Sidewinder’s View: “On The Yard” (1978) [SPOILERS]

 

I bought this DVD blind, never having seen the movie. Roger Ebert’s review years earlier intrigued me, however, and the cast was notable, so I picked it up. Going by the movie’s poster, featured on the front of the DVD case, I was under the impression John Heard’s character is the central character. The protagonist.

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Not the case, however. Heard’s character, a guy serving a life sentence for murdering his wife during a domestic argument, has been in prison three years already, working a pretty cushy job handing out work assignments. One day, he decides to pick up a pack of cigarettes without having cash to pay the seller (Thomas G. Waites, the film’s actual protagonist, but promoted on the old VHS cover as the heavy).

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When Heard can’t pay, Waites asks him to give one of his crew a sought-after job in the prison print shop. Heard refuses. Waites threatens to turn the matter over to his debt collector, another convict named Gasolino, who settles debts with stabbings. Heard reacts by challenging Gasolino and things escalate badly from there.

It occurred to me, by the halfway point in the story, that the character treated with the most empathy, the character we spend the most time with, was not Heard’s wife-killer, but Waites’ prison ‘storekeeper’. He’s a guy scamming and hustling and maneuvering to stay on top of the convict food chain, and not viewed as a complete sociopath, unlike some
of the supporting characters he interacts with.

When you slowly realize that Heard brought his debt trouble on himself, and realize the character’s full of frustration and self-loathing, very likely seeking some sort of punishment for his crime that the system won’t give him, it becomes obvious who the antagonist in this story really is. He’s really a bit of a jerk. At times, he’s actually daring Waites to take action on the debt. He wants to die, or so he believes, until the moment arrives (of course).

Waites’ character, on second viewing, doesn’t seem like such an unreasonable guy. He’s the character, rather than the self-destructive Heard, who’s trying to keep his head above water. He’s the character who’s not able to show weakness to the other convicts, lest he lose his clout as a mover and shaker. He’s the character the audience spends the most time with in the story. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the character’s likeable, but he and his various dilemmas always remained interesting.

The first time I watched the movie, this unexpected character depiction, this flip-flop of expectations, threw me off a bit. I wasn’t sure if I liked the movie or not. Second time around, knowing what I knew about the characters, I found the film much more satisfying. For such a low-budget production, every performance in the film is top-notch. I don’t know how accurate its portrayal of prison life is, but, as a film, it’s worth repeat viewings.

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