Fri 25 Sep 2015
SAN QUENTIN. Warner Brothers, 1937. Pat O’Brien , Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, Barton MacLane, Joseph Sawyer, Veda Ann Borg. Director: Lloyd Bacon.
For fans of Warner Brothers’ crime films and Depression-era realism, San Quentin is a well-paced crime melodrama with enough solid characterization to keep viewers fully engaged with the story for the duration. Indeed, watching the film, a short programmer filmed on location at the California prison, is like hanging out with old friends. Not only is Humphrey Bogart front and center, you’ve also got many of the studio’s finest by your side: Pat O’Brien, Ann Sheridan, Barton MacLane, and Joe Sawyer.
Bogart portrays Red Kennedy, a low-level crook at odds with the world. It seems the only good thing he’s got going on in his life is his devoted sister, May (Sheridan), a singer in a San Francisco nightclub. Soon after the film begins, Kennedy is nabbed by the law and ends up in San Quentin. Little does Kennedy know that his sister and the prison’s new chief guard, Captain Stephen Jameson (O’Brien) are beginning a romantic relationship. When he does find out – from the mouth of thuggish fellow inmate, Sailor Boy Hansen (Sawyer) – he’s enraged and is more prepared to do something about it.
Although San Quentin is by no means a classic or comparable to Bogart’s better known movies, it nevertheless succeeds as a film due to its script and fine coterie of actors. As was the case in many Warner movies from the era, San Quentin is a crime film with a conscience. Kennedy isn’t really such a bad guy so much as a victim of time and circumstance. Even so, the lesson is plain enough for all to see. As much as we might sympathize with Red Kennedy, ultimately his decisions to pursue a life of crime will usher in his tragic downfall in a world that’s ultimately indifferent to his fate.