This 1977 movie, Short Eyes, had a Blu-ray release this week and it was a film I’d never heard of. From the description it sounded like a “day in the life” kind of thing about “The Tombs” in NYC starring Bruce Davison, and appearances from familiar names such as Luis Guzman and Curtis Mayfield. Always eager for something new, I watched the movie and it was one of those amazing “Why have I never seen this before today?” kind of moments.
A DAY IN THE LIFE…
On its surface Short Eyes is about a day in an unnamed jail in New York City. Though the jail does have a name in the viewer’s mind (planted there from the description on the back of the DVD), “The Tombs” which is the colloquial name for the Manhattan Detention Complex, a municipal jail in Lower Manhattan – you hear it mentioned in just about every single episode of Law and Order. It’s important to note that this is a municipal jail and not a prison. This is where inmates are for short stays such as serving a sentence for a smaller misdemeanor or where accused felons await trial and sentencing where they are eventually sent upstate to a prison like Sing Sing for their crimes. A prison gives only one sort of inmate – the convicted felon, while a jail gives us a broader group of people including minor criminals, hardened felons awaiting another prison stay and innocent people awaiting trial. Being New York in the late 70s the majority of inmates are either black or Puerto Rican.
There’s no real story that develops for awhile, mostly we get to know these people and the dramas occupying their fish bowl society for the day. There’s a young inmate nicknamed Cupcakes that one inmate wants to make his lover, another inmate whose arm is broken in a fight, and the usual racial tension between whites, blacks and Puerto Ricans which become ever more important in a jail atmosphere. Then enter Bruce Davis, a young middle-class white man named Clark Davis but becomes better known as the title character of the film, Short Eyes.
Short Eyes comes from a slang term for child molesting, “short heist,” however Puerto Ricans could not pronounce the ‘h’ so it became “short eyes.” This isn’t described in the film though, I had to look up an interview with the author Miguel Pinero (who also wrote the award-winning play upon which the film is based) to learn that. In the film we have Bruce Davison’s character, Clark, outed by a card as a man accused of child molestation and another prisoner go “oh, holy shit, you’re a short eyes.” Pedophiles are considered (and rightfully so in my opinion) to be the lowest form of prison life – subject to countless forms of abuse and often murdered. This isn’t prison though, this is a detention center where the accused await trial, Clark is only suspected of being a pedophile – the fact that he’s not guilty is where this film makes a lot of its statement.
Oh but he is guilty. There is a scene where he opens up the one inmate who treats him with dignity about everything. He insists he doesn’t remember raping the girl who’s accused him which immediately sounds like bullshit because how does one NOT remember raping a child – and Juan calls him on that bullshit. Clark admits that he’s molested several other children, he just doesn’t remember that one in particular. His monologue is a difficult scene to watch because he’s remorseful but unrepentant about his actions – he knows that it’s wrong to molest children but he can’t stop. The reactions from Juan listening to this confession are perfect, he’s clearly offended and hates this but he impatiently keeps his tongue because he wants to allow this other inmate to have a human moment. And there are lines in that monologue which would be difficult for any actor to deliver with the conviction that Bruce Davison does… lines where he describes his actions and all the kids he’s molested saying things like “black and Puerto Rican girls were usually the easiest, they’d sit and masturbate you in the park for an hour.”
Juan does not at all sympathize with Clark – his only reason at all for listening to this confession he explains as “if I wasn’t trying to understand you I would have killed you cold dead the second you said that shit about the ‘Rican girls.” Juan tells Clark to get himself put into some sort of solitary confinement, that to stay here in general population where everyone knows he;s a pedophile is suicide. As Clark feels he’s already lost his entire life from the accusation alone he pretty much feels suicidal as it is.