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movies, Western

1952 | 4:3 | Black & White | Quality: Excellent

Sterling Hayden

Ward Bond

Joan Leslie


Sterling Hayden is Gilman S. Hanley - a peaceable ex-Confederate veterinarian and family man in 1867 Kansas, during a period where former soldiers have formed bandit gangs and become a nuisance. In his good-natured way, he treats James Anderson, who shows up at his doorstep with a damaged rib. Unknown to Hanley, Anderson is actually the leader of one of the roving bandit gangs who is on the run. Soon the U.S. Army shows up and finding some of the gang's belongings stashed on Hanley's property, take him into custody. Despite supportive character witnesses from all around, Hanley is convicted of being a bandit and an ex guerrilla and sent to do the hardest time there is at Hellgate Prison - a horrible place in the middle of the New Mexico desert. There Hanley comes up against bitter and sadistic Warden Tod Vorhees (Ward Bond) who thinks Hanley is the kind of no-goodnik who would burn down the house of a Yankee with the women and children still inside, and treats him as such. The prison camp is in a broiling hot canyon surrounded by convincingly arid desert where life is almost impossible. The Army guards at the camp are aided by Pima Indians who are paid to bring in the bodies of prisoners who try to escape. Hanley is put through absolute hell, but just when all hope seems lost a plague breaks out which threatens the lives of everyone at the camp - both inmates and staff - and Hanley becomes the best chance for everyone's survival.

First-rate entertainment from start to finish. Warren, bolstered by a stellar cast (Hayden, Leslie, Bond, Wilke, et all) great screenwriting; maintains the right amount of tension throughout. Seen today, HELLGATE is an interesting cinematic curio that ably mixes both the western and the prison genres into a rather unique whole. Although in terms of execution the film has dated somewhat, it remains watchable thanks to the strange nature of the prison itself: a canyon in the scorching desert in which the cells have been dug into a grimy cave system. The hero of the piece is square-jawed Sterling Hayden, committed to the clink for a crime he didn't commit. The usual prison clichés are here including a particularly sadistic warden in the form of Ward Bond, but there's a greater emphasis on character than usual which makes it a pretty decent film. The direction and black and white photography could have been better but as a routine programmer this holds the attention, delivering suspense at regular intervals and building to a thrilling climax.

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