Sunday, January 16, 2011

Review: Each Dawn I Die

Each Dawn I Die (1939, William Keighley)

Don’t do the crime if you can’t pay the time. What it is like however if you did not commit the crime at all, but rather were falsely accused on the premise of planted evidence, this the work of a powerful enemy accustomed to bending the rules for events to unfold in their favour? At first, your friends on the outside do their best to unravel the enemy’s web of sin to get you free. As time progresses, the forces keeping you behind bars prove that their poisonous tentacles have an unimaginable reach, and your hope slowly turns to frustration, which in turn morphs into depression. The lack of freedom, the oppressive guards who take you for the scum the law erroneously claims that you are, and, as the stress of staying on the inside mounts, your degrading behaviour earns you time in solitary confinement. Welcome to Hell.

The legendary James Cagney (some people pick Edward G. Robinson, who was a fine actor, but I am much more of a Cagney kind of guy) stars in William Keighley’s 1939 prison drama Each Dawn I Die, a movie that, even more so than San Quentin which we reviewed last week, exemplifies the worst of what can happen to men when they are captives in prison. Whereas the previous film literally had characters debate the pros and cons of the penal system, Each Dawn I Die prefers to show the audience the psychological toll of all the abuse an inmate can receive. At Rocky Point Penitentiary, the guards and administrators show little leniency towards prisoners they believe are circumventing the rules. Frank Ross (Cagney) is a foxy newspaper reporter who never shies away from risking safety against the racketeers and corrupt officials of the city. His latest report is much to the displeasure of a powerful city representative. The man’s cronies have Frank accused of murder via driving under the influence with judiciously placed evidence, sending our intrepid reporter behind bars at Rocky Point where he meets a series of colourful inmates, most notably Hood Stacey (George Raft), infamous for continuously breaking out of prison, only to return for ‘visits.’ Back on the outside, Frank’s reporter colleagues and boss are working long and hard to uncover sufficient evidence that would confirm Frank’s innocence. Their quest is proving difficult, leaving Frank to experience prison life for a lot longer than he would have hoped.

As stated above, William Keighley’s film differs in respects from Lloyd Bacon’s effort in how it offers a visual depiction of the pressures of living in prison and how, well, it really isn’t a life at all. For that reason, Each Dawn I Die is a very visceral experience, with a lot of the richness of the movie the result of James Cagney’s performance. His portrayal of Frank Ross is consists of some of the best acting he has ever put on display. The man’s most memorable role is that of Tom Powers in The Public Enemy, where he was charismatic, charming and often bombastic. A great performance, there is no doubt about it. That being said, I have often thought of how Cagney showed more range whenever playing more honest people, people who could still have an attitude, but who fought the good fight. Cagney is an actor revered by many, and seeing him in a picture where his mental and emotional states are degraded to point where Frank Ross essentially has a breakdown. To witness Cagney go from hope, even confidence (his faith in those helping him from the outside is resolute at first), to dirty, angry and depressed was different. His character Frank Ross goes on quite a journey as well, from a reporter who believes he cannot be touched, to a newbie prison inmate unaware of all the happenings and even getting into some early trouble with Raft’s character, to a member of a clan, only to eventually find himself in solitary confinement after displaying less than exemplary behaviour. He and Hood Stacey concoct a plan to have the latter escape the law and make contact with his allies outside so they can sniff out the truth behind fabricated accusations (and thus, the bogus jury decision) against Frank. But even Hood fails to come to Frank’s rescue until further pressed by his girlfriend, also a reporter for the same newspaper. By the time she finally gets to see her dear Frank, he is but a shadow of the man he once was. I discovered Cagney’s true depth as an actor in Keighley’s film and even though I admired the actor before seeing this movie, I really like him a lot now.

The rest of the cast is adequate, with the two standouts being George Raft and Joe Downing as prison guard Limpy Julian, one of the nastiest, unlikable characters in any prison movie. A lot of entries in this genre feature authority figures who joyously abuse of their stature by humiliating, intimidating and all around abusing the inmates. There is nothing subtle to Downing’s performance, but by golly does he ever make Limpy the most unlikable man around, especially with his wrathful, scratchy voice. Raft is the intriguing player here in that while his work is good, spitting out clever lines every now and then as well as showing a bit more earnestness than your typical racketeer through his friendship with Frank, he is also doing a Humphrey Bogart impersonation. That was the lasting impression of the performance that I had anyhow. In fact, other than some eye-liner makeup, he even looks a bit like Bogart, which gave Hood an even odder effect.

Other than during some critical scenes near the conclusion of the story, the majority of Each Dawn I Die’s scenes are spent inside the walls of Rocky Point Penitentiary. This further accentuates the sense of isolation away from the free world experienced by Frank as the days turn into months. The director, William Keighley, has a keen sense of pace and timing, making the little events seem important and worth our time. If the audience is too spend the majority of the movie with Cagney as he experiences in the hooks how with a bunch of convicts, then we need some interesting characters and misadventures, both things which Keighley helps deliver nicely. He is not a director who gets terribly experimental with his camera, but he has shots set up nicely to get a scene’s tone, mood and character reactions. It is not always the most elaborate tactics that can get those important cinematic ideas across, but the little details in where the edit is made or where the camera rests, and I think William Keighley is really good at that type of directing.

In the end, Each Dawn I Die is an immersive experience, one that shows no fear in beating up its central character. Alliances and friendships are put to a test in a movie that packs a solid punch. Notwithstanding the fact that we have yet another film in which the female characters are reduced to mere background players with perhaps one or two major scenes which sadly feel more obligatory than genuine, I offer the film a high recommendation for film enthusiasts who enjoy this genre.  

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