Hell’s House is one of a string of expose films that came out around this time revolving around prison, the most notable (and still astoundingly brilliant) being I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. In this one, Junior Durkin plays a farm kid forced to come to the city when his mother is killed. While there, he gets mixed up with Pat O’Brien and he’s not the friendly priest this time, too bad for Durkin. Instead, he’s a slick-talking con artist who gets Durkin involved in his bootlegging operation. Soon enough, Hell’s House, a juvenile reformatory. Durkin is . . . okay. Pat O’Brien is quite good; it’s an atypical performance of the ones I’ve seen before and he’s surprisingly good as a heel. The film is, of course, really about O’Brien’s dramatic arc. Can this soulless con-artist feel guilt for what he’s done to Durkin and find a way to make it right? Durkin is . . . okay. Pat O’Brien is quite good; it’s an atypical performance of the ones I’ve seen before and he’s surprisingly good as a heel and as the film progresses he’s able to really make you feel his guilt. Bette Davis appears, this being the next film in my little early Davis marathon, as O’Brien’s likable girlfriend/conscience. The film isn’t particularly good or anything. Durkin’s performance isn’t enough to really hold the movie together and, unfortunately for an expose film, the stuff inside the juvenile reformatory isn’t brutal and harsh enough to really resonate, though perhaps this is only because I’m comparing it to the incredibly dark Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Still, the film has moments and it’s interesting to see O’Brien playing a villain, albeit one slowly developing a conscience. But on the whole, this one isn’t worth your time. 2 stars.
tl;dr – expose of juvenile reformatories fails on many levels despite a quite good performance from Pat O’Brien in an atypical role as a smooth-talking gangster. 2 stars.