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PLACE YOURSELF in the position of entering a penitentiary for the first time in your life, if only for the sake of playing a mind-game. The initial minutes would be the most intimidating, as you took in the scenery that greets every new in-mate upon arrival. The stacked rows upon rows of cells stretching up to the roof, the paint on the cell bars chipping away to expose the constraining iron underneath, the echoing cacophony of voices rebounding against the unadorned walls of the block. The mere sights and sounds of the prison would be sufficient to inject a generous dose of raw terror into even the most jaded newcomers. The foregoing, needless to say, has only served as a fitting warm-up for the assorted misfits and ne'er-do-wells who populate the inside world of those paying back the proverbial debt to society.
Robert M. Young's film Short Eyes brings this nightmare to the screen by tracing the inevitable destruction of the title character in a New York state penitentiary. Filmed entirely in the Manhattan House of Detention, Short Eyes bears all the earmarks of the sleeper movie: a no-name cast that includes professional actors as well as ex-cons, an obviously low budget and an obscure distribution company, the Film League. This film probably would have received more attention eight years ago, when the smashing success of sleepers like Easy Rider and Joe aroused serious doubts as to the future of the big budget, big studio-backed movie. Such doubts have long since faded away as the motion picture industry has reverted to its conventional production methods, and work like Short Eyes must once again swim upstream to gain widespread attention. A sleeper must now feature something special to succeed, and Young's new film regrettably comes up short in enough areas to safely predict it will not make much of a dent in the industry, artistically or financially.
The narrative starts off on a conventional note. The camera follows a prison guard into the inner confines of the penitentiary, enabling Young to run through a quick introduction of the various inmates around whom the plot centers. Miguel Pinero fills his script with the street-wise argot of Harlem and the South Bronx that gives the dialogue an authentic ring. The effective color and accuracy of the ghetto-flavored jive should hardly come as a surprise; Pinero owes this ability to evoke a particular brand of slang to his own experience as an inmate at Sing Sing Prison. The crisp repartee that dominates the opening moments of Short Eyes soon becomes a bit much, however, reflecting the actual origins of the work.
The film is based on Pinero's well-received play of the same name that garnered the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award three years ago, and Pinero seems to have made few concessions to the different demands of the film medium in preparing the screenplay. In short, the first 15 minutes of the movie suggest a play that has been filmed rather than one that has been adapted for the screen. The evocation of a prison atmosphere takes priority over the proper development of a suitable movie plot.
The narrative takes a sharp turn after Pinero acquaints the audience with his principals. While the inmates are gathered in the open space on one of the floors in the prison, a new character enters the picture. He strikes an obvious contrast with the hardened thugs who people the prison, given his layered haircut, handsome WASP features and sharp-looking sports suit. Introduced to the assembled inmates as Clark Davis (Bruce Davison), the new prisoner immediately attracts thepaternalistic attention of the leader among the white prisoners, a tough Irish ethnic named Charlie "Longshoe" Murphy (Joseph Carberry). Longshoe willingly takes Davis under his wing, quickly briefing him on the subtleties of dealing with the floor's black and Hispanic prisoners. Clearly in stir for the first time, Davis impresses his guardian as being a greenhorn in need of some protection and guidance, and at least for the time being, there is little need to fear for Davis's fate.
SOON AFTER Longshoe befriends Davis, Mr. Nett (Bob Maroff), the prison guard assigned to Davis's floor, launches into an unexpected harangue of the newcomer. Nett reveals Davis's crime: the clean-cut prisoner is a convicted child rapist. The guard felt prompted to indict Davis before the inmates because a child molester had attacked his daughter. The insertion of this twist in the personality of Davis provides the dramatic device so badly needed in this plot. Longshoe suddenly pulls out of his self-assumed brother's keeper role, planting a well-aimed globule of spit on Davis's face, and he joins the blacks and Hispanics in systematically tormenting Davis. Dubbed "Short Eyes" for his crime, Davis swiftly sinks to the status of an outcast among society's outcasts; his fate now effectively sealed, you only await the execution of the witchhunt ritual against him.
The ostracizing of Short Eyes functions as a prelude to the crux of Pinero's work, the examination of the peculiar brand of morality that governs the behavior of inmates. Pinero is making a critical argument. Even the most incorrigible criminals in our society do draw the line at some point; the dehumanizing effects of incarceration do not completely erase some sense of what is right and what is wrong, however loose the criteria may be. In no one is Pinero's point better epitomized than in Juan (Jose Perez), a stocky Puerto Rican who stands alone as the only inmate to rise to Short Eye's defense before the other prisoners and to lend him an ear, if admittedly not the most sympathetic one. The fact that Juan and the other prisoners strongly react to Short Eyes dramatizes Pinero's theme, even if the prisoners take diametrically opposed views of him. Where sheer indifference may have been expected, naked emotion flows.
ONE MAJOR SHORTCOMING keeps the film from being an artistic triumph: Like the initial works of most gifted writers, Pinero's script has the mark of a genuine talent that needs polish. Though the morality parable in the film points to a considerable amount of insight and sensitivity, the motifs are at times carried out in a clumsy fashion. Short Eyes's mea culpa about his perverse affinity for young girls is riddled with cliches, and Davison's acting in the title role approaches the pedestrian throughout the narrative, making the character look like just another wimp with a kinky habit.
The scene portraying the murder of Short Eyes receives some careless treatment; Young stands guilty here for demonstrating precious little restraint in depicting the grisly slashing of Short Eyes's neck. And the film concludes by simply reversing the direction taken by the camera at the outset of the movie, this time following a young Puerto Rican out of the prison amidst jeers from his abandoned lovers in the penitentiary. Crafted for a theater's stage, Short Eyes as a movie remains a gut-wrenching work to watch, and despite its flaws, the promise shown by Pinero's script should make moviegoers think twice before passing up the film.
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