Peter Lorre was unhappy with his career since coming to work for 20th Century Fox. After working with filmmakers like Fritz Lang (M), Alfred Hitchcock (The Man ho Knew Too Much, Secret Agent) and Josef Von Sternberg (Crime and Punishment), Fox Studio, basically reduced Lorre to B films. Of those low-budget films, most were part of the Mr. Moto series where Lorre played another version of Charlie Chan. Instead of Chinese, Mr. Moto was Japanese. Like Chan, Moto started his life in print (Saturday Evening Post, novels) and would expand to movies, radio, comic books and most recently in a 2003 graphic novel. With the advent of World War II, the Moto films became persona non grata. Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation, released in July of 1939, turned into a permanent vacation for the series. It was the last Moto film released by Fox.
It was also the last film Lorre made for Fox under his contract. He began to freelance hoping he would get better opportunities. He signed on with Columbia to make a film originally called, Dead Man’ Isle. The title would be changed to Island of Doomed Men.
Except for Peter Lorre’s creepy, unhinged performance, he excels at playing creepy characters, there is really nothing that works in this low-budget Columbia programmer. Lorre is a white slaver who operates his own personal penal colony on his private island in the Pacific where he somehow is allowed to take paroled prisoners and turn them into his own personal slaves for life. Robert Wilcox, works for the Dept. of Justice, quickly gets himself, practically his first day on the job, falsely arrested for murdering his new partner. Sentenced to prison, Wilcox is eventually paroled, thanks to Lorre, and sent to the island of doom. On the island, along with an assortment of prisoners is Lorre’s wife, portrayed by Rochelle Hudson, who is really a prisoner there herself subject to Lorre’s whims. Needless to say, Lorre meets his demise and Wilcox and Hudson get off the island.
Lorre is quite disturbing in the role as Stephen Danel. Danel is a sadistic man who enjoys watching his prisoners being tortured. When he gets back to his secured private home, he soothes his tortured soul by listening to classical music like Chopin. He loves his wife, in fact he’s possessive about her. However, she is just as much a prisoner on the island as the “paroled” men. Lorre’s Danel is a man of opposite emotions: cruel vs. tender, sadistic vs. sensitive. He walks on an edge between being a hateful individual, yet manages to be a tragic, if unsympathetic, figure.
Rochelle Hudson, who is probably best remembered as the girl in William Wellman’s Wild Boys of the Road and who later married Wellman, is just out-and-out terrible. The rest of the cast, which includes character actors like Don Beddoe and George E. Stone, act and look like they just rather be somewhere…anywhere else.
The script, written by Robert Hardy Andrews, is completely unbelievable. Realism was left in the closet at home when he came to work. The filmmakers were also very sloppy. For example, early in the film when Robert Wilcox signs up for the assignment to uncover Lorre’s private world, he knocks on the office door of his superior at the Dept. of Justice. The door is plain and the name is clearly printed on it. When his superior opens the door and let’s him into his office, the plain door turned into a door with molding on it. A minor thing, but sloppy.
The film was directed by Charles Barton who spent years making low-budget films for Columbia. After leaving that studio, he moved over to Universal where he became best known for making a series of Abbott and Costello movies; some of the boys best (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, The Time of Their Lives) and their worst (Dance With Me, Henry).
Fortunately, for viewers, Island of Doomed Men is less than 70 minutes long and the suffering ends rather quickly. Fortunately, for Peter Lorre, films like The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca were not too far into his future.