Life in The Tombs
“Short Eyes” is basically the story of a young man who is charged with child molestation and placed in New York City’s infamous Tombs prison. When the other inmates in his cellblock find out what he is charged with, life becomes extremely difficult for him. The film was released in 1977 and is the film version of Miguel Piñero’s play. It has not been available for years and now we finally have it on DVD. We can only imagine how strong this film was when it came out but today it is quite tame when we consider what we have seen on the HBO series, “OZ”. Here there is a lot of sermonizing as well as characterizations that seem unfocused but we must also consider the subject matter and when it was made. We constantly feel a sense of dread but that could well be because the entire action takes place in two rooms of the Manhattan House of Detention.
There is a sense of authenticity and raw urgency. Director Robert Young gives us a graphic, detailed portrayal of the Tombs and the pathetic souls there who were unable to make bail and so they rot endlessly while still waiting for a trial. Pinero’s script breaks the jail population down by racial lines: The blacks, Latinos and whites eye each other cautiously and interact like they’re always ready to spar. The guards sanction fighting as a way for prisoners to solve problems amongst themselves. Weapons like shanks and razor blades are sold for cigarettes. The Tombs a vicious place.
There is also a code at The Tombs. Prisoners from various groups seem to have a sense of place and while tensions may run high and testosterone levels may rage, tempers are usually kept in check for the greater good of the cellblock. However, danger is never far from the surface but there is order.
And into this mix comes a new prisoner named Clark. A well-dressed white prisoner, Clark is immediately approached by Longshoe, who breaks the whole system down for his fellow Caucasian. It’s a powerful monolog for how well it articulates the entire jail social system and it’s indicative of the kind of poetic language Pinero uses to orchestrate the entire picture.
But what Longshoe doesn’t know until a guard abruptly informs everyone is that Clark is a “short eye,” or a child molester. The guard tells Clark just how low on the totem pole of life he considers him. This is tough stuff and the film doesn’t sugar coat any of it. Clark is immediately ostracized from the rest of the inmates, who hold child molesters separate and it becomes quickly clear that Clark is in danger. Juan, a more introspective soul, reaches out to him and asks him if he’d like to explain himself as a way of alleviating some of the pressure, a sort of jail house confession. Clark unleashes a fountain of sickness, dating his obsession with young girls back to his teenage years and this speech is shocking in yet another memorable monolog, this time shocking in its honesty and explicitness. Juan is revolted, not understanding why this man took at opportunity for friendship to share his perversion.
There are no simple stereotypes here and each character carries contradictory elements that are never toned down or softened to be made more “sympathetic”. The acting all around is excellent and Bruce Davison is both heartbreaking and disgusting as Clark and Jose Perez is challenging and magnetic as the philosophical but still grounded Juan.
“Short Eyes” strives for realism and the film was actually shot in The Tombs with many former convicts in supporting roles. First written by Miguel Piñero as a play while he was a prisoner in Sing Sing, and then shot in ‘The Tombs’ – the Men’s House of Detention in Manhattan, it’s not surprising that this has an authentic feel to it. Piñero also plays a minor character in the movie. This is a theatrical film in which the prisoners are almost all either African-American or Hispanic. When Clark Davis, whose crimes are very quickly and publicly exposed by an unsympathetic guard, everything suddenly changes. There is a question of morality (and yes prisons do have codes of morality) about what to do with the pedophile child rapist. This unites the other prisoners and we feel the irony of those who have been ripping each other off and lining up to have sex with an unwilling youth. Believe it or not there is a sense of moral righteousness in order to denunciate Davis and what he did. The end result is inevitable, although there are a few final twists.
This is a tough, challenging film that offers some definitive insights into the minds of the incarcerated. Its patient, quiet style underlines the scope of anger and frustration of the men it depicts.