Jul 17, 2014
Long before he and two little Chinese girls where the victims of John Landis’ deleterious directing and died tragically after being decapitated by a helicopter rotor during the filming of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Combat! (1962–1967) star Vic Morrow directed an early gay prison flick starring Hebraic mongrel alien Spock. Indeed, believe it or not, in 1966, Morrow adapted flaming fag frog criminal Jean Genet’s early play, Deathwatch (1949) aka Haute surveillance, starring Leonard Nimoy, who also co-produced the work, in one of the lead roles. Co-written for the screen by Morrow and his then-wife Barbara Turner (who, with Morrow, produced actress Jennifer Jason Leigh), Deathwatch is based on a predictably prison-fetishizing play that cocksucking ex-con Genet apparently rewrote no less than four times between 1943-1946 (due to this, some argue that it was his first play). A claustrophobic low-budget chamber piece featuring a couple dream-sequences (including one where Nimoy wallows in a one-man pearl necklace orgy of sorts) and depicting a truly bizarre love triangle between three very different colon chokers, the film features not a single scene of bum chum buggery and only suggests the presence of sod sexual savagery through incessant glances, slang lingo, and foreboding sexual tensions. In short, Deathwatch takes a completely different approach from what Genet did with his first and last film, Un Chant d'Amour (1950) aka A Song of Love, which is more or less a pathologically poetic prison-themed porn flick that highly benefited from cine-magican Jean Cocteau’s stunning singular cinematography. While it may seem odd that a rampantly heterosexual geezer with a name like ‘Vic’ would make his directorial debut by adapting a French poof play, it is not so strange when one considers the actor turned auteur, as well as Nimoy, played one of the lead characters when the work first made its theatrical premiere in 1958 at Theatre East in New York City. In fact, in a somewhat recent podcast interview with Nimoy conducted by fatfreefilm.com, the actor (who also starred in the 1963 film version of Jean Genet's play The Balcony starring Shelley Winters and Peter Falk) credited his part in the 1958 theatrical version as being responsible for helping his acting career blossom. Quite comparable to gutter auteur Andy Milligan’s sub-avant-garde short Vapors (1965) in terms of its static and dreary colorless aesthetic and rather uncomfortable depiction of malignant maneater melancholy, angst, and weltschmerz, Morrow's little fudge-nudger film is not exactly the sort of wanton work that will inspire a sexually deviant fellow to head to the public restrooms for some raunchy anonymous joy boy buggery, as a work that makes prison seem like a sort of real-life pandemonium of contagious misery that drives people to sexual inversion and even coldblooded murder. Basically, the story of two gay prisoners who are attempting in vain to vie for the fleeting attention of a completely illiterate and majorly macho murderer who is too dumb to even realize that his cocksucker cellmates want to be his sex slaves, Deathwatch is ultimately a dejecting work about intolerable loneliness that ends in senseless tragedy. Indeed, if you are expecting the action-packed ass-reaming of HBO’s Oz (1997-2003), Morrow’s superlatively stagy work will ultimately prove to be a double downer of sorts.
At the beginning of the film, annoyingly quiet introvert Jules LaFranc (Leonard Nimoy) is herded into prison while wearing shackles and a KKK-esque hood over his face and is forced to do pointless exercises that involve him walking around aimlessly with his co-prisoners in a caged room. One of the prisoners, Emil (played by The Love Boat star Gavin MacLeod), gets so fed up and out-of-breathe from these terribly tedious exercises of physical and psychological torture that he attacks a guard and is thus subsequently repaid for his efforts by having his head decapitated frog-style via guillotine. After Captain Stubing literally loses his head at about the 10 minute mark of the film, the title screen finally appears and the viewer is soon imprisoned in a majorly miserable celluloid ménage à trios between an effete bitch, an antisocial beta, and a barbaric alpha-beast. Indeed, Greeneyes (Michael Forest, who made a name for himself working with Roger Corman) is the baddest brute in the entire prison and he is scheduled for a date with the guillotine as permanent punishment for ‘unwittingly’ strangling a young girl to death in what some might describe as a crime of passion. While he won’t admit it at first, LaFranc is completely infatuated with Greeneyes, but he lacks the social skills and martial prowess to appeal to the rather aggressive alpha-inmate, so he reads and writes letters for him instead to demonstrate his loyalty and sense of respect for the macho murderer. Indeed, Greeneyes is an illiterate, so he makes LaFranc his bitch and has him write letters to his girlfriend for him. Unquestionably, most of the tension in the cell is caused by a queenish fairy named Maurice (played by Paul Mazursky, who previously co-starred with Morrow in Richard Brooks 1955 work Blackboard Jungle), who is proud to call himself Greeneyes’ “punk.” A perennially jealous man, Greeneyes wants Maurice to kill his girlfriend because if he cannot have her, no one can have ever. Unfortunately for him, Maurice, who would gladly liquidate the little lady as he is jealous of her, will never get the chance to declare his love to Greeneyes by exterminating his girlfriend, as his days are numbered.
Greeneyes is so irrationally paranoid and completely clueless regarding the motivations of his cellmates that he accuses both LaFranc and Maurice of attempting to steal his lady love, even though the two less than manly men are really madly in love with him. Greeneyes has nil respect for either of his colon-choking comrades because they are both in prison for petty pansy offenses, with LaFranc being a failed jewel thief. As Greeneyes declares while in an enraged trance-like state just before attacking his two sissy cellmates, “I am the prison! In thy cells, I guard the convicts…soldiers…plunderers…pimps […] I am the prison and I stand alone! I’m getting ready for my own execution!,” thus demonstrating his deranged mind and lack of sense of reality. Greeneyes is so respected that even the prison guards like him, including one sharply dressed fellow (Robert Ellenstein), who warns LaFranc to stay away from the big men in prison while waving a baton in his face as if it were a cock. When Greeneyes learns that LaFranc has a tattoo on his chest with the word “Avenger,” he develops a small degree of respect for the less than intimidating jewel thief, telling him that he must commit, “A genuine murder” if he ever wants to be a top dog in prison as “nothing else will do,” when it comes to being a big player in the penitentiary. Of course, Maurice gets jealous and reveals that LaFranc’s tattoo is a fake that was drawn with crayon. Needless to say, LaFranc strangles Maurice out of anger for making him look like a pathetic poser, but also to impress Greeneyes. Of course, Greeneyes is unimpressed by LaFranc’s murder and berates him for senselessly killing a mere “punk.” In his misguided megalomania, LaFranc declares his unwarranted sense of superiority over Greeneyes and his comrade ‘Snowball’ (who never actually appears in the film) by self-righteously stating, “I understand…I’ll never be what you are…but I am stronger than any of you.” Indeed, whereas Greeneyes strangled a girl to death on impulse without even realizing it, LaFranc “willed” his murder of Maurice, thus making him feel ostensibly superior. In the end, LaFranc states, “I’m all alone” after realizing his attempt to impress Greeneyes by savagely strangling Maurice failed to pay off and has only made him feel all the more alienated from his comrades.
It should be noted that Deathwatch is not the only adapation of Genet’s play, as undeservedly forgotten French artsploitation auteur Pierre-Alain Jolivet later directed a version of the work under the title Black Mirror (1981) aka Haute surveillance. Judging merely by his previous sadistically salacious cinematic efforts, including his Fernando Arrabal adaptation Le grand cérémonial (1969) aka Weird Weirdo and the S&M-flavored quasi-arthouse flick La punition (1973) aka The Punishment, I am going to have to assume that Jolivet’s Haute surveillance adaptation is probably a more subversive and aesthetically superior work, though Morrow’s film certainly does make for one of the most strangely interesting and seemingly unbelievable footnotes of Genet-themed cinema history. Essentially, Genet’s own film Un Chant D’Amour says virtually everything Deathwatch attempt to says, albeit without words and in a more debasingly direct and exceedingly ‘honest’ sort of manner where highly expressive crypto-poof prisoners and hyper horny guards feed off each other's sexual energy in a work depicting a decidedly degrading, less than private, and terribly claustrophobic all-male environment where sexual tensions are king and where the social hierarchy is based solely upon a person's masculinity and criminality. Genet was not the only person who romanticized and fetishized his time served in prison, as Canadian playwright John Herbert wrote a play in 1967 entitled Fortune and Men's Eyes, which was based on his experience as a prisoner and was later adapted into a film in 1971 that has a similar essence to Deathwatch due to its glaringly theatric and conspicuously cramped tone. In a somewhat recent interview with star Leonard Nimoy, the actor described Deathwatch as being a “grim, dark movie” that he believes was not warmly accepted up its release due to it being a, “Very tough, very tough film...not cinematic at all...It feels like a filmed stage play.” Indeed, while I can certainly recommend the film to Jean Genet, Leonard Nimoy, and gay prison flick fans, Morrow’s all but forgotten directorial debut is not exactly the sort of film I would even recommend to most cinephiles, even if it does have a somewhat of a Samuel Fuller-esque feel about it. Advertised with the absurdly sensationalized taglines, “The Strangest Triangle Ever Filmed!” and “MIASMA of homosexuality...constantly electrifying!,” Deathwatch ultimately reminds the viewer of how much American society has ‘progressed’ over the past half-century or so, as one can now see negroes savagely raping Guido mobsters in a contemporary TV series like Oz.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 2:13 AM
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