SAN QUENTIN is a good example of an average Warner Brothers movie from the classic era. It has a socially conscious script concerned about prison conditions, all the right characters in the right places, and even works in a nightclub scene, almost always a prerequisite for any Warners film. Yet it never takes off or establishes itself as a Warners classic. Pat O'Brien was a fine actor but he is too laid back to carry this whole movie. Barton MacLane never gets a chance to be as menacing as he should be, and Ann Sheridan is completely wasted as a nightclub singer. Humphrey Bogart has a near-starring role in the film, but as the new prisoner who wants to go straight, he doesn't show the flashes of what we know he can do. He's good in the role, but only good. He would be better in his next film, DEAD END.
Unlike other prison pictures such as I AM A FUGUTIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG and EACH DAWN I DIE, SAN QUENTIN doesn't get around to showing us how bad a place prison could be. Except for solitary confinement (which is never shown), San Quentin doesn't look all that unpleasant. Thus the story angle of O'Brien being brought in to reform things falls flat.
Nevertheless, because it is a Warners, with those four main players in the cast, SAN QUENTIN is still worth watching. But despite a near-classic ending in which Bogey gets the kind of melodramatic "gangster" sendoff that only Warners could pull off, you may find little reason to return to SAN QUENTIN again. Unless you're a big fan of Ann Sheridan singing "How Could You?". - JB