ON THE YARD (1978)
Director: Raphael D. Silver
Scorpion Releasing

A fine cast of New York actors and real Pennsylvania convicts take a stroll ON THE YARD in this obscure prison drama out on DVD courtesy of Scorpion Releasing.

Serving a sentence for the murder of his wife in a rage, Paul Joleson (John Heard, CAT PEOPLE) has kept to himself, sticking to solitary activities like reading in his cell or the prison library and working as a clerk for the prison's job assignment office. Anticipating some money in the mail, Paul unwisely buys a carton of cigarettes from operator Chilly (Thomas G. Waites, THE THING) and his right-hand man Red (Mike Killin, SLEEPAWAY CAMP). When repeat offender Nunn (Richard Bright, THE GODFATHER) returns to prison, he wants a cushy job in print-setting. Chilly offers to forget the debt if Paul gives Nunn the job, but Paul refuses to give preferential treatment or abuse his position. When the money Paul is expecting does not arrive and his aunt tires of lending him cash, Paul asks Chilly for more time rather than acceding to his request. Chilly is starting to feel heat from Blake (Lane Smith, PRISON) the new captain of the guards who is leaning on all of his associates (including a guard suspected of smuggling in goods), and he soon has competition for "king of the yard" making it impossible for him to save face while writing off Paul's pittance of a debt. Paul's continued defiance – as well as his proactive stance in dealing with Chilly's enforcer Gasolino (Hector Troy, THE EYES OF LAURA MARS) – pushes Chilly to riskier maneuvers that threaten to expose his operations to Captain Blake.

Scripted by Malcolm Braly from his own 1967 novel and shot in a Pennsylvania prison with real inmates as extras, ON THE YARD is rather uneven; no surprise since it was the first film of producer-turned-director Raphael Silver and the source novel uses the plight of the Paul character mainly as a way of exploring the ins-and-outs of the prison's social structure with Chilly actually being more of an antihero. It is, however, thoroughly fascinating for its incredible cast of seventies New York actors from Heard and Waites (in his first film role), Smith, Bright, and Kellin (whose "possibility of parole" subplot is almost heartbreaking) to the lesser-knowns like David Clennon (TV's THIRTYSOMETHING) here unrecognizable as the prison therapy group psychiatrist, a baby-faced James Remar (TV's DEXTER) as another inmate who stiffs Chilly and suffers the consequences, as well as Joe Grifasi (many an Italian or Jewish New Yorker in episodes of all the LAW AND ORDER series and films like STILL OF THE NIGHT and MOONSTRUCK) as a seamster stitching together a massive air balloon in order to escape the prison by flight. The focus isn't always evenly divided between Paul and Chilly; as such, Chilly's dramatic arc isn't as pronounced as it should have been by the time we get to the last scene, but it's still an interesting and atypical prison film despite the familiar aspects (shivs, escape plans, "the hole", secret deals and bartering, some subtler than usual for the genre references to prison sexuality, and unethical and brutal treatment by the guards).

With only scant theatrical distribution from Midwest Films, the company owned by director Silver and his producer-turned-director wife Joanne Micklin (CROSSING DELANCEY) that also distributed Micklin's HESTER STREET and BETWEEN THE LINES, and an eighties tape release through Media Home Entertainment, ON THE YARD has long been out of circulation. While some films so long unavailable and distributed by defunct companies may survive only in worn prints or ancient tape masters, others can look practically brand new thanks to the negative having been largely untouched and well cared-for; and Scorpion's progressive, anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen transfer appears pristine with the subdued color scheme seeming intentional going by the accurate-looking skintones. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track has some unobtrusive hiss that does not interfere with dialogue, the subtler nuances of the sound design, or the score of Charles Gross (BLUE SUNSHINE) which at times seems more suited to a seventies sitcom and appropriately atmospheric at other times.

The only extra for the film is a nice interview with actor Waites (29:40) who recalls being sent by his agent to audition for the film after quitting the Edward Gorey-designed Broadway production of DRACULA (playing Renfield) over a wardrobe dispute with the director. He was auditioning for the role of Stick but Silver asked him to read for Chilly instead. He credits Heard with taking him under his wing and teaching him about acting for the camera (as well as referring to the book source rather than just the screenplay for insight into his character) and director Silver for giving them the space to rework their characters. He recalls being star struck by the assembled cast of New York actors, sadly notes those who are no longer with us (Bright, Kellin, and Smith), and also speaks warmly of then-unknown Remar (with whom he would later share the screen in THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR) and Richard Haynes – as the unstable Stick – who disappeared from acting not long after the film. Since he did not share any scenes with the actor, Waites was unaware at the time that his THE THING co-star Clennon was in the film. He also speaks about some aspects of the book that were left out of the film (both bits that were shot but cut and those not emphasized in the adaptation) as well as its critical reception. About half-way through, he switches to discussion of his subsequent work, including working with Al Pacino on AND JUSTICE FOR ALL and the play AMERICAN BUFFALO (where he was noticed by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell before they auditioned him for THE THING), as well as being fired by Walter Hill from THE WARRIORS (he admits to being difficult and now regrets burning some bridges by insisting his name be removed from the credits), and his subsequent work as an acting teacher (in between TV guest spots) bankrolling productions of Shakespeare himself in order to give his students stage experience. The disc also features trailers for BLOOD FEUD, THE GIRL HUNTERS, SAINT JACK, GO TELL THE SPARTANS, PAPER MASK, PAPER TIGER, VOYAGER (HOMO FABER), THE OCTAGON, and FIREPOWER. (Eric Cotenas)