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Cell 2455 Death Row (1955) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

chessman film whit life

Principal social theme: capital punishment

Columbia. No MPAA rating. Featuring: William Campbell, Vince Edwards, Marian Carr, Robert Campbell, Kathryn Grant, Harvey Stephens, Allen Nourse, Diane DeLaire, Paul Dubov, Tyler MacDuff, Eleanor Audley, Buck Kartlian, Bart Braverman, Howard Wright, Joe Forte, Jonathan Haze, John Zaremba. Written by Jack DeWitt based on the book Cell 2455 Death Row by Caryl Chessman. Cinematography by Fred Jackman Jr. Edited by Henry Batista. Produced by Wallace MacDonald. Directed by Fred F. Sears. B&W. 77 minutes.


Caryl Chessman was a small-time criminal who was convicted in 1948 as the notorious “Red Light Bandit.” He was sentenced to death under a loophole of the law that allowed capital punishment in robberies involving instances of personal assault. Serving as his own lawyer, Chessman pleaded his case and wrote a series of appeals. In 1954, he published a book, Cell 2455 Death Row , which told of his life and his battle to overcome the death penalty. In 1955, Columbia made a film based on Chessman’s memoirs. Chessman continued his lengthy legal battle for many years, winning stays of execution at the last minute. On May 2, 1960, however, he exhausted all possible legal maneuvers, and the death penalty was finally carried out. At the time, Chessman set the record for the longest wait on death row, eleven years and ten months.


The Columbia film opens at San Quentin prison on the evening of July 29, 1954, where a prisoner is awaiting execution in the gas chamber. The warden visits the man, known only as “Whittier” or “Whit” and offers him any reasonable last request, but the man has none. He chooses to wait in his cell and review the course of the life that had brought him to his present state. A series of flashbacks reviews Whit’s life. His parents moved to California when he was a young boy, and soon his father was able to afford his first automobile. A car accident, however, crippled his mother and threw the family into poverty. In an effort to help, Whit began to shoplift and steal food. He soon fell in with a bad crowd, and after stealing a car, he was placed in reform school. Whit rebelled against authority, and his years in the reformatory were hard. By the time he was released, Whit had become a hardened criminal, committing a series of armed robberies and earning a sentence in San Quentin. He decides to become a model prisoner and is transferred to a work farm, from which he escapes. Returning to a life of crime, Whit is soon picked up again, drawing a stiffer sentence at Folsom Prison. When he is released, Whit is no wiser and again returns to his criminal ways. The next time he is arrested, however, he is accused of being the Red Light Bandit, the perpetrator of a series of brutal thefts. Whit thinks he can beat the rap because his physical appearance differs markedly from the eyewitness descriptions of the Red Light Bandit. While in the custody of the sheriff, he is informed that his mother has died and he is allowed to attend her wake. His lawyer drops his case, however, and rather than rely on the public defender, he attempts to represent himself. Whit is convicted and sentenced to the gas chamber due to the application of a legal technicality. While on death row, Whit studies the law to handle the appeal process. Through brilliant legal maneuvers, he manages to postpone his execution for six years. He even publishes his autobiography, Cell 2455 Death Row , which becomes a best seller. But his battle seems at an end in July 1954, and the flashbacks conclude. As he prepares for his trip to the gas chamber, the warden appears and tells him that he has been granted a last-minute stay. The film ends as Whit begins work on another legal brief, resuming his battle against capital punishment.


Although the character in this film is never identified as Caryl Chessman, the situation is made clearer if one realizes that Whittier is Chessman’s middle name. William Campbell delivers a serious, low-key performance as the condemned man, making him more sympathetic than the real-life Chessman, who was far more arrogant and cocky than Campbell’s depiction. In the film, Whit is clearly not the Red Light Bandit, but in real life the issue is still hotly debated. In any case, Chessman was condemned to death not for murder but for robbery, and the issue of the justness of this sentence is paramount. Undoubtedly, if Chessman was not such an unsavory character with such a tarnished record, the death penalty would never have been applied. The script treats the issue of capital punishment with ambivalence, trying to avoid the critical interpretation that the film is too soft on crime. The dramatic highlight of the film is Chessman’s self-examination, at which point he finally condemns himself not for being the Red Light Bandit but for being addicted to deceit: “I know now what brings a man to death row. Not society, not heredity, not environment, only the man himself. I alone am to blame.” An analysis of this statement would make a worthwhile thesis. Another element of the film worth studying is how a man may change while imprisoned. Campbell portrays Chessman as a changed man, altered not only by his ordeal but by the education he attains while writing and studying law. His statement to the warden that he is now more valuable to society “alive rather than dead” is one of the most poignant moments in the film, and this is another aspect worth investigating. On the whole, Cell 2455 Death Row is a laudable B film, certainly mixed with some elements from exploitation films, but nevertheless a serious study. Chessman is well played by William Campbell, an actor best remembered for two colorful guest appearances on Star Trek in the episodes “The Squire of Gothos” and “The Trouble with Tribbles.” Campbell’s younger brother plays the teenage Chessman, and Bart Braverman (billed as Bart Bradley) plays Chessman as a child. Braverman is best remembered as Binzer from VEGA$. Later, the story of Chessman was retold in a 1977 telefilm, Kill Me While You Can , featuring a miscast Alan Alda in the title role.

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