DATELINE: 70s Prison Movie
When you have a film from 1973 and the cusp of a new wave, you can expect “exploitation” that includes heavy-handed use of the “F” word and the “N” word among prison populations. Audiences may have been a tad shocked by this new adult content. The film is given the black idiom name, “The Slams,” short for slammer.
Jim Brown is the hero or antihero of sorts. Having been in a gang that murders a half-dozen people for drugs and money in the first few minutes of the movie, he rejects the drugs and kills his accomplices. But, he has a lovely kind mother who shows up for a minute and disappears. That is part of the script’s problem: comings and goings.
The cast is somewhat familiar, only because Lurch from The Addams Family is around as a white gang leader, looking young and tall and handsome. Frank de Kova is the mob leader in prison who has a suite of cells and curtains, but runs the show.
The warden’s office features one of the most hilarious photos of President Richard Nixon: looking shifty-eyed, even before Watergate and his resignation.
And, Jan Merlin has the unenviable task of flirting mercilessly with Jim Brown. He tells guards, to “check his crotch” during a search, which may be one of the most outrageous lines of his acting career.
Director Jonathan Kaplan was the nephew of actor Van Heflin and thought he was Hollywood royalty. He made some truly B-level films in his oeuvre. But some directors cannot be dissuaded from their lofty self-image.
Having fallen out of favor with both Brown and the director over character expectations, Jan Merlin’s “Golden Mouth” inmate brazenly ingratiates himself to Jim Brown—and suddenly is gone to the cutting room floor.
This was not the first director Merlin clashed with. It is the fate of all actors who dispute their director and star. What a shame that the most interesting part of the movie simply evaporates.
Dr. William Russo’s movie collection of reviews of prisoner films is titled Imprisoned. It is available on amazon in both paperback and ebook.