T. It.: 20.000 Anni a Sing Sing; Sog.: Courtney Terrett, Robert Lord Dal Racconto Dilewis E. Lawes “Twenty Thousand Years In Sing Sing”; Scen.: Wilson Mizner, Brown Holmes; F.: Barney Mcgill; Mo.: George Amy; Scgf.: Anton Grot; Co.: Orry-Kelly; Mu.: Leo F. Forbstein; Int.: Spencer Tracy (Tommy Connors), Bette Davis (Fay Wilson), Arthur Byron (Il Capo Guardiano), Lyle Talbot (Bud Saunders), Warren Hymer (Hype), Louis Calhern (Joe Finn); Prod.: Warner Bros. Pictures; Pri. Pro.: New York, 24 Dicembre 1932; 35mm. D.: 78′. Bn.
Standing at the entrance of a prison is still something of a novelty, perhaps even a memorable moment: but after entering a man becomes just a number. The number in the film’s title refers to the sum of the inmates’ sentenced time. 20,000 Years in Sing Sing is a story of humanity stripped bare in which the theme of anonymity is illustrated with all of Warner’s flashy narrative techniques: with collages, ellipsis, and, obviously – especially when Curtiz and his art director Anton Grot are involved – through the play of tight and shadow. At the time Curtiz and Grot practically mass produced films with charming spontaneity; at the same time every still was individual. For this particular film, taking a cue from its subject, shadows fall from the ceiling like the blade of the guillotine. The famous Curtiz-Grot style reaches perfection with the suicidal drop from the top floors of the corridor, which was made with two images.
The film also measures human brazenness, a miniature of the meanings and ironies of lite, like the warden’s intuition that people outside believe they are “free and equal” whereas it really is only here, in this small corner of the world, where everyone is stripped of their differences and equal. Even the “romantic” side of the movie has many strings to its bow. Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis hardly ever appeared so animated. As with any great melodrama, the element of realism is improbability, which in this film takes on a bitter aftertaste. The favorable conditions of the world and humanity are few: it is a game dominated by violent irony and that can only be lost. Even the Viewer turns into a fatalist and experiences, along with the film’s characters, the alternation between a glimmer of hope and overwhelming pessimism. Like what happens while watching thè hypnotic scene in which Tracy, sentenced to death, obtains permission to leave the prison but promises to come back “even if it means chair to me…”. The few moments of happiness – never anything more – fly by like a fleeting dream. Undoubtedly, Curtiz is only really interested in the mechanism of death. At the core of his universe is the image of the human spirit on its journey toward death, “death row”, the circumstances of a living hell, which perhaps no one else has ever managed to represent with such integrity.
Peter von Bagh