Gritty prison stories, like those found on HBO's Oz are relatively common these days. 1977's Short Eyes, however, comes with a degree of authenticity and a raw, almost animalistic urgency that's tough to match. Brilliantly written by doomed playwright Miguel Pinero and directed by Robert Young, the film is a graphic, detailed portrayal of the Tombs, a notorious Manhattan jail that acts basically as a purgatory: The pathetic souls in there simply couldn't make bail and they rot endlessly while still waiting for a trial. Pinero's script breaks the jail population down by racial lines: The blacks, Latinos and whites eye each other cautiously and interact like they're always ready to spar. The guards sanction fighting as a way for prisoners to solve problems amongst themselves. Weapons like shanks and razor blades are sold for cigarettes. It's a vicious place.
But it's a place with some sort of code. Prisoners from various groups seem to have a sense of place and while tensions may run high and testosterone levels may rage, usually tempers are kept in check for the greater good of the cell block. There are even tender moments, like an impromptu performance by a couple of inmates (who happen to be played by Grammy winning singer Freddy Fender and soul legend Curtis Mayfield) that becomes a transcendent use of music to quell a tense situation. The danger is never far from the surface but there is order.
And into this mix comes a new prisoner named Clark. A well-dressed white prisoner, Clark is immediately approached by Longshoe, who breaks the whole system down for his fellow Caucasian. It's a powerful monolog for how well it articulates the entire jail social system and it's indicative of the kind of poetic language Pinero uses to orchestrate the entire picture.
But what Longshoe doesn't know until a guard abruptly informs everyone is that Clark is a "short eye," or a child molester. The guard offers up another powerful monolog, informing Clark of just how low on the totem pole of life he considers him. This is tough stuff and the film doesn't sugar coat any of it. Immediately Clark is ostracized from the rest of the inmates, who hold child molesters separate. (Think of the rationale that Jeffrey Dahmer's prison killer used; that the serial killer was a twisted insult to regular murderers.) It becomes quickly clear that Clark is in danger. Juan, a more introspective soul, reaches out to him and asks him if he'd like to explain himself as a way of alleviating some of the pressure, a sort of jail house confession. The viewer likely expects Clark to play the victim. Afterall, he's the most mild-mannered white-collar type guy in the film. Instead, however, Clark unleashes a fountain of sickness, dating his obsession with young girls back to his teenage years in yet another memorable monolog, this time shocking in its honesty and explicitness. Juan is revolted, not understanding why this man took his outstretched hand as an opportunity to dump perversion all over him.
Pinero and Young's characters are all deep and complex. The film doesn't traffic in simple stereotypes, although it's easy to see how stereotypes can spring out of these extreme characters. Each character is a rich mix of contradictory elements, never dumbed down or softened to be made more "sympathetic" but not turned into simple villains either. Every performance in the main cast is outstanding, from Nathan George's authoritative Ice and Joseph Carberry's chilly Longshoe to Tito Goya's insecure Cupcakes and Shawn Elliot's dangerous but emotionally vulnerable Paco. Bruce Davison is both heartbreaking and disgusting as Clark and Jose Perez is challenging and magnetic as the philosophical but still grounded Juan.
There are no individual stand-outs in such a strong group and each actor has a chance to shine but one moment, not even necessarily key to the film's main plot, that sticks in the mind is Don Blakely's monolog early in the film as the black Muslim El Raheen. This is just one of a series of important speeches in the film, each one filling out the portrait of this time an place with a gritty street poetry that reminds the viewer of the mastery of Pinero's script. The monolog begins with the memorable lines: "Yakoo! Maker and creator of the devil. Swine merchant, your time is near at hand. Fuck with me and your time will be now. Your presence here affects the mind of my people like a fever. You Yakoo are the bearer of Nine thousand Nine hundred and Ninety Nine diseases, evil, corrupt pork chop eating atrocities..." And it goes on from there. With Blakely's passionate delivery these words are mysterious and ugly and beautiful. It's like this strange, grim film. Difficult to watch at times but utterly real and completely engrossing.
Filmographies for the director and cast are included, as are trailers for Ran, Russian Ark and Pola X as well as weblinks to some interviews.