of this film was Convict Lake. The picture begins and ends with a voice-over narrator describing the convicts' escape, and the possible fate of "Canfield" and "Marcia." The film is loosely based on the escape of twenty-nine prisoners from a Nevada prison on September 17, 1871. The majority of the convicts were re-captured or killed, but some of them reached the area of Monte Diablo Lake in Mono County, CA, which was renamed Convict Lake after a gun battle between the convicts and a posse claimed several lives.
According to information in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department, located at the UCLA Arts-Special Collections Library, Ben Hecht worked on the film's screenplay but declined an onscreen credit for unspecified reasons. A April 6, 1950 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that Dana Andrews and Linda Darnell would be starring in the picture, and studio records add that Connie Gilchrist was originally cast as "Mary." Portions of the picture were filmed on location near Bishop, CA and in Durango, CO, according to studio publicity.
The film's file in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library reveals that the Breen Office rejected the screenplay several times, primarily due to the depiction of "Clyde" as a "psychopathic rapist" and "sex-murderer." The PCA instructed the studio to lessen Clyde's sexual aggressiveness, and also requested that the character of "Barbara" clearly be a young woman of seventeen or eighteen years old rather than a child, as the character was originally written. After several conferences between PCA and studio officials, the story was finally approved in January 1951.
The picture marked the first freelance assignment undertaken by Ethel Barrymore after ending her long-term contract with M-G-M. Director Michael Gordon, who was blacklisted due to his refusal to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, did not direct another film in Hollywood until the 1959 Universal production Pillow Talk. According to a January 14, 1952 Hollywood Reporter news item, The Secret of Convict Lake was nominated for the Edgar Allan Poe Memorial Award for the "best mystery picture of 1951" by the Mystery Writers of America.