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  On the Yard Forgotten Men
Year: 1978
Director: Raphael D. Silver
Stars: John Heard, Thomas G. Waites, Mike Kellin, Richard Bright, Joe Grifasi, Lane Smith, Richard Hayes, Hector Troy, Richard Jamieson, Thomas Toner, Ron Faber, David Clennon, Don Blakely, J.C. Quinn, Eddie Jones, Ben Slack, James Remar, Dave McCalley
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Chilly (Thomas G. Waites) is the man to go to in this Pennsylvania prison if you want goods on the black market, usually cigarettes or confectionery, and if you don't pay him back somehow then he will find a way to get his recompense, often through threats or even violence. He is doing very well for himself while incarcerated with a bunch of other hardened criminals, his right hand man Red (Mike Kellin) who has been there longer than most, and willing to bribe both guards and inmates to make sure he gets his way. One of the officials, Captain Blake (Lane Smith) wants to take Chilly down to prevent his illegal activity going any further but cannot think of how: then Juleson (John Heard) arrives...

Of all the prison dramas, possibly the most admired is the Stephen King adaptation The Shawshank Redemption, but if you went back a few years, even before King penned the source novella, there was a small independent movie called On the Yard which certainly Frank Darabont's version of the story bore quite some resemblance to. It was not entirely caught up in the escape plot, though that was certainly a major part of how it wrapped things up, but this was less an inspirational tale than more a gritty acknowledgement that there really were no happy endings in prison, it was a sad ending in itself for many, either by their bad choices or circumstances dictating that there was no other place they would have been headed.

So there's no sentimentalising the prisoners' lives in this case, drawn from the novel by real-life jailbird Malcolm Braly who also concocted the script, but there was a sympathy if not entirely a forgiveness to the tone, with some more victims than others, but all victims of a society that allows the crimes to occur in the first place. Well, not so much allows than contrives for them to happen; there were no easy answers to how to prevent that, but there was a move to more compassion towards the prisoners, culminating in Chilly's switch in position from cock of the walk, generating profit from other's misfortune, to one of those who is exploited and abused over the course of the plot, unexpectedly growing more likeable the further he slips along the downward spiral.

Although John Heard was top billed and for a while looks to be the main character, Braly was not going to be so predictable and it was Waites who was the true lead, making his big screen debut and suggesting his movie career should have been more productive than the string of supporting roles he received hereafter, though at least he was an invaluable addition to the cast of The Thing four years later. He was probably more comfortable as a theatre actor where he thrived, but for those who caught him in On the Yard he would be one of those faces they would recognise in his smaller roles and think, as with many performers who don't attain stardom but work steadily, hey, it's that guy! Backing him was a more seasoned "that guy" actor in Mike Kellin, himself an advocate of prisoners' rights.

Kellin actually gets the most poignant arc to play as we see him as the tough guy on the yard (the enclosed area where those prisoners not employed stand around uselessly) but when his parole appeal comes up we understand he is a rather pathetic soul who has been inside for so long that there's no way he could adjust to the oustside world he dearly wishes to be part of once again. Yet not everyone is as sympathetic, with Stick (Richard Hayes) a bona fide psychopath no community would benefit from, so he is better off where he is behind bars, where they don't benefit from him either. All the characters were well drawn, some with just one scene, but with enough for the actors to get something out of: it was a true performer's piece rather than a director's, though Raphael D. Silver (his director wife Joan Micklin Silver produced) attained a consistency of tone with just the right note of misery and realism. Well, that was until we got to the escape attempt which was straight out of Charlie Bubbles, though even that had a clear eyed resolution. Music by Charles Gross.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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