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DEATHWATCH (1966).

Before he was so rudely decapitated on the set of John Landis' lousy TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE segment, Vic Morrow was best known as Sgt. Chip Saunders on TV's WWII drama COMBAT! At that same time, he also tried his hand at directing, with this low-budget adaptation of Jean Genet's 1947 prison-love-triangle Death Watch. His choice of material -- three male inmates in a power struggle fueled by homosexual yearnings -- might seem a little odd, but this play was close to Morrow's heart, since he starred in its 1958 US theatrical premiere at NYC's Theatre East, with Vic playing Lefranc. Adapted by Morrow and his wife, Barbara Turner, it features early roles for Leonard Nimoy (who co-produced), Paul Mazursky (who co-starred with Vic in THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE) and a brief appearance by a pre-'Murray Slaughter' Gavin MacLeod. The end result is a sensational acting exercise that often feels like an experimental, sexually-liberated PLAYHOUSE 90. The story is set within the claustrophobic confines of a men's prison, which has a guillotine in the yard and no shortage of grueling punishments. In fact, prisoner Gavin slaps a guard in the opening minutes, only to be beheaded -- so these jailers mean business! It's primarily a three-man show though: thief Jules Lefranc (Nimoy) worms his way into a cell shared with a hunky, heavily-tattooed murderer named Greeneyes (Michael Forest) and effeminate small-time hood Maurice (Mazursky). Their ensuing conflict, both physical and emotional, is told in fragments and tiny flashbacks. Jules and Maurice each want exclusive rights to Greeneyes, who's such a clueless, muscle-bound lug that he thinks his antagonistic cellmates are (1) straight and (2) plotting to steal his outside girlfriend. There's no Gaydar here, folks! This is pretty depressing stuff, with two queens battling it out for their king, while exposing their disillusioned, needy, screwed-up, and self-destructive sides. The dialogue gets heavyhanded at times, but Morrow transforms the most pivotal monologues into genuinely powerful stuff, such as Forest's memories of murder. It's easy to imagine Nimoy in this kind of offbeat outing (just check out his 1968 musical-gutbuster "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins"), but Forest (who never showed much depth in Corman cheapies like ATLAS and SKI TROOP ATTACK) is the revelation here as a confused, caged brute. It's the film's showiest role, while Nimoy delivers the most expressive moments as an obsessed prisoner of his own desires. Unfortunately, Mazursky's broad work makes you understand why he soon ditched acting for directing. Partly shot at the Nevada State Prison, its stark b&w cinematography is by Vilis Lapenieks (who also shot QUEEN OF BLOOD and MOTHER GOOSE A GO-GO that same year), with editing by future-Oscar-winner Verna Fields (JAWS, AMERICAN GRAFFITI).

© 2007 by Steven Puchalski.