Seven Miles from Alcatraz DVD Review: Prison Breaks for Patriotism

A minor WWII flick about Nazi spies featuring John Banner as the bad guy makes its way to DVD courtesy the Warner Archive Collection.
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A low-budget 1942 effort from RKO, Seven Miles of Alcatraz was directed by the very busy Edward Dmytryk, who helmed one of those propaganda pictures for the same studio (and with some of the same case and crew) the following year, Hitler's Children. Here, however, Dmytryk spins a fun little web full of venomous Nazi spies, set in the claustrophobic confines of a small lighthouse out in San Francisco Bay. James Craig (Kismet, Dark Delusion) is our big dumb hero, who escapes Alcatraz along with his cellmate, as played by one of filmdom's greatest funny faces, Frank Jenks. To say these two are close is putting it mildly. In fact, the subtleties are about as plain to viewers today as are war bond advertisements in WWII Abbott and Costello comedies.

Craig, who even narrates the tale like it were a noir, escapes The Rock to get away from the inevitable bombing that will reduce he and his secret gay lover to a pile of ashes. It's not his war (as he repeatedly states), and does not intend to become a casualty of it. But he finds himself knee-deep in his patriotic duty just the same after he and Frank swim a good Seven Miles from Alcatraz and end up in a lighthouse. There, unbeknownst to everyone Yankee save for those in the audience, a dirty filthy Nazi spy (Erford Gage, who later gave his all during World War II, giving us his first performance here) is sending out secret coded messages to cronies out in a nearby submarine via broadcasted words of half-assed poetry and an odd form of charades even today's most cognitive nursing home residents probably don't even remember.

Fortunately, Craig's buddy just happens to have a (strictly non Japanese) yen for charades and puzzles, and begins to suss out the good shortly before a small fleet of additional Nazi spies show up to rain on the parade. Bonita Granville (also in Hitler's Children) is the young lady who our escaped convict begins to question his sexuality over (which Frank is perfectly OK with), Cliff Edwards is the other comic relief (like Frank Jenks ever needed help!), and George Cleveland is the lighthouse commander. Members of the Nazi Party include Tala Birell, Otto Reichow, and Hogan's Heroes own John Banner ‒ who commits the greatest "Psych!" salute to Der Führer ever here as he pretends to raise his hand but then checks his watch instead. He knows nothing, after all. Classic.

Rarely seen outside of late night television airings or videocassette, the lighthearted spy noir charms of Seven Miles to Alcatraz are now available for all to see firsthand courtesy the Warner Archive Collection. The all-but-forgotten flick from a time when America's entering a war was necessary to all of mankind and not just for profit receives a more-than-adequate, barebones MOD release; it’s brisk 62-minute runtime filling out a DVD-5 with no noticeable compression whatsoever. It may not be high art (although it may seem like it if you watch it back-to-back with Dmytryk's Hitler's Children!), but this little ditty certainly succeeds in entertaining ‒ even after nearly three-quarters of a century. If you've ever wanted to see John Banner in full villainous form, you secret Nazi submarine has just sailed in.

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