Based on the play by Miguel Pinero, Short Eyes, directed by Robert M. Young in 1977 is a grim look at life in ‘The Tombs' (The Manhattan Detention Complex, or The Manhattan Detention Center if you prefer, a prison in the lower part of the city widely considered at the time to be New York City's worst jail). The play that the film was based on was inspired by Pinero's own time behind bars and it holds the distinction of being the first play written by a Puerto Rican to ever be turned into a Broadway production.
The prison is a racially tense place, a lot of the men locked up inside are there because they didn't have the money to throw bail, they're just sort of stock there in limbo watching the clock go by. It is, understandably, quite unpleasant with some serious segregation issues going on between the whites and the blacks and the Latinos and while you'd think that the guards inside would keep the peace, they're not at all above allowing the inmates to solve their problems on their own and with violence. Here we meet a varied cast of characters, tough guys like Ice (Nathan George), the effeminate Cupcakes (Tito Goya), an unstable guy named Paco (Shawn Elliot) who is prone to violence, a militant Muslim named El Raheen (Don Blakely) and the thinker of the bunch, a smart guy named Juan (Jose Perez).
This place changes one day when Clark Davis (Bruce Davison) wanders in. This newest addition to the inmate population is meek, mild, well-mannered and fairly quiet. A prisoner named Longshoe (Joseph Carberry) knows this guy is going to need some help lest he be eaten alive and so he explains to him the way that things work inside. This is all well and good until word gets out that Clark is in prison because he stands accused of molesting a kid. He's a ‘short eye,' prison slang for someone accused of such a crime and once word gets out, Clark learns the hard way that he's quite literally considered by the rest of the prison population as a bottom feeder, the lowest of the low. And he's treated accordingly.
This isn't a film that really takes side. Clark's ‘problem' is treated very matter-of-factly, highlighted by a scene in which he opens up to Juan about his penchant for little girls. His fellow inmate is understandably repulsed by the confession and confused by its timing. Clark will win no friends here, these men are criminals, yes, but they operate on a code and that code doesn't abide what Clark is doing time for. The other men are not without their problems, of course, but so much of what happens, particularly in the latter part of the picture, revolves around Clark that in many ways his very presence is a catalyst for turmoil.
Shot almost entirely in just a few rooms inside the actual prison itself, the movie has a grim, gritty and unclean feel to it. This is fitting, in that glimpses of hope are fleeting and few, one exception being a fairly infamous scene in which two black inmates (Freddy Fender and Curtis Mayfield, who also provides the soundtrack work for the picture and it is excellent) break into song seemingly at random. Here the inmates show genuine happiness, they appreciate the music. Of course, it doesn't last. All of this is delivered by a talented cast of naturals. Everyone here fits, they feel like they belong and they play their characters with the utmost seriousness and realism. Pinero's scripted dialogue has an impressively natural flow to it, at times it feels improvised but it doesn't seem like it was given how it flows and how it finds a rhythm all its own. Short Eyes isn't an easy film to enjoy, it's quite uncomfortable at times and it deals in decidedly dark material, but so too is it challenging, intelligent and incredibly well made.
Short Eyes arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.85.1 widescreen. This is a pretty gritty looking film, by all rights it should be, and that look is maintained on this Blu-ray, but at the same time, the natural looking film grain doesn't hide the improved detail offered by the enhanced resolution. Color reproduction looks pretty spot on, this isn't a particularly colorful film as it takes place pretty much entirely behind prison walls, but there are moments where occasionally used primaries pop nicely. Skin tones look lifelike and natural and there are no obvious instances of heavy noise reduction or edge enhancement to note. Some small white specks pop up here and there if you look for them but outside of that the image is pretty clean and free of any serious print damage.
The only audio option provided on the Blu-ray is an English language DTS-HD Mono mix, there are no alternate language options or subtitles provided. While this isn't the most engaging lossless mix you're ever likely to hear, it suits the movie well enough. Some of the dialogue is a little on the thin side but it sounds pretty natural. There's a bit of echo here that takes a little getting used to but this only serves to add to the realism that the film would seem to capture so well and sounds more like location based or environmental issues than any actual issue. So yeah, this works and it works reasonably well. The dialogue is clear and easy to understand and the levels are balanced properly. No hiss or distortion issues to note. The background noise that stems from the prison itself is frequently quite unnerving.
Extras start off with a commentary track from director Robert M. Young and Leon Ischaso (the man behind a film based on Pinero's life) that originally appeared on the now out of print DVD edition released by Wellspring a decade ago. This is a solid talk with Young having quite a bit to say about the shoot, particularly in regards to the locations and the various players who appear in front of the camera. The two discuss the themes that are used throughout the movie and the effectiveness of certain scenes, share some thoughts on the source material and quite a bit more. It's a very good, informative dissection of the film that also doubles as an interesting history lesson.
The disc also includes a new interview with star Bruce Davison and director Young. Davison talks for approximately forty minutes not only about his work on this picture but about his career in general. He shares some stories about his fellow cast members, the location shooting and his thoughts on the picture and the subject matter. Young talks for twenty-one minutes and covers some of the same ground as he does in the commentary but he offers up some additional insight here into his creative process, what it was like adapting the play into a film and what it was like working with his various collaborators on the picture. Outside of that, look for menus and chapter selection.
Short Eyes is, quite understandably, a bit stagy but the talented ensemble cast and efficient direction from Young really help to bring Pinero's morality play to life in fascinating ways. This isn't a pleasant film or a feel good picture at all, but it is both challenging and thought provoking and quite an interesting low budget achievement. Scorpion's Blu-ray release carries over the commentary from the last release and throws in some new interviews as well. On top of that it offers pretty strong upgrades over that past DVD release. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.