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May 01, 2009

Convicts 4

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Millard Kaufman - 1962
Warner Archives Collection DVD

"The coffee's so strong a mouse can dance on it." I frankly don't give a damn about, "Frankly my dear . . .". "Rosebud" wilts as soon as you realize it's a psychological explanation that really doesn't explain anything. But the words spoken by prisoner Ben Gazzara to prison guard Stuart Whitman evokes an imagined cartoon of Jerry Mouse doing a soft shoe on a cup of joe. Even more hilarious is a few minutes later when Ray Walston sticks his head out of the floor, and realizing that the tunnel he's been digging out of the prison has been discovered, utters, "That's the way the pickle squirts."

Convicts 4 has almost everything you want in a prison movie, imaginatively colorful dialogue, a jazzy film score, and idiosyncratic characters. Most of the film was shot in Folsom Prison where almost everyone seems to be sentenced for criminally over-acting. In addition to Ray Walston yelling, "You lousy, miserable screwwwwww!" to one of the guards, there is also perpetual heavy Timothy Carey as a well connected con. More modulated is Sammy Davis, Jr. as a former stick-up man who's first seen constantly combing is conked hair, the coolest guy in the joint. Even those in charge of prison are guilty, with Rod Steiger mugging for the camera as a top prison guard, while Broderick Crawford bellows his lines from a comfortable chair. Even Vincent Price shows up for all of five minutes as the art expert who discovers Resko's professional potential. As a wag might say, there's enough ham to stock a small deli.

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Most of what Millard Kaufman has to say of real significance is in the first half hour. Based on the autobiography, Reprieve, by John Resko. The opening scene is of Resko's last hours before his execution at the electric chair of Sing Sing prison. As in Bad Day at Black Rock, Kaufman has his heart in the right place with his discussions of capital punishment and treatment of criminals. The rest of the film is about Resko's imprisonment in Dannemore where he eventually finds emotional release in painting, which in turn enabled commuting of his life sentence. Kaufman uses Davis to address racial issues, "Don't call me 'Shine'" being one of the first rules doled out to cellmate Gazzara. Even prison homosexuality is suggested with with the line about, "you two studs falling in love with each other", and a young prisoner complimenting Gazzara's "pretty eyes". The best line in the film actually wasn't written by Kaufman, but by 19th Century French criminologist Jean Lacassagne: "A society gets the criminals it deserves." As usual for this film, Ray Walston gets the best bon mots.

Convicts 4 was the only film directed by Millard Kaufman. The more commercial sounding title never really helped this film, and Kaufman went back to scriptwriting. The cinematography was by Joe Biroc, best known for his work with Robert Aldrich. At one point in the film there is an overhead shot, similar to one of Aldrich's visual signatures. How much credit should go to Biroc and how much to Kaufman is something I can't say for certain, but the film is visually more controlled than the acting. At 31 when he made the film, Gazzara was too mature for the real life Resko, who was 18 when he was imprisoned for the accidental shooting death of a toy store owner. While a flashback indicates that Resko's crime took place on Christmas Eve of 1931, and later signs let the viewer know that the action takes place in the 1940s, there is sense that time has been suspended in prison. Convicts 4 works best in the bulk of the film, taking place within the confines of Sing Sing and Dannemore, where the outside world is sometimes mentioned, or imagined, but never seen. Beyond the specifics of its story, and the entertaining hamminess of the cast, and some howlingly funny dialogue, Convicts 4 still holds up some of its more serious intentions. The film might never be considered a classic, but the issues addressed sadly still remain with us.

In addition to his paintings and autobiography, Resko wrote a teleplay that undoubtedly used some of his personal experiences for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

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Posted by peter at May 1, 2009 12:05 AM

Comments

This looks completely fascinating. It's so great coming across a movie I haven't even HEARD of. That last shot of them both lighting cigarettes, the way they're both hunched down and Davis's cig is SO white ... I love it.

Posted by: Campaspe at May 1, 2009 11:06 PM

The film sounds interesting so I'd like to see it myself. The writing sounds especially entertaining and I love the lines you shared.

Also wanted to mention that I read your Film in Focus interview and really enjoyed it, Peter! Many thanks for the mention. Your blog is one of the first ones I can remember stumbling on that covered Asian cinema and I'm still thankful for you turning me onto the wonderful world of Hong Kong musicals.

Posted by: Kimberly Lindbergs at May 2, 2009 07:55 PM