No prelude here, just men running through sun-baked California brush as the opening credits play – the setting, drained of nighttime mystery or noir glamour, is the first of the film’s offbeat touches (the movie will end in a howling blizzard on the side of a mountain, as though measuring the distance traveled in this greedy journey). It’s a jailbreak in which the ringleader (William Bendix) is promptly shot by a guard operating more as sniper than policeman, an opening volley that establishes the film’s exceptionally violent mode.
Lewis R. Foster’s Crashout (1955) tracks these six escapees as they make their way toward a goal: Bendix, weak as a kitten but full of murder, promises them a split of his hidden loot if they help him get free. Until that goal is established, you wonder where the movie is going; the first stop is a watery hillside cave not far from the prison, where the men slide through the muck, and bicker. Damn, they wouldn’t set the whole movie here, a Beckett play with lowlifes - would they? They wouldn’t, and the escapees make their way out after an extended first act.
Like many a sentimental crime drama, Crashout uses the idea of women as contrast to the uncivilized protagonists, but unlike many such pictures, works intriguing variations on the idea. Luther Adler’s cardshark boasts of his unlikely prowess with women, then takes the first opportunity he has to kiss a woman caught in a roadside-diner hostage situation – a creepy violation that seems as brutal as any of the film’s killings.
The youngest of the escapees, played by Marshall Thompson at his most Bambi-like, enjoys a quietly effective interlude on a train with a woman (Gloria Talbott, the same year she played the daughter in All That Heaven Allows) returning to her small town. She opens the doorway to another life, he knows it, and he’s ready to take the leap, but that’s not how things can work. A really first-rate scene at a train station in the middle of the night settles the issue, and then the gang moves on. And so does Talbott, walking away with an accepting air, as though not expecting much from a stranger on a train in the first place – the males are the ones with the big dreams and fantasies (Thompson sees an entire small-town life spring before his eyes in a five-minute conversation, as one can sometimes do) while the women remain grounded in the world as it works.
Unusually good cast – for once, you believe that these grubby people might really have been in the can: Bendix and Gene Evans all bearish and snarly, William Talman employing his haunted-eye stare as a Christian type with a talent for knife-throwing (not the circus variety, but the snuffing-a-guy-in-a-train-station-at-night variety), Adler getting to strut his actorly energy and taking over that small stage of the cave whenever he talks (you can always spot a theatre man when he lands in a movie ensemble), Thompson armed with Astroturf Fifties crewcut, and Arthur Kennedy doing what he did best, bringing the human side to a miscreant. Kennedy meets Beverly Michaels, who lives on a farm, and while the outline of their thing is perhaps the usual hogwash, there’s something grown-up about the actual interplay – she’s an unwed mother who has clearly seen some things, and open to the damaged fugitive Kennedy does so well.
Crashout barrels along to its end, a useful if somewhat incredible mountain climb with metaphorical possibilities. It doesn’t need to rise above its B-picture level too dramatically because it does its B-picture business with such force, and because its structure is so fundamentally sound. It also dispatches people with a brutality that takes the romance out of the usual genre pleasures – including an offscreen demise for high-pitched character actor Percy Helton that qualifies as a true gut-punch.