Unchained Film Details
Overview: A convict in a medium-security prison is torn between his need to finish his sentence and get back to his wife and family, and his desire to escape the confines of prison.
Tagline: What keeps them from crashing out?
Review: If you were playing trivia with your friends and asked which movie first introduced the famous song “Unchained Melody,” their response – if you got any, other than blank stares – would likely be “Ghost” and it would be wrong. The correct answer which should be obvious, but isn’t because it is largely forgotten today, is 1955’s “Unchained.” “Unchained” is a movie I have searched for, for more than fifty years, my curiosity piqued by its underlying theme song. “Unchained Melody,” with its haunting refrain, a lyric that at once echoes despair and loneliness, wedged by a sliver of hope, deeply impacted me as a ten-year-old and remains my all-time favorite. Numerous cover versions, performed by the likes of Les Baxter, Al Hibbler, Roy Hamilton, and Sam Cooke propelled it to No. 2 on the year’s pop charts in 1955, ten years before it was attempted by the Righteous Brothers in their wildly melismatic rendition which offered too much soul and not enough heart for my liking but was a huge enough hit to thankfully ensure the song’s ongoing popularity and enhance its well-deserved reputation. Sadly, Fate has been less kind to the film and it has fallen into the dustbin of obscurity. A pity, because “Unchained” is a far better movie than it has a right to be. It is one about prison life but, unlike the common prison fare, there are no riots, inhumane guards, or convicts being slugged in their cells by other convicts. The prison here is the California Institute of Men (CIM), founded in 1940 and often inaccurately referred to as Chino, which is, in reality, the name of the nearest town. CIM or Chino was the brainchild of one Kenyon J. Scudder, whose book, “Prisoners are People,” became the source for the movie. Scudder, the Institution’s first superintendent, believed certain incarcerated men deserved a second chance and did away with bars, armed guards, selected personnel with care and handpicked his prisoners from San Quentin who were then given freedom – including visits by family members and friends on weekends – within the grounds based on trust and responsibility. In fact, on Day One, he would demonstrate to newcomers how easy escape would be. The storyline is slim as its primary focus is on the day-to-day lives and interactions of the correctional facility’s inmates, giving particular attention to four: Steve Davitt, the angry young man, easily prone to violence who grapples with the choice of making an escape or serving out his sentence honorably; Bill Howard who supports Scudder’s efforts and quietly accepts his incarceration (he killed a man), believing he can be a better citizen when his time is up; Eddie Garrity, a former big band pianist who has a broken right hand and mistrusts those who try to help him; and Joe Ravens who can’t wait to get out because he has deluded himself into thinking that the money he has stashed away will set him and his girlfriend on Easy Street for life. Filmed entirely at Chimo, “Unchained” has a low budget look which actually works in its favor, emphasizing its gritty, dispassionate and objective perspective. It was a first-time effort for Director Hall Bartlett (best known for “Johnathan Livingston Seagull”) whose offbeat films generally dealt with social issues such as racial tension, teenage angst or – as here – life in prison and he employs the then popular docudrama technique to make his point, sprinkling his cast with actual inmate guards and staff who play themselves in key roles for added authenticity. The cast is virtually no name unless you count Barbara Hale, a sometime lead in B-pictures (“Lorna Doone”) and secondary lead in A-pictures (“The Far Horizons”) who later gained some notoriety playing Della Street in the popular Perry Mason TV series. Here she plays the protagonist’s wife but her role is merely one of spousal support. And Chester Morris, a three-time Academy Award nominee in the early days of Talkies, appears as Scudder here and there throughout the proceedings. Still, the lesser known players are up to the task. Los Angeles Rams all-star running back Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch whose virility and Kirk Douglas type good looks give credence to the role of Davitt, the unsympathetic outsider you want to like but have trouble doing so. Todd Duncan is cast as Bill Howard whose quiet dignity represents the conscience of Chino’s inmates and lends his fine operatic voice to the film’s theme song. Likewise, John Johnson is sympathetic as Garrity, the wary loner who fears ridicule from his fellow prisoners. “Unchained” is a hard movie to find but, at the time of this writing, a grainy, scratched copy with no credits other than the title, had been uploaded on the Internet at Vimeo. It is well worth seeing at least once, especially for fans of the theme song. And while it may not have hit the mark Bartlett was hoping for, it is a worthwhile effort and compelling enough to leave an impression. Additionally, it makes a great trivia question.
Duration: 75 min
Genre: Crime, Drama, Film-Noir
Also known as: Unchained,Sin cadenas,Escape – Die Flucht,Uten lenker,Zincirsiz mahkûmlar,Ontketend,Horis alyssides,Senza catene,Hommes sans chaînes,Ilman kahleita,Fuga Desesperada,Prisons sans chaînes