Terrific hidden gem, B-movie thriller made by Standard Productions and directed by Lewis R. Foster. A cross-genre film, with some parallels to Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Prison breakout film, w film starting at the point of breakout. The great William Bendix plays Van Duff, the thuggish and ruthless con who organized the whole breakout and escape plan, but who has been shot badly in the shoulder during the escape. The six cons meet in the designated hiding spot (a cave with a small opening). Each of the cons is played by an effective character actor: William Talman is terrific as the sociopathic Luther Remsen (aka Swanee Rawlins aka Rev. Remington), a former priest, now with vacant eyes, who follows every command of Van Duff. Luther Adler plays Mendoza, a loud braggadocio always playing card tricks with his constant companion deck-of-cards; Gene Evans (an actor who is stunningly good as the lead in The Steel Helmet isn’t given many lines in this film, but is passable as Monk Collins; Marshall Thompson plays Billy Lang, the young, 20-something con, who has a softer side; Arthur Kennedy is very good as Joe Quinn, who was not invited to the breakout attempt, and whom Van Duff has never liked (probably because Quinn was only in for robbery, while the others were in for murder), but is now Van Duff’s weary accomplice.
Part of Van Duff’s plan, which he is adamant the others stick to, is to wait in the cave for 3 days (with no food, but a water supply), so that the guards will have long moved on to other areas of the mountain range they are at the base of. In order to convince the remaining cons to not leave him behind, the wounded Van Duff promises them all an even split of $80,000 in bank robbery money he has stashed in the mountains. They all agree, except Quinn, who is skeptical that Van Duff is being honest about the amount he has stashed. Van Duff relents and then says it is actually $180,000. Quinn is now onboard.
A long-ish but effective opening scene in the cave possesses a stage play’s interpersonal dynamics, but then gives way to action and movement throughout the rest of film. Van Duff orders two of the men to find him a doctor. They break into a nearby remote gas station, closed for the day, and use the phone, asking the operator to send a doctor, under the pretense that a garage mechanic has had a jack fall on him. The doctor arrives, and they force him into the cave to mend Van Duff. They tie him up, but Quinn objects, noting that the doctor treated them fairly, etc. Van Duff says we’ll call his wife tomorrow and tell her where he is. The men all leave the cave, and when the others are out of earshot, Van Duff tells the Reverend to kill the doctor, who we then see pick up large stone the size of a football and re-enter the cave.
The film’s 2nd act moves along at a swift clip, with two budding-romance interludes (which might easily have turned saccharine in less competent directorial hands) actually unfolding as mini-tragedies, as both women reveal their own backstories to be ones of sadness and misfortune. Over the course of the movie, one-by-one, the escaped cons meet deadly fates.
The 3rd act finds us down to just 3 men left: Van Duff, Quinn, and the Reverend. Van Duff leads them — on foot and during a snow storm — up a mountain pass to where the money is buried. Quinn is quite a bit ahead of them in going up the mountain, leaving Van Duff and the Reverend walking together a bit behind. They get into an argument, which culminates in the Reverend screaming at Van Duff: “It’s you! YOU are the Devil!” Van Duff shoots and kills him, and lies to Quinn, telling him that the Reverend went crazy and tried to kill him.
The still-injured Van Duff guides Quinn to where the money is buried and has Quinn dig it up, which he does. Quinn opens the small trunk to reveal wads and wads of bundled cash. “This is it!” yells Quinn. “Yes,” Van Duff says, pulling out his gun and aiming it at Quinn, “this is it.” However, when Van Duff pulls the trigger, it turns out he’s out of bullets. The two then struggle, with Van Duff getting the better of Quinn, knocking him unconscious by hitting him over the head with the small trunk.
When Quinn comes to, he staggers over a rise, to find Van Duff lying dead, the case of money next to him. Quinn ignores the trunk full of cash, the last shot being him walking through the snow blizzard alone, to an uncertain fate.