At first glance, a prison picture with Rod Steiger, Broderick Crawford and Vincent Price in the cast has the potential to be the CITIZEN KANE of prison pics. Although, truth be told, BRUTE FORCE (1947) is, in my opinion, already the KANE of prison films. So, okay, make CONVICTS 4 (1962), the MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS of prison pictures. With a cast like that, how could it not be?
Cool those jets solitary confinement breath. Steiger, Crawford and Price are merely guest stars (the credits even say so) in this film. Steiger appears first in a single scene that was obviously filmed separately on location in a real prison. There's no one else in the frame in his shot-from-below address to the prisoners. And after his speech, which portends a set up as a real nemesis for star Ben Gazzara, Steiger disappears from the picture. Crawford has one scene, which also appears to have been filmed in a real lock-up. He at least interacts with Gazzara and Stuart Whitman, but again, it's now you see him, now you don't. Price appears in the third act as an art expert, a role he was certainly prepared to play since Price was well known as a collector of fine art. He delivers a few lines and then he's gone. I suspect the producers had only enough time and money to get these three for a day or two at best and shot their scenes quickly and separately. What a pity. It would have been a real treat to see these three notorious hams go head-to-head and over-the-top. No prison (or movie screen) could hold them!
Instead, CONVICTS 4 is an earnest, dramatized story of real life con John Resko (Gazzarra), who is sentenced to death in 1931 after killing a shop keeper on Christmas Eve. Mere moments before he's doomed to die in the electric chair, Resko's sentence is commuted to life in prison. He's transferred to Dannemora Prison where he falls in with other lifers Iggy (Ray Walston) and Wino (Sammy Davis, Jr.). Sympathetic and progressive guard Stuart Whitman (who eventually becomes warden), institutes an art program for the convicts as a means of therapy and rehabilitation. Resko reluctantly joins the program (after a couple of foiled escape attempts) and discovers that he has a real gift for art. Resko gains a measure of fame as an artist and his story captures the public imagination. He is eventually released from prison in 1949 to find his now grown daughter and grand daughter waiting for him.
CONVICTS 4 is a straight forward, compelling film with a solid cast. Written and directed by Millard Kaufman (adapted from the book REPRIEVE: THE TESTAMENT OF JOHN RESKO by John Resko), it traces the arc of one man's life from a crime of desperation to redemption. The supporting players are good with Walston a stand out as the loony Iggy. It's a good little film, one worth seeing but it could have been a truly great one if Steiger, Crawford and Price were given more screen time and allowed to do what they did best.