Tuesday, September 18, 2012

DVR Diary: CONVICTS 4 (Reprieve, 1962)

Terrified by a teddy bear wielded by an irate shopkeeper, distraught dad John Resko (Ben Gazzarra), who only wanted to steal a toy for his daughter's Depression Christmas, shoots down the entrepreneur and is sentenced to death. Millard Kaufman's film opens with Resko being prepared for execution, though any suspense is spoiled by the opening-credits acknowledgment that the picture is based on Resko's own memoir. Resko has to shower with four guards watching him and one taunting him for not committing suicide. He has to have one more meeting with his family and see his father talk distantly about atoning for his son's crime by saving someone else's life someday. He gets a last meal and ice cream for his last dessert. Warned that he won't have time to eat it all, he has the guards melt it so he can guzzle it down, sharing some with the most sympathetic guard (Stuart Whitman). With seconds to spare, Resko's sentence is commuted in life in prison and he's transferred from Sing Sing to Dannemora, where Whitman's guard is going also.

Imprisonment is a hallucinatory experience for our hero. He seems to encounter mirages. Was that Rod Steiger introducing himself as a tough head guard in a big speech? We never see him again, and we only know that the character has been referred to later because we saw the character's name -- "Tiptoes " -- under the actor's in the credits. And was that Broderick Crawford as the warden? He has one scene with Gazzara and Whitman and then he's gone. Things are happening that we don't see. After Resko's first cellmate (Ray Walston) tries to kill him for taking a bunk reserved for his years-in-the-making model bridge, the new fish is locked up with Wino (Sammy Davis Jr.), a self-described "walking razor blade" who demands "tribute" from Resko but gets a shoe in the face instead. Sometime later, and offscreen, Resko teaches Wino to read (the only reading matter allowed, alas, is the Bible) and the punk is a reformed, clean-shaven man by the time he leaves. Resko himself proves a harder case. Whitman wants him to channel his feelings into art, having noticed some promising sketches at Sing Sing, but Resko simply wants out. He uses the prison art school as a ploy, telling the cons he can create colored paint for them by boiling their old socks. He does that but also recycles the socks into rope so he can scale the prison wall. Unfortunately, the wall gives way on him and he goes to solitary with a busted arm. Later, he and Iggy (his old enemy Walston) scheme to dig their way out from under the prison, but Whitman figures them out when his keys clank hollowly against the tunnel entrance. That earns Resko four months in isolation, and here he finds his muse at last. With nothing else to do, he uses the heels of his shoes to decorate the walls with crazed art illustrating his self-pitiful life story. The revelation of his work is probably the film's most impressive scene, suggesting a man poised between realizing true potential and simply going mad. But Resko has reached the point where art has become an end unto itself; it matters more than freedom, now. But as Whitman, now the warden, hoped all along, art is Resko's one true escape route. By chance, his work catches the attention of an influential art critic who accompanies the prison commissioner on a tour of the joint. The critic (Vincent Prince in a one-scene cameo playing off his real-life rep as an art connoisseur) is impressed and soon Resko is being hung (he resents the pun) in museums all over New York. His new fame inspires petition campaigns for Resko's early release, the signers including the survivors of his victim the shopkeeper. By now, however, Resko seems little interested in freedom. He fulfills himself with art where he is, and he's still worried about what his daughter, now grown and a mother herself, will think of him....

It's a good guess that Allied Artists hoped to steal some of the thunder from the bigger-budgeted, higher-profile Birdman of Alcatraz with this likewise based-on-fact prison picture. The fact that we know the picture by its second title suggests that all didn't go as planned. It opened in the spring of 1962 as Reprieve, the title of Resko's memoir, but by September it was opening in markets missed the first time around as Convicts 4, a title that, so help me, seems inspired by the popularity of Sammy Davis's previous picture, the Rat Pack western Sergeants 3. One look at the advertising, however, tells you that the new title makes no sense whatsoever. Of the four characters portrayed as the leads, two (Whitman and Steiger) are actually prison guards and Davis leaves the picture before it's halfway over. The second most prominent convict is Ray Walston's Iggy, initially portrayed as a near-psycho but ultimately a comedy-relief idiot, who while not pictured in the ad actually has third billing in the credits. Counting Davis as "Convict 3" the likely candidates for "Convict 4" are teeth-clenching Timothy Carey as a friendly prison fixer and Jack "the Man" Albertson as the prison art instructor. At no time in the picture do any more than Gazzara and Walston act as a team. Gazzara, with help from Whitman, barely manages to hold the film together as a tormented man almost too smart for his own good with no way at first to express himself. But while the film is always attractive to watch, for a prison flick, thanks to Joseph Biroc's black-and-white cinematography, Kaufman's sole effort as a director -- he had written everything from the first Mr. Magoo short to Bad Day at Black Rock to The Klansman -- is an almost hopeless hodgepodge of star cameos and setups that go nowhere. The studio clearly had a hard time keeping track of the convicts, but definitely had too many stars in the mix. Resko's story and Gazzara's performance deserved better.

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