Michael Gordon’s The Secret of Convict Lake cannot live up to its title, which sounds like an especially good Nancy Drew mystery, but it’s an unusual and solidly executed noir Western. Made in 1951, it’s set eighty years earlier and purports to offer a kind of window–via a frame that feels part folk history, part emptily sonorous documentary–into the story behind California’s suggestively named Convict Lake.
The movie is set in a small middle-of-nowhere town, huddled at the foot of the mountains, frosted over with a bad winter, and currently missing all its men. Six escaped convicts arrive. They’re in a desperate position: they don’t trust each other, they don’t have any resources, they don’t draw their lines in the same place, and the only reason they’re still alive is that the posse hunting them believes the incoming bad weather will finish them off. And one of them is more closely connected with the town than he originally seems.
The women of the town are faced with the dilemma of how to treat strangers–how, in a harsh and unforgiving environment, the moral imperative to offer some kind of shelter and aid to the vulnerable ultimately fares when brought up against the desire for safety. It’s a familiar theme, and The Secret of Convict Lake muddles it by adding in great unmixed lumps of plot that provide distraction, not action. But there’s something dramatically appealing about the almost archetypal intensity and up-close moral examination in the early parts of Convict Lake. It has a theatricality to it that I appreciate, and the story’s outline–again, without getting into the plot–feels universal but still surprising in its various particulars.
It’s not an actor’s movie, and though it has a strong cast that includes Glenn Ford and Gene Tierney, it doesn’t really allow its scenes to lean on their performances. (Ethel Barrymore is the only one with a really striking role, as the town’s confident, competent matriarch.) But the setup sticks with you, and so does the setting, which is what got it classed with the Criterion Channel’s other snow Westerns. The wintry environment really makes itself felt.
The Secret of Convict Lake is streaming on the Criterion Channel.
(… Actually, the problem with The Secret of Convict Lake is that my subtitles for it identified Ronald Reagan as its narrator, information that I almost confidently repeated here. That would have been a nice bit of trivia!