There are scores of wonderful old films deserving of theatrical re-release. Robert M. Young’s 1977 turgid prison drama “Short Eyes” is not one of them, but strangely enough this long-unseen work has been fished out of oblivion and plastered back on the big screen.
“Short Eyes” takes place in the old Manhattan House of Detention, commonly known as “The Tombs.” The environment is one of controlled hostility and occasional violence, with the prison population divided along racial lines and the corrupt correctional officers trying to maintain order without working too hard. Into this mix comes a white middle-class man recently convicted of child molestation, which in the prison world is considered the lowest possible crime imaginable. Needless to say, having a pedophile white man as a neighbor creates a new wave of tensions for the prisoners.
“Short Eyes” strives for realism and the film was actually shot in The Tombs with many former convicts in supporting roles. Unfortunately, the ex-cons are so listless on-screen that they appear as threatening and tough as the Sweathogs from “Welcome Back, Kotter.” Furthermore, the attempt at realism is shattered with musical cameo appearances by Freddie Fender and Curtis Mayfield (the latter having also written the film’s score, which is the only aspect of the production that most people care to remember).
“Short Eyes” was originally staged as an Off-Broadway play written by Miguel Piñero and its theatrical roots show: characters stand in stationery poses and sermonize at each other in melodramatic flights of overcooked prose. Nobody actually has a real conversation here. As a screenwriter, Piñero had a tin ear for dialogue and at no time does anything in “Short Eyes” sound close to how people genuinely speak to each other. The film is also littered with racial epithets and scatological language, which gets very tired too quickly (this blue streak of verbiage certainly helped drive the film into obscurity by keeping it off television for many years).
Piñero was among the ensemble here, but he makes no impression as an actor. Bruce Davison is the nominal star as the convicted pedophile, who is known in prison palaver as the Short Eyes. This was among his first starring roles and the only thing that can be said here is at least he went on to bigger and better things. The under-appreciated character actor Jose Perez is also here, but his character has so little to do that wasting him on-screen is almost felonious.
Fans of prison flicks would do better to catch the HBO series “Oz” or the five millionth rebroadcast of “The Shawshank Redemption.” Cineastes in search of great films being re-released in theaters will have to wait a little longer until something better comes by.