Color, 1977, 99m.
Directed by Robert M. Young
Starring Bruce Davison, José Pérez, Nathan George, Don Blakely, Shawn Elliott
Scorpion Releasing (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Color, 1977, 99m.
The term "short eye," prison slang for a child molester, entered the lexicon of pop culture in a major way in the mid-1970s thanks to Short Eyes, a successful and acclaimed 1974 Broadway play by the late poet and playwright Miguel Piñero. A convict for armed robbery, the late Piñero wrote this as part of a prison workshop program at Sing Sing and remained creatively active throughout the turbulent remainder of his life. Piñero even appears in the 1977 film version (as Go Go) and was arrested during the shoot, though charges were dropped. Interestingly, he even continued to be an actor after this including a major role in Michael Mann's The Jericho Mile. Today both the play and film remain the most famous example of the decade's hard-hitting look at the prison system, a successor to the brutal Fortune and Men's Eyes and forerunner to TV's famous contribution to the subgenre, Oz.
Our sordid tale takes place at the Tombs, the roughest detention center in New York where one new arrival among the largely Hispanic and African-American inmates is immediately ostracized: Clark (X-Men's Davison), a middle-class sex offender suspected of child molestation. Clark is open about his unhealthy impulses, but his actual guilt in this specific crime remains in question. His crime places him at the bottom of the prison pecking order, but his presence triggers different reactions from the regulars including the one he confides in the most, Juan (Miami Blues' Pérez), who is greatly disturbed by both the new arrival's potential for destruction on the outside and the equally violent possibilities against him within the concrete walls.
Blisteringly well acted and creatively refined to lean efficiency, Short Eyes has aged remarkably well thanks to its avoidance of preachiness, keeping it a couple of notches above the influential but dated real-life counterpart, Scared Straight. Davison already shows major presence here, but everyone is well cast and the crew behind the camera is also up to the task. Especially notable is the score by R&B legend Curtis Mayfield (Superfly), who also appears for a music performance with Freddy Fender.
Short Eyes first debuted on home video on VHS from Vestron and remained a TV staple for years, even turning up in an HD transfer on Showtime several times, Wellspring released a decent DVD in 2003 with one great bonus feature, an audio commentary with director Robert M. Young and Leon Ichaso, who made a biopic about Piñero with Benjamin Bratt. It's a good chat covering the entire history from play to screen, with numerous anecdotes about the author and cast.
In 2014, Scorpion snagged the film for an expanded special edition as both a DVD and a limited-edition Blu-ray, sold through the Kino Lorber site (their distributor) and Diabolik (link above). The transfer appears to originate from the same excellent one prepared for broadcast a few years ago; it's an authentically gritty but very clear, unadulterated presentation that looks exactly like a film of this vintage should. The most interesting new extra is a 40-minute video interview with Davison, who goes into depth about his career both on the stage and screen at the time as a young actor with credits like Willard under his belt. Young also appears for a 21-minute featurette, going into a more general discussion about how he got into filmmaking and chose this particular project.