Reeling Backward: On the Yard (1978)
This gritty prison drama from the Silver filmmaking family boasts all the familiar hallmarks of the genre, with few surprises or emotional touchstones.
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Joan Micklin Silver, whose films I’ve been slowly working my way through since discovering the wonderful “Between the Lines,” married Raphael D. Silver, a real estate developer, long before either had any notions about getting into pictures.
She worked as a teacher before seguing into magazine writing and then films, breaking out with the tiny-budget “Hester Street,” which he produced (no doubt with some of his real estate loot). She then brought her husband along into the movie business, producing his first film as a director, 1978’s prison drama “On the Yard” starring John Heard, a frequent muse for both Silvers. They continued to trade producing and directing credits on each other’s films.
Raphael only directed one other film, 1987’s “A Walk on the Moon,” often confused for the unrelated 1999 movie with the same title starring Diane Lane and Viggo Mortensen. Both of his directorial efforts are now available in a double Blu-ray issue from the Cohen Film Collection.
Prison movies were very much a thing in the ‘70s — “Escape from Alcatraz,” “The Longest Yard,” “Papillon,” “Midnight Express,” etc. They went away for a bit before making something of a revival in the 1990s and early Aughts with films like “The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Yards” and “The Green Mile.”
I think mainstream audiences find something inherently compelling about the idea of men (usually) confined for years for their crimes, and their various attempts to reform and/or escape their plight. There’s a lot of existential angst in the viewing experience, as the audience is forced to consider what they would do themselves in such an oppressive, paranoid environment.
There’s also the dichotomy of feeling both sympathy for the prisoners who are locked up and satisfaction that they’re being punished for their misdeeds.
You can see all the common DNA of the genre in “On the Yard.” Heard plays Paul Juleson, the naïve and relatively new arrival at the prison. Thomas G. Waites is Chilly, the crafty man who can get you things and runs most of the action inside the walls.
In the background we have familiar character types: the tough screw looking to crack down; the scary dude responsible for settling debs with a pound of flesh when they cannot be paid materially; the cocky new prisoner for whom thing will end badly; and the inevitable older, sympathetic con who has been repeatedly turned down for parole and is starting to wonder if he’s even fit to live free.
In this case, rather than becoming fast friends the smart, educated guy (Juleson) and the hardened lifer (Chilly) are set on a collision course that neither can seem to turn away from. So rather than the uplifting tone of “Shawshank,” it’s a bitter tale that aims for verisimilitude about what life inside prison is really like.
There are a lot of admirable things going on in “On the Yard,” but overall I found the film rather disappointing. It doesn’t surprise us in any way, and the screenplay by Malcolm Braly, based on his own novel, can’t seem to decide who the main character is and what their motivations really are for doing what they do.
As a result, the picture has no real emotional touchstone to grab onto.
Chilly is a bit easier to grasp. He has more or less been in prison since he was 14, accepts his lot and simply wants to make the best of it by being the “top wheel” inside, which is in some unspecified location in Pennsylvania. When asked why he spends so much time and energy working for cigarettes, booze and other pleasures he himself eschews, Chilly simply responds, “It’s what I do.”
Chilly runs the biggest “store” in the prison — an unofficially sanctioned trading post for goods. Physically diminutive, he prefers to exercise his power through commerce, but when someone reneges on a debt, he’s quick to set Gasolino (Hector Troy), his main “slack worker” aka enforcer, on the offender.
An early scene shows James Remar, in his very first film credit, as a young tough who runs afoul of Chilly. Gasolino waits until he’s occupied doing bench presses, and slips a shiv into his armpit. It’s the M.O. of Chilly and his sort to hurt a man and humiliate him, but not to kill — both because it brings too much heat from the guards, and eliminates a revenue-producing customer.
Juleson, ostensibly the protagonist, is harder to figure. He’s the WASP-y, blandly handsome white guy in a sea of brown and hardbitten faces, spends most of his spare time in the library and works in the office responsible for delegating jobs to the prisoners. It’s a plum position for running a graft game, but Juleson refuses to sell jobs because “it’s simpler.” His ethos is to keep his head down, not make any waves and avoid any of the crime rings.
Temporarily short on cash for his favored Kool’s smokes, Juleson takes a loan of 15 cigarette packs from Chilly. He figures it’s no big deal because he gets regular checks from an aunt and can pay him back next week. But when she abruptly stops her assistance, he finds himself backed into a corner.
Chilly is willing to forgive the debt if Juleson gets an easy gig in the print shop for his numbers man, Nunn, played by Richard Bright, but is haughtily refused. He sics Gasolino on Juleson, but is outmaneuvered when the bookish man provokes a fight in the yard rather than waiting to be shanked in a dark corner somewhere.
(Interesting aside: Bright is best know for playing Corleone enforcer Al Neri in the “Godfather” films — the only actor to appear in a significant role in all three movies besides Al Pacino, Diane Keaton and Talia Shire.)
Mike Kellin plays Red, known as Moon to most of the prisoners, Chilly’s closest lieutenant and advisor. Moon knows the mood of the prison better than anyone, and works to stay in the good graces of everyone owing to the fact he has another probation hearing coming up.
Joe Grifasi has an interesting role as Morris, a strange little OCD fellow who is known for his sewing abilities and mental instability. Chilly is seemingly his only friend; or at least what passes for friendship with a man who sees every relationship as an exchange of goods and power. He humors Morris’ constant prattling about his years-long plan to sew together a hot-air balloon to carry him out of the prison — though it turns out to be a real thing.
Lane Smith plays Blake, the strict new captain of the prison guards, who makes it his personal mission to bring down Chilly’s enterprise. Moon warns him that Chilly is at least honest and straightforward in his business dealings, and the next guy to take over the operation might make things inside the prison much worse, both for the inmates and the guards.
Tom Toner plays the sputtering, ineffectual prison warden, and David Clennon has a single scene as the resident psychiatrist who leads the men in group therapy sessions. It’s during one of these we learn Juleson’s crime was murdering his wife, with whom he constantly fought.
But this important piece of information, which might radically shift how we feel about Juleson, is simply exposed and then dispensed with. Heard seems like he’s itching to reveal all the complex inner rage and chaos happening inside the man’s placid exterior, but the movie simply doesn’t provide him an outlet to do so.
Instead, things stay focused on the growing rivalry with Chilly. The matter is ended abruptly about three-quarters through the movie when a psychotic newer inmate is recruited by Chilly to deliver a warning to Juleson, and the man loses control and beats him to death with the metal stake from the horseshoes game in the yard.
(This is memorably described as having “piped a man.”)
Chilly takes a beating from the captain’s goons and has his cell trashed, including the taking of a coveted $50 bill he’d stashed inside a support beam of his cot — but that’s about as far as his official comeuppance goes. His worse punishment is losing his entire store to a rival by betting on the wrong man in a boxing match between two prisoners.
The film seems to lose all direction after Juleson’s death. Having not read the novel, I’ve gathered Chilly was the real main character and the filmmakers felt compelled to promote the more relatable Juleson to the spotlight.
It’s notable that while the other prisoners seem to wear brown or otherwise dark clothing, Chilly is always outfitted in white or light-colored gear that make him stand out — like a fallen angel treading among the commonfolk. One of the few discernible reasons why Juleson resents Chilly is that he sees the only other man in prison with brains, and disdains how he uses those gifts.
The last act is taken up with the boxing match and Morris’ cockamamie plot to fly his balloon out of the prison. His psycho cellmate attempts to hijack the trip, but Chilly and Moon intervene. The voluminous craft floating up over the prison walls, representing thousands of hours of Morris’ busywork, is meant to be the film’s climax, a rare moment where the imprisoned souls are uplifted.
“On the Yard” is pretty good at depicting the harsh life inside prison, though only so far. I find it borderline laughable that so much of the conflict is over a few measly cartons of cigarettes. Moon even notes they have so much in stock, some are beginning to go stale.
The film does not depict any drug trade at all, and the prospect of sexual subjugation is barely touched upon, as when Moon observes their main competitor’s having taken on a new “sweet young thing” companion. All these supposedly hardened men bartering and battling over a bunch of tobacco butts plays like the after-school TV special version of a prison story.
There are the bones of a good story here, but “On the Yard” seems satisfied to focus on the atmospherics of the prison environment and not get into the skulls and hearts of the men confined there. As a result, it’s sentenced to mediocrity.