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DEVIL’S ISLAND (director: William Clemens; screenwriters: story by Anthony Coldeway & Raymond L. Schrock/Kenneth Gamet/Don Ryan; cinematographer: George Barnes; editor: Frank Magee; music: Howard Jackson/Max Steiner; cast: Boris Karloff (Dr. Charles Gaudet), Nedda Harrigan (Madame Lucien), James Stephenson (Colonel Armand Lucien), Edward Keane (Duval, Camp Doctor), Adia Kuznetzoff (Pierre), Rolla Courvitch (Collette Lucien, injured child), John Harmon (Andre Garon, a Prisoner), Robert Warwick (Minister of the Colonies); Runtime: 62; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Bryan Foy; Warner Brothers; 1939)
“Socially relevant drama about abusive conditions in France’s Devil’s Island penal colony.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A Warner Brothers socially relevant drama about abusive conditions in France’s Devil’s Island penal colony. The studio was famous for its gritty prison movies. This B-movie is another version of the better told The Prisoner of Shark Island. The protests of the French government to not release a film that reminded them of their inhumane practices at the institution caused the studio to halt releasing the film until a year later when the controversy died down. The gutless studio didn’t wish to agitate France and lose their lucrative overseas trade. Editor-turned-director William Clemens (“Nancy Drew–Reporter”) helms this hard-hitting but hokey expos√© on the French penal colony. It’s based on a story by Anthony Coldeway & Raymond L. Schrock, and is written by Kenneth Gamet & Don Ryan.

Dr. Charles Gaudet (Boris Karloff) treats a former patient of his who is wounded while he escapes when transported to the French penal colony to serve a treason sentence. The noted brain surgeon is convicted of treason and given a ten year sentence of forced labor at the penal colony. The humanitarian physician uncovers the barbaric conditions of the prison and that the commandant, Colonel Armand Lucien (James Stephenson), is a cruel and despicable man. When the colonel’s daughter falls off a cart and her skull is fractured, the colonel’s wife (Nedda Harrigan) begs her hubby to spare the doctor from the guillotine and let him operate on their child. Gaudet was about to be executed because of his participation in a prisoner’s revolt against a sadistic guard. The operation is successful, but the commandant refuses to honor his word that he would release the doctor. The wife, fed up with her venal hubby, then helps the doctor escape and exposes that her hubby is corrupt. This leads to all sorts of melodramatics that makes the film lose any hope it might have of being realistic.

Aside from Karloff’s touching performance, the film never takes hold as it sinks into heavy sentimentality and is too filled with contrivances to be either credible or interesting.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”