CAUTION: Contains “spoilers.”
Although its title and its 64-minute running time would lead one to believe that the title says it all, Gordon Wiles’ “Prison Train” is a surprising entry in the 1930s cycle of gangster films.
Despite the title, only about half of the film takes place on a train hurtling cross-country to bring a car-load of hard cases to San Francisco and a short boat ride to Alcatraz. The star passenger is Frankie Terris (Fred Keating), former big shot in the numbers racket. It seems that nobody likes you when you’re down, and Frankie has a plug-ugly, played by the young Nestor Paiva, needling him all the way. Frankie is a marked man. A rival in the racket, Manny Robbins (Alexander Leftwich), has marked him for death and he already has an inside man, Sam, the talkative steward, played by Clarence Muse, set to clear the way for Manny to do the job personally.
Frankie has a pretty younger sister, Louise, played by Linda Winters (soon to be Dorothy Comingore of “Citizen Kane” fame) and she attracted the eye of Manny’s randy son, Joe. Manny likes to brag that Joe will be a brilliant attorney, but he acts like nothing more than a spoiled rich kid with grabby hands. Louise catches his eye just when Frankie is concluding a “peace treaty” with Manny that will allow Frankie to pull out of the rackets, rich and happy. Joe tries to seduce Louise, Frankie feels the need to “teach him some manners” and, when the younger Robbins proves too much for him, settles things with a lead pipe.
Now all thoughts of peace are vanished and, even though Frankie is tried and convicted of second-degree murder, the elder Robbins wants more. He wants Frankie dead, and he wants to do it himself. Coming to the film now, viewers might find echoes of such mayhem-on-the-train classics as “Sleepers West,” “Berlin Express” and “The Narrow Margin,” but Wiles’ 1938 film preceded them. It is “the ur-text” if you will. As the train makes its way across the country tension mounts. In addition to the uniformed guards there is a federal agent aboard to see to it that Frankie reaches his cell on The Rock following a botched attempt by Robbins on his life. But Frankie’s sister has impulsively boarded one of the train’s passenger cars to warn him that Robbins has a man aboard. That would be Sam, and before long, a pair of Robbins gunmen have joined him. Now the agent must figure out whether Louise is the innocent that she appears to be, or is in on a plot to free her brother, and once he is re-assured, he must ferret out Robbins’ associates.
Sam serves drugged coffee to the guards, cynically singing the spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” as they pass out, a Robbins’ associate holds the train engineer at gunpoint and two others have Louise. But Frankie manages to overpower Sam and, in a face-to-face confrontation with Robbins, kills him. Attempting to jump from the train, Frankie does an Uncle Charlie, falling into the path of an oncoming eastbound train.
One interesting aspect of the film is the fact that Manny Robbins, in theory the aggrieved party, was himself plotting to testify against Frankie at an upcoming investigation into the numbers racket, hardly making him a stand-up guy. Another is Muse’s performance, far from being eye-rolling comic-relief, Muse plays Sam as a preening, over-confident bad guy, an honest-to-goodness black gangster in a mostly white film. The camera-work of Marcel Picard and the art direction of F. Paul Sylos gave the film a “better-than-B” look and Shepard Traube, adapting a story by Leonardo Bercovici gave the actors some decent lines to say. “Prison Train” is no undiscovered masterpiece, but it is a stand-up B-movie, with nothing to apologize for.