Friday, 11 September 2015

ISLAND OF DOOMED MEN












d. Charles Barton (1940)

What a great villain Peter Lorre was. Here, he plays a man involved in 'the dirtiest racket ever invented': white slavery. His modus operandi is to recruit parolees, offering them a home and a job, before flying them to his private fiefdom, Dead Man's Island (there's a clue there, really) where he chains the men together and forces them to mine for diamonds until they expire of fatigue, disease or malnutrition or get killed by the brutal guards. 

The diminutive Lorre pads around the island on crepe soled shoes, wearing a boxy lounge suit and a pith helmet. He never stops smoking, and the resentful lighting of his cigarette by underlings is a recurring motif of the power he wields, and the hatred he inspires. He alternates between sudden, hysterical rage and a kind of somnolence, as if he is exhausted with his own evil. There's a telling little scene where he gets in a temper and shoots his housekeeper's monkey (not a euphemism, an actual monkey). Fury spent, his heavily lidded eyes close in ineffable weariness. He has a beautiful wife, who absolutely detests him, so he sits and listens to her play the piano and smokes and smokes and smokes.

A dedicated undercover agent (who apparently spends two years of his life in a state prison to maintain his cover) is on Lorre's tail and soon infiltrates Lorre's operation - and his wife. Interestingly, Lorre knows all about the agent and, in fact, has actively sought him out - in order, perhaps, to facilitate his own downfall.

An undemanding but satisfying film, this is an ideal choice if you like corporal punishment as there are literally lashings of lashings, or if you like to watch people being shot or stabbed in the back, because there's a fair bit of that too. It's undeniably all about Lorre's character, though, and, when he dies, stabbed by his monkey grieving housekeeper, you almost feel sorry for him - but not quite, he's a creepy little bastard and a rotten Boss.

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