By Richard Winters
My Rating: 6 out of 10
4-Word Review: His life in prison.
Smitty (Wendell Burton) is a young first-time offender who’s sent away to the Canadian penitentiary for six months. He gets assigned to a cell with three other men: Rocky (Zooey Hall), Mona (Danny Freedman), and Queenie (Michael Greer). Queenie is an openly gay drag queen while Mona is a soft-spoken young man who likes to write poetry. Rocky is the tough guy who offers Smitty ‘protection’ if Smitty agrees to become his subordinate and do anything he asks including sexual favors. To avoid the harassment that he sees others getting that don’t have the same ‘protection’ he agrees, but eventually he grows tired of Rocky’s dominance and decides to challenge it.
The film is based on a play written by John Herbert who also wrote the screenplay. It is based on actual experiences that he received when he was arrested for dressing in drag in 1947 and taken to a reformatory at the age of 20. The play, which was written in 1967 initially had a hard time getting produced due to the subject matter, but was eventually put on the stage by Sal Mineo who directed and also played Rocky while Don Johnson played Smitty and Greer, like in the film, played Queenie.
The film version though makes many changes to the story some of which I’m not sure I liked. The one thing though that I thought was excellent is that it was shot inside an actual prison, which helps add authenticity. As opposed to most movies which shoots things from outside the cell looking in this one captures everything from inside the cell, which makes the viewer feel like they’re locked in the jail with the rest of the men and gives one a true feeling of the claustrophobic prison experience.
The shock element may not be as strong as it once was. The scene where Rocky rapes Smitty in the shower as the camera fixates on the running faucets and we hear only Smitty’s cries may be a bit too stylized and even kind of hokey by today’s standards. The segment though where Mona is grabbed from behind by a brute and taken into a dingy cell where he’s gang raped while the guards look away was to me far more potent. A later scene dealing with a prisoner being taken to a back room and beaten by the guards could’ve been stronger had it been extended.
For me personally the most shocking element is seeing Smitty’s transformation from naive man who we the viewer can mostly relate too, to someone who becomes almost as bad as Rocky. However, I found it annoying that it’s never made clear what he did that got him into prison in the first place and his character arch would’ve been stronger had the film started with him in the outside world committing the crime and subsequently getting arrested.
Burton’s acting abilities don’t seem quite on par with the demands of the role. His blank-eyed stare and monotone delivery make him seem like a one-dimensional actor and he was most likely given the role simply because of his babyface. Greer though in many ways steals it as the flamboyant drag queen and the outrageous performance that he puts on during the Christmas show at the prison is quite memorable.
The film remains compelling, but is hampered visually by being done almost entirely in one setting. The ending though leaves open too many questions. Does Smitty ever get out? How does he behave once he does and how has his experiences in prison changed him? None of these things get answered, which to me made the film incomplete and despite some good dramatic efforts here and there unsatisfying.
My Rating: 6 out of 10
Released: June 15, 1971
Runtime: 1 Hour 42 Minutes
Director: Harvey Hart, Jules Schwerin (uncredited)