Noir City at SIFF – Crashout

Noir City at SIFF – Crashout

The 1955 film Crashout, from director Lewis R. Foster (Those Redheads from Seattle), is about as lean and pulpy as they come. The movie opens on a prison, about a second before a massive break. Pandemonium erupts, along with gunfire, as the guards attempt to stop any possible escapees. After a series of moments in which we follow the exploits of several different people, a group of escaped convicts gathers together in a cave in the hills away from the prison. One of them, Van Duff (played by William Bendix), the ringleader and orchestrator of the break, is wounded with a bullet on his way to the cave.

Like in most stories about prison breaks, Van Duff has offered a share of his secret stash, the big take from the last job that landed him in the slammer, to those who help in breaking out. The film opens at the beginning of the action and continues to move with the convicts as they navigate their way to the hopeful money and freedom. In the quiet moments, the times when they have to wait it out, like at the beginning in the cave, we learn tidbits of personality of each of the characters. And, in so doing, we are slightly provided with what ounce of care we are supposed to give for each of these men; who are all criminals to some severe degree, mainly murderers and vicious thieves.

The escapees must make calculated moves together if they are going to reach their destination. Along the way, they, of course, encounter people. It’s through the different people they come across, the circumstances with which each meeting occurs, and the folly that plays out as a result, that each member of the group must contend with their own fate. This aspect of the film, a sort of And Then There Were None countdown, is both the film’s best and weakest point.

The stripped-down narrative of simply following the men on the journey from only the journey’s beginning to its end is engaging, fun, and the rawest most noir films get. Using that technique, however, can hinder a film just as much as it can compliment it. For example, if the story is lean in its plot, it usually must rely on characterization from its players to compensate. We need to care about the characters to care about the events that happen to them, even if the events themselves are the entertaining spectacle. I unfortunately feel that this is where Crashout suffers. When we get down to it, these are criminals, and very few likable. Film noirs for the most part are either about the criminals or the people chasing them, and if they’re about the criminals we should still want to root for them; that’s where the genre of crime/noir soars the best, watching and rooting for the downtrodden as they make bad mistake after bad mistake, like a train wreck we can’t look away from, holding on until the final moment where we hope they’ll somehow pull through.

Crashout offers great action for a film from 1955, and the best moments of suspense are derived from the convicts’ encounters with citizens, where I often found myself not hoping these guys will get away and get the money, but that the citizens would get the upper hand and foil the escapees’ plans. With as many members of the gang as we are given, the film lacks a center focus; even the mastermind, Van Duff never takes our full attention. It is to the film’s credit that this execution provides for a more terse plot. In the end, though, I can’t help but feel a bit empty from never actually caring about any particular person in the convict’s crew.

To me, the most fun in the film comes from the climax’s set piece. Locals of the Seattle, Puget Sound region will most assuredly get a kick from the location of the hidden money. This is the final film playing in the Seattle International Film Festival’s series Noir City ,and I can’t help but think that this film might’ve been chosen to play last simply for its surprise locale; which, if it was, is a fine way to end things. While Crashout has drawbacks, it is a rather entertaining, fast paced thriller. What might feel clichéd today, fifty-six years later still provides some surprising moments, solid acting, and well-delivered action.

Crashout (1955) plays at SIFF Cinema as part of its “Noir City” series on Thursday, February 17th, 2011 at 9: 00 PM. It will be the second of a double feature with Loophole (1954). Please visit www.siff.net for more details.

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