An island prison colony, a mysterious blonde and a twisty little B.
John Howard plays the Governor of an island prison colony, on his way back there by ship during WWII. Travelling through the fog, the ship barely escapes being bombed by a Japanese plane, and during the tense voyage Howard gets to know a mysterious, glamorous, standoffish blonde played by Helen Gilbert. He convinces her and a refugee Jewish writer to come live with him on the island where they can escape the madness of a world at war. The writer is killed by machine gun fire but Gilbert agrees to visit for a week until the next ship sails by. Once on the island she impresses Howard and his fellow prison officials with her beauty and her expert piano tinkling, which brings some life and charm back to a bungalow Howard has kept locked up since the death of his wife. Gilbert also brings with her a secret motive and a close connection to someone in the prison. Her presence creates a bigger rift between Howard and his suspicious and curious assistant (Kenneth Duncan); they’re already at odds on how best to discipline the inmates and handle an outbreak of typhus.
This Monogram picture is a very low budget affair with limited sets and effects but it’s made up for with a nice pace, a good deal of suspense, a decent story, and some very good actors. Gilbert Roland plays a charismatic and troublesome prisoner with a talent for escaping. To me, Roland is always a charming, dashing, action type, and he brings lots of that to this role, so that despite his villainous side you can believe he’s an innocent and misunderstood man. Or is he? There’s also Alan Mowbray in a good turn as the prison doctor who laments that his dowdy nurse has to be the only woman on the island. When Mowbray meets Helen Gilbert he falls hard for her, which she ends up using to her advantage later.
While it becomes clear to the viewer within minutes of her arrival on the island that Gilbert is hiding some nefarious intent, the truth about that comes out slowly and carefully, there are a couple surprising twists that you don’t see coming, one of which surprises even her character and makes her sympathetic and unpredictable. Howard is crazy about her and doesn’t want to believe what the evidence seems to show about Gilbert, because if it’s true he’ll lose her and his job.
Director Richard Oswald co-wrote the screen adaptation from the play “White Woman.” (Helen Gilbert’s cocktail of choice is a White Lady, but Gilbert is also the white woman because of her very unique hairstyle, flowing platinum blonde locks with dark ends.) Oswald was a prolific director with over 100 credits including many German silents he made before fleeing the Nazis and coming to America. He really does wonders here with the few sets, concealing with fog and foliage where needed, creating shadowy barracks and solitary confinement cells and island atmosphere galore. Oswald makes the place look either sinister or paradisaical to fit the story, and keeps everything moving swiftly.
I honestly picked this solely because I needed something with a short runtime (67 minutes) and the title intrigued me, and as you can see I got a fun surprise. This type of movie is exactly why I love B’s; you go into it not expecting very much but come out impressed by the amount of entertainment that can be squeezed from so little resources where there’s a decent story and lots of talent, and everyone commits fully to the material.