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  Short Eyes Jesus Save Him, 'cause Man Won't
Year: 1977
Director: Robert M. Young
Stars: Bruce Davison, José Pérez, Nathan George, Don Blakely, Tony DiBenedetto, Shawn Elliott, Tito Goya, Joseph Carberry, Bob Maroff, Keith Davis, Miguel Pinero, Bob O'Connell, Mark Margolis, Richard Matamoros, Curtis Mayfield, Freddy Fender, Luis Guzmán
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: This is a prison for those who cannot meet bail in New York, and another day begins as the guards wake the inmates to prepare them for more long hours stretching ahead of them with nothing to do but intimidate each other. The prisoner everyone calls Cupcakes (Tito Goya) is used to the teasing he gets, because most of his fellows believe him to be the most attractive man in there, but he worries that some may want to take it further. Attention is taken off him when a fight breaks out between black supremacist El Raheem (Don Blakely) and Irish-American Longshoe (Joseph Carberry) - but soon a new arrival will have them all up in arms...

Short Eyes was based on a stage play by Miguel Pinero, an ex-con who had written it as part of his therapy in a prison workshop, and it went on to be very successful for him, eventually turned into this film. He also took a role in it, and although you can tell the material was taken from theatre, as this is very talky and never leaves the confined space of the jail, this actually contributes a sense of stifling claustrophobia. Fairly controversial in its day, both film and play are almost forgotten now, which is a pity because there is a real, raw authenicity to the drama here.

But who is the Short Eyes of the title? He is Clark Davis, played by Bruce Davison, unusual for being one of the few white prisoners amongst the blacks and Hispanics that make up most of the men in there. When Longshoe sees him, he goes over and starts to take him under his wing, but then the bombshell hits: one of the guards goes over and starts haranguing the newcomer, and the truth is revealed. He is there because he has been accused of raping a little girl, and this immediately sets the others against him, so much so that it's all too predictable the way that the tension resolves itself.

There is one inmate who isn't so quick to condemn, and he is Juan (José Pérez), so thinking that you're innocent until proven guilty goes over to Davis in a quiet moment and asks him if he really did it. He quickly regrets this, as the man opens up about his past as a serial sex offender, less than believably in fact as you find it hard to accept that he would be so eager to blab his past history of sexual deviancy to someone he's only just met. Juan is a peace-loving type, but he sees that the longer this man is here, the more likely violence is going to erupt, and also that he won't be able to stop it.

This is not the sole concern of the plot, however, as Cupcakes' tale shares the screen time. The irony doesn't occur to prisoners like Paco (Shawn Elliott) that although he is planning to rape this man, this doesn't make him much better than Davis and he is backed up by others there who would probably do the same given half the chance: when Paco confronts them late on, they are embarrassed into silence, all except Juan, of course. The presence of this child molester is a catalyst for trouble, though, and you're not sure whether you're meant to feel sorry for him for the abuse he is suffering, or despise him for what he has done in the past; most viewers won't have a problem knowing which side of the fence they fall on, and Davison doesn't go out of his way to make his character all that sympathetic, even if there's a final twist that is intended to have you reassess what you've seen. Short Eyes is a tough film, yet oddly non-judgmental and you have to admire its uncompromising qualities - the cast are more than capable. Music by Curtis Mayfield, who also appears (but who would put Curtis in prison?!).
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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