Boris Karloff is a doctor unjustly sentenced to suffer in a legendary prison.
Devil’s Island (1939) is a French penal colony with an ocean on one side, a jungle on the other, and cruelty within. It was based on a real prison, a notorious place where French political dissidents were exiled and, as in this movie, mostly eliminated through hard labour, horrid conditions, executions or failed escapes. Boris Karloff plays the famous and respected brain surgeon Dr. Gaudet, who is caught treating a criminal, is convicted and gets shipped off to a 10-year term at the colony. On Devil’s Island, the Colonel (James Stephenson) assigns work detail, condemns inmates to death as he sees fit, and mostly lines his pockets through bribery and graft. During a riot sparked by guards working a sick prisoner to death, Stephenson’s daughter suffers a head injury. With nobody but Karloff qualified to operate on the girl, Stephenson promises him and the other inmates a stay of execution if he saves her life, which Karloff does. Stephenson then makes several mistakes: he breaks his promise, tosses Karloff and friends into the “pit” and executes one of them (Adia Kuznetzoff), in so doing he angers his wife (Nedda Harrigan) who’s eternally grateful to Karloff for saving the child’s life, and he leaves detailed embezzlement notes that eventually fall into Karloff’s hands. Harrigan plots with the inmates to help Karloff and friends escape, scrounging up money for bribes, a motorboat and barrels of fuel. Through bad luck and betrayal Karloff is recaptured and set for the guillotine, while Harrigan rushes to find the Governor and sympathetic officials to shut down her husband’s nightmare prison.
Karloff is great as the suffering hero trying to keep his dignity in the face of cruelty. As he did in the recently reviewed Night Key (1937), he plays a decent, serious, intelligent and highly sympathetic fellow. Here he has curly hair and a mustache and stands tall as a brave, outspoken and confrontational man who acts on principle. He looks wistfully at his delicate surgeon’s hands when he’s ordered to chop down trees, he’s kind toward his fellow inmates, he’s clever enough to steal some items when he’s operating on the child, and he’s scared of death but tries to be as brave as his friend Kuznetzoff was when he faced execution. Karloff also plays well off the arrogant and cold Stephenson, a villain so nasty he gets you rooting for Karloff and Harrigan to succeed.
Devil’s Island was directed by William Clemens, who did most of the Nancy Drew movie series. Along with an exciting escape sequence that includes drugged guards, speeding wagons, a trek through the jungle and swamp, and days adrift at sea, this short film manages to include some pointed political statements too. At his trial Karloff defends against charges of treason by saying it’s his duty as a doctor to treat anyone, but his arguments mean nothing to the Reason-above-all, “dissent is not patriotic” powers that ruled after the French Revolution. “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite” are prominently displayed at both courtroom and prison, reminding us that these prisoners didn’t get any of those things, and France mostly got terror and instability by using the guillotine to settle arguments (it’s even used in miniature as a little cigar cutter).
In the book Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration, Greg Mank writes that Karloff did this drama and one more for half his usual price because he wanted to stay at Warner Bros. when they were trying to give him the shaft. He took $10,000 for the scheduled 21 day shoot and agreed to less than $500 for each additional day. Karloff made news for helping put out the script girl when she set her pants on fire while smoking, and Devil’s Island made news when its release got held up due to censorship to please the offended French Government. It’s not the most powerful prison movie ever made, but it is a good B featuring a fine performance by Karloff as the victim of a human monster.