This under-seen Western is further proofs that hidden gems lurk in the deep waters of the genre. The fact that my friend Gus, who has seen more movies than anyone I know, had only heard of the title but never watched the movie is evidence that The Secret of Convict Lake is somewhat of a secret for most filmgoers and one I recommend they discover.
Inspired by some true events, this winter Western, programmed with other snow-covered entries in the genre, has a great set-up: six convicts who escape prison and survive a blizzard descend on a small frontier community of women whose husbands are away for a mining strike. Unlike many films of its era, Convict Lake focuses as much or more on these women as it does the group of men, led by a terrific Glenn Ford. The ladies are cast to perfection from the gorgeous Gene Tierney to the wise, matriarch Ethel Barrymore, to the selfish and secretly horny Ann Dvorak. Director Michael Gordon gives his female characters time to develop and to reveal layers of complexity. Once again, I would point modern feminist filmmakers and actresses who so often lump all classic Hollywood films into a basket of sexism to a film like this which completely debunks that notion.
The narrative unfolds with suspense galore and I won’t ruin any of the plot points because several of them are surprising. I will point out that the ending of the movie elevates the film from good to great, demonstrated the essence of the Western genre as the community is forced to decide their definition of right and wrong outside of the wall. This film is a near masterwork and it should be talked about much, much more.
Watched on Criterion Channel.