Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Island of Doomed Men (1940)

Island of Doomed Men is a 1940 Columbia B-feature notable mainly for its star, Peter Lorre.

Mark Sheldon (Robert Wilcox) has just started work as an undercover agent for the U.S. government. He is now Agent 64 and his first assignment is to work with Agent 46 on what is proving to be a difficult case. Agent 46 just has time to tell Sheldon that their target is a man named Stephen Danel (we will soon find out that Danel is played by Peter Lorre) and and that Danel is working some mysterious new racket. Having imparted this scanty information Agent 46 is shot dead through a window by an unknown gunman.

Sheldon is caught by the police leaving the scene and is arrested, charged with the murder and convicted. He is sent to prison. His first case has ended in disaster and the government doesn’t lift a finger to help him out.

There is someone who is willing to help Mark Sheldon. Stephen Danel is a noted philanthropist. He helps a lot of convicts. He arranges parole for them. They are released into his custody. They are then taken to his private island. There they will be offered good honest work in pleasant conditions, free from any temptation to return to crime.

At least that’s what the Parole Board thinks. In reality Danel’s private island is a slave island. The parolees are kept in appalling conditions and worked until they die. Discipline is brutal, enforced by Captain Cort (Charles Middleton, yes the Emperor Ming himself from the Flash Gordon serials).

Danel’s wife Lorraine (Rochelle Hudson) is more or less a prisoner as well, albeit a prisoner kept in luxury. She married Danel because she wanted security and a comfortable life, and she has had three years in which to regret her decision.

Lorraine only met Sheldon briefly when he arrived on the island but she’s become rather obsessed by him. Maybe it’s love at first sight, or maybe she just thinks Sheldon can help her to escape.

Sheldon still takes his government agent job seriously. He still has plans to bring Danel to justice but he can’t do that as a prisoner. He has concluded that the only way to escape is by fomenting a rebellion amongst the slave parolees.

Robert Wilcox is a somewhat colourless hero. Rochelle Hudson as Lorraine is unfortunately dull and lifeless. Charles Middleton on the other hand is excellent as the cynical sadistic captain Cort.

Peter Lorre is of course the reason to watch this movie. He’s in fine form as the sinister diabolical criminal mastermind Danel. Lorre is smart enough not to overdo things. He knows he can make Danel much more terrifying by making him a man who is always rigidly under control, a man confident of his absolute power. Lorre is aiming for subtle menace and he achieves it.

What makes Lorre’s performance more effectively creepy is that he knows Lorraine hates him, he knows he can only keep her by making her more or less a prisoner, but he doesn’t care. She belongs to him and he intends to retain possession of her. This aspect of the movie, the suggestion that Danel wants submission rather than love, adds just a slight hint of kinkiness.

The plot has some decent twists but you really don’t want to think too much about this plot. Is it really credible that a government agency would recruit an agent and then let him be convicted of a crime and rot in prison? I’d have thought that treating your agents this way would led to serious morale problems. It’s also questionable whether there was ever enough evidence for a successful murder prosecution. And does the Parole Board really do nothing to check up on parolees? But there’s nothing more boring than an excessive concern about plot coherence.

This was 1940, with the Production Code at its strictest, so the sadism of Danel and Cort is severely muted which robs the movie of some of the impact it should have had.

Island of Doomed Men isn’t great but it’s a fun B-movie and Peter Lorre’s performance is sufficient reason to see it. Recommended.


  1. Yeah, I liked this; not the greatest film I've ever seen, but it kept me happy. I watched it for Peter Lorre, but Charles Middleton turning up was an extra treat.

    1. Charles Middleton always adds extra fun to a movie.