This month, The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ is offering “Stars Behind Bars” as the focus of their “Spotlight” series (it concludes tonight, coincidentally). It’s allowed Tee Cee Em to run some excellent slammah flicks, one of which was Convicts 4 (1962)—a fictionalized presentation of the prison life of real-life ex-con John Resko. Resko, a Death Row inmate sentenced to be executed for killing a shopkeeper during a robbery gone awry in 1930, had been spared his date with “Old Sparky” previously in order to testify as a witness in another case. His second reprieve would eventually come courtesy of then-Governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt (perhaps you’ve heard of him), and John’s sentence was commuted to life in prison. Resko was later paroled and in 1958 he wrote Reprieve: The Testament of John Resko…which became the basis of the film released four years later.
Convicts 4 was the sole directorial effort of Millard Kaufman, a screenwriter whose resume includes such classics as Take the High Ground! (1953), Bad Day at Black Rock (1954), and Raintree County (1957—on which he also served as associate producer). Kaufman also acted as a “front” for the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo on Gun Crazy (1949) …but perhaps the most interesting item on Millard’s C.V. (Andrew Leal would give me endless grief if I didn’t mention this) is that he was the scribe whose story for the 1949 U-P-A cartoon short Ragtime Bear gave us the nearsighted Quincy Magoo.
Kaufman’s Convicts 4 is equally noteworthy for its eclectic cast, which could almost be the lineup for a Bob Hope special. You’ll get Stuart Whitman, Ray Walston, Vincent Price (appropriately playing an art critic), Rod Steiger, Broderick Crawford, Dodie “Pink Shoe Laces” Stevens, Jack Kruschen, Sammy Davis, Jr. (as an inmate named “Wino”), Naomi “Juanita” Stevens, Jack Albertson…and as the cherry on this sundae, Timothy Carey (“I’ve got ideas…and they’re all vile, Bubie…”). The star of Convicts is Ben Gazzara, an interesting choice when you consider that throughout his film career Ben played a lot of wankers, as witnessed in such vehicles as The Strange One (1957) and Anatomy of a Murder (1959). Even when Gazzara played “good” guys in TV series like Arrest and Trial and Run for Your Life, you were never entirely certain whether to root for him or not.
Casting Gazzara as Resko is fascinating because the actor imbues in the character enough interest in his plight (the circumstances surrounding his crime don’t arguably seem to justify his severe sentence) without going overboard with the sentiment. Resko earns allies for various reasons: for example, the sympathetic guard played by Whitman becomes his friend only because he’s convinced there’s a better way to deal with inmates than the sadistic cruelty exhibited by the keeper portrayed by Steiger. (I kind of chuckled seeing both Stu and Rod in this film, remembering their wonderful give-and-take in the movie that earned Whitman an Oscar nomination, The Mark . Curiously, Steiger’s “Tiptoes” doesn’t stick around for much of the film; as critic David Kalat humorously observes: “Chekhov would have been appalled. Convicts 4 introduces more than one shiv in its early reels, yet not one person gets stabbed.”)
TV favorite Walston generates a laugh or two as Iggy, an inmate who run-ins with Resko lead to him being introduced to the business end of a billy club…twice. (He later becomes a chum of John’s; his escape tunnel attempt is an amusing highlight.) What puts in motion Resko’s eventual release from the joint is his admirable aptitude for art; his paintings attract the interest of an expert (this is where Vincent Price’s character comes in) even though several years pass before John finally achieves freedom. While I liked Convicts 4, it’s this aspect of the movie that kind of gave me pause: does a man who displays artistic talent deserve different consideration than the rest of the prison population? In his time in prison, Resko executes two escape attempts—I think that would weigh a little heavy on any decision to turn him loose (though this might explain why he doesn’t receive his parole until 1949, according the movie’s timeline).
Convicts 4 suffers from occasional dramatic unevenness: I think the flashback to Resko’s crime (character great Arthur Malet plays the poor sap he kills) fails to convince, and the scene where Mrs. Resko (Carmen Phillips) gives her jailbird hubby The Big Kiss-Off also might have been better served off-screen (it’s awkward, to say the least). Still, I’d highly recommend the movie for the cast and for its refusal to lard its presentation with the standard prison film clichés; as Kalat correctly notes in his article on the film at the TCM website: “In shoving all the obvious and familiar prison-movie conflicts off the stage, Kaufman sacrifices cheap drama in favor of something more interesting. The conventional thrust of a prison story is a litany of complaints: the death penalty is inhuman, the guards are sadists, inmates are treated cruelly… in other words, the injustices of the justice system are problems demanding to be fixed.” Millard Kaufman later regretted that Convicts was his only turn in the director’s chair, and I empathize: he did admirable work that makes you yearn for more.