Tommy Gordon (John Garfield) thinks he’s invincible. Deeply involved in the criminal underworld, he has no fears of being shipped away to prison. He has too many friends and allies for that.
At least, that’s what he believes. His tune changes when, after an arrest, his friends swiftly abandon him — with the exception of his devoted girlfriend, Kay (Ann Sheridan), who will do anything to help him get out of Sing Sing.
Castle on the Hudson was directed by Anatole Litvak. The screenplay was written by Seton I. Miller, Brown Holmes, and Courtney Terrett from the book by Warden Lewis E. Lawes. (Lawes’ book was also filmed as 20,000 Years in Sing Sing.)
The fact that this film’s source material was written by a warden shows throughout the picture. For much of its run, it’s a very pro-prison film, preaching the potential of rehabilitation through confinement and hard labor.
Though the subject is quite serious (and becomes even more serious as it begins to explore issues related to the death penalty), Tommy’s in-prison experience brings a few laughs at first. He practically has a breakdown when he realizes he won’t be wearing tailored clothes!
Tommy doesn’t seem to have realized what he was getting himself into by getting arrested. He’s cocky, and expecting to have an easy time of it. “Once I’m in the joint, I’ll own the place,” he promises. And if he doesn’t like the joint? “I’ll move out!” Even as he arrives at Sing Sing, he’s cracking jokes and checking his reflection in a pocket mirror. What a character.
A different side is shown to Garfield’s over-confident tough guy character in his relationship with Kay, portrayed wonderfully by Ann Sheridan. Kay was always afraid he’d end up in jail, and her worst fears are realized when he’s sentenced to five to 30 years. She remains loyal and in love with him through it all.
The genuine adoration between them is interesting. In their interactions, Garfield brings sensitive and protective dimensions to his character. Where you’d expect he might just cycle through a never-ending Rolodex of girlfriends, Tommy’s relationship with Kay is actually quite sweet. (I enjoyed this relationship when it starred Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis, too.)
Tommy’s heart also grows outside of his relationship by the end of the film, as he sacrifices his own freedom to save several others.
With all of its touches of humor and romance, the film offers some very effective tension and drama, becoming more gripping as it moves along. By the end, it even becomes a bit of a tear-jerker, in which Tommy seems to accept his fate, but there’s plenty of sorrow left in his wake — especially for Kay and the warden (portrayed by Pat O’Brien).
Castle on the Hudson is definitely worth a watch. Fine performances from everyone involved bring this crime tale to life with laughs, swoons, and edge-of-the-seat moments. Recommended!