Jacktown (1962, USA)
“This is Frankie Stossel. A child of God. Was he born to be bad?” the narrator asks in the movie’s opening scene as a newborn baby is smacked into life. Unfortunately there’s no-one around to give this lame 60s morality play a similar kick start.
Frankie (Richard Meade) and his mate Vinnie are young hoods; thievin’, robbin’ and dreamin’ of the time when they are big crime lords. Frankie is good looking but not bright; he gets caught having (consensual) sex with a miserable-looking 15-year-old girl (he’s 21) in the back seat of a convertible with its top down, and gets sent down on a statutory rape charge.
He gets bundled off to the State Prison of Southern Michigan in Jackson, which we are told is (or was then) the biggest penal institution in the world. ‘Jacktown’. 6,000 inmates. To convince us that it’s big and ugly, we’re shown some real-life footage of the April 1952 riots in the same Jackson Prison which went for four days. As we watch scenes of destruction we’re told that not only did the rioters burn buildings down, “food was destroyed.” That bad, huh?
Frankie comes from a good home and is not ready for prison. “Hey, guard, I haven’t got a toilet seat!” are his first words on being led to his cell. Ho, ho, ho! Within minutes, he’s confided in the bloke in the next cell that he’s been “nailed on a phony rape charge.” He is warned not to reveal to the other cons what he’s in for: “Morals charges are against their religion.” But it’s too late. The triangularly-headed Dutch in the next cell has overheard and, being a prelate of that particular religious order, sets out to make life tough for him. Soon Lefty, a big tough-looking dude is standing over him for his cigarettes, and when Frankie tries to stand up to him, he is slapped around (or, rather, is knocked about by the wind that rushes past as Lefty’s open hand swings within a metre or so of his face). Dutch’s crew don’t let up. They spit in his food. When Frankie’s mate Vinnie is gunned down and dies after a supermarket robbery, Dutch pretends to be Vinnie’s ghost. Frankie is not amused.
But he’s lucky. The decent, God-fearing Warden picks him out ahead of 5,999 others as someone who doesn’t fit in, and offers him a job as the gardener at his house. He also asks him, pointedly, if he’s a religious man. He’s not, but gets the job anyway. Soon the Warden’s beautiful but never-been-kissed daughter, Margaret, who lives in Detroit, drops in to say hello, not showing the sort of circumspection one might expect of a Warden’s daughter when chatting to prisoners. She’s a bit too open; he responds by being studiously handsome and a bit surly. The Warden spots them sharing some time together in the garden, and very sensibly moves Frankie to a full-time job as driver to get him away from his daughter.
Frankie is thwarted and sulky. He drives a guard and a prisoner requiring medical attention into the city. The prisoner tries to run away and struggles with the guard. Frankie doesn’t help either the guard or the prisoner. Instead, as the guard shoots the convict dead after a long Greco-Roman grapple, Frankie runs away and steals a car. Escapes. Oops; there’s a 4-year-old boy in the back seat, and the radio is describing it as a kidnapping. Some of the Warden’s goodness starts to rub off, however, and he ditches the car and alerts the Police. Good boy. Then he turns up on Margaret’s doorstep. Oh-oh. He complains churlishly about her father breaking them up. She offers to let him stay the night if he surrenders the next day, but Frankie is suddenly overcome with an almost-evangelical spirit of repentance. He admits that while he feels hard done by on the rape charge, he deserves to be in jail for all the other things he’s done. And then he suggests that he be driven back to the prison straight away, and even agrees to ring so that the Warden doesn’t worry any more than he has to. And that’s it. Sorry to give the ending away, but you weren’t going to watch it anyway.
The narrator has the final word: “Frankie Stossel did return to Jacktown, and later, on release, to a new and better way of life. But there are other Frankie Stossels and Vinnie Vitales [?] .. Yes, they’re out there, right now. But sooner or later, unless they get on the right road, they too will enter a Jacktown.” Yes. Understood.
It’s a poorly made, poorly conceived, poorly acted film. It seems that this might have been the only film made by Richard Meade and several of his fellow actors, which can only be a good thing. The dialogue is stilted and unimaginative and the delivery is even more stilted and wooden. The notion of a Warden’s daughter falling for a charmless prisoner is pretty tough to swallow. And the notion of a Warden not reporting the escape of a prisoner after it happened in broad daylight, with heaps of witnesses, is even trickier. Not even the old footage of 1952 riot (with the narrator telling us that there was better stuff too disturbing to show) is enough to make the film worth watching, really. Unless, I suppose, you’re a die-hard fan of bad 60s cinema.
Posted on October 24th, 2009 at 4:35 pm. Updated on December 11th, 2009 at 8:58 pm.
#459 in the Top 500