Here in Colorado we have a town called Canon City (that’s pronounced Canyon). It’s primarily known for two things. First is the Royal Gorge, a very narrow and steep canyon formed by the Arkansas River. A suspension bridge crosses it which really serves no other purpose than to be a tourist attraction. It was the highest bridge in the world until 2001. The other thing Canon City is famous for is the Colorado State Penitentiary. They had to put it somewhere and it’s been in Canon City in one form or another since 1871. One December 30, 1947 a dramatic breakout occurred at the prison. By June of the following year a film dramatization was released…1948’s Canon City.
The film begins much like a documentary, giving us footage of the actual prison with narration describing what goes on behind bars. We even get to drop in on the office of warden Roy Best, who plays himself and was presumably a better warden than he was an actor. We then start to focus in on a handful of inmates who are planning to escape. The leader of the gang is Carl Schwartzmiller (Jeff Corey). He and his other conspirators are gradually fashioning tools and weapons that they will need to pull off the escape. Soon, they determine that they will need the help of Jim Sherbondy (Scott Brady), a prisoner who works in the prison’s photo darkroom, and thus has the best place to hide the supplies. At first Sherbondy is unwilling, but eventually comes around.
When the big moment arrives, twelve men end up escaping from the prison, including Whit Bissell and Deforest Kelley. Some manage to nab police uniforms before they all head off in separate directions. The sirens sound in the snowy town and the citizens begin to fear for their safety. From here, the film is somewhat episodic, focusing on the individual stories of the escapees until they are (spoiler alert) killed or captured. A few prisoners end up at a farm-house where the kindly old woman that owns the place nearly does an Oldboy number on one of them with a hammer. Another set of escapees end up taking a family hostage, and one tries to get a bit too friendly with the teenage niece. Yet another escapee flees in a dramatic chase that for some reason has him riding the incline railway from the bottom of the Royal Gorge and eventually being shot and tumbling to his death off the bridge.
Canon City starts really awkwardly. The first 15-20 minutes of the film doesn’t just feel like a documentary, it feels like a poorly made documentary. The narration is stilted and awkward and the shot composition is lacking in originality. The casting of the actual warden and prisoners from the penitentiary, and less than year after the actual events, is just plain bizarre.
The film does improve dramatically, though, once the escape kicks into gear. Jeff Corey makes for an effective and pretty intimidating ring leader of the operation. Whereas many of the other escapees seem to blur together, his performance manages to stand out. The other escapees become hard to keep track of as we jump from story to story.
The individual stories of the escapees do play out in a pretty effective manner, though. There is some solid tension as some of the sequences progress. Unfortunately, the last two episodes do get a wee bit silly. The scene in which a young girl, whose family has been held hostage by Sherbondy, weeps as he surrenders to police is as goofy as can be. The final chase involving a prisoner falling from the Royal Gorge bridge is completely ridiculous. I have a strong suspicion that this is not the way the actual events played out.
Canon City ends up being a rather uneven film. It starts clumsily but manages to become pretty entertaining when all is said and done. Oh, and it’s warden Roy Best’s greatest screen performance. Greatest and only!