1977, 100 Min. / Directed By Robert Young / Lightning Video / NTSC VHS / 1.33:1 / Mono
The feature film Short Eyes began as a play written by ex-convict Miguel Piñero about his experiences inside New York's notorious Tombs prison, appropriately named given the establishment's imposing stone profile. Noted musician Curtis Mayfield assisted financially in developing the work into a motion picture which failed in it's initial run but remains a testament to Piñero's creativity and the horrible conditions under which this drama took place. Much of Short Eyes is made obscure both through the author's use of slang combined with the murky audio/visual quality of the very old Magnetic Video VHS Release, a dinosaur of a video transfer. The plot of the film is a hard to grasp entity since it's often as uneven as the prison experience; the inhabitants of the "Tombs" carry on their daily social/class/minority wars as usual until a new prisoner, Clark (Bruce Davison), is exposed by a prison guard as being a child molester or "Short Eyes," to quote the eccentric language of the other inmates. Clark soon confronts the morality of prison, where such atrocities as murder and forced rape are common but a special punishment is dealt to those in Clark's position.
Mayfield's cameo role and opening/closing theme song along with a brief acapella performance by Tex-Mex's Freddy Fender appear to be calculated financial choices given the success enjoyed by Superfly, but fortunately Mayfield's style and catchy pieces of urban poetry don't really detract from the mood of the film. Curtis's popularity was already on the decline by this time and ultimately Short Eyes sank into immediate obscurity and its soundtrack tanked, bringing down Mayfield's own "Curtom Productions" which produced both the film and LP. Along with Mayfield's strong presence in the movie, Bruce Davison finally casts aside the remains of his Willard persona in his role as a confused, drugged-up sexual offender lost in the strange world of the Tombs. José Pérez shares the spotlight with Davison as Juan, Clark's "mother confessor" to whom the pours his heart out in a heartwrenching monologue dealing with Clark's first underage sexual experiences. Rounding out the cast are a motley assortment of ex-convicts (Piñero even takes a small role) along with weirdo character actors like Joseph Carberry, who would later play a thug on the right side of justice in William Lustig's Vigilante. Short Eyes was directed by Robert Young, a socially-conscious director whose controversial independent film The Ballad of Gregorio Marquez launched the career of Edward James Olmos.
Whereas most prison films are either veiled exploitation pieces or very pointed critisms of politcal or social corruption, the message which radiates from violent world of Short Eyes is surprisingly peaceful and sympathetic though it preaches no strong lesson. In Piñero's world the incarcerated life simply "is."Friendship, turmoil and a very unusual code of conduct are just another part of daily survival. Despite the lack of a substantial narrative contrivance it's really the solid characterizations, authentic language and gritty feel which drive this film deeply into one's memory and make it the most naturalistic and thoughtful prison film of its' era.