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Directed by Alan Parker
Produced by Alan Marshall & David Puttnam
Written by Oliver Stone, based on the book by Bill Hayes with William Hoffer
Director of Photography, Michael Seresin
Edited by Gerry Hambling
Music by Giorgio Moroder
Released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
UK/USA. 121 min. Rated R
Special Features: Director’s commentary. Featurettes: “The Producer,” “The Production,” & “The Finished Film.” Photo gallery. Alan Parker’s essay & photo journal. English & French audio. English, French & Spanish subtitles
With Brad Davis, John Hurt & Randy Quaid

Director Alan Parker’s right. His 1978 riveting prison drama still holds up. A lot of that has to do with the handheld camera, ubiquitous today; the murky, on-location lighting (the movie was largely filmed in an abandoned British fort on Malta); and the central theme: prisoner abuse. (Enough said on that, the film speaks powerfully for itself.)

The anti-hero, loosely based on the real-life Billy Hayes, is thrown into prison for attempting to smuggle two kilos of hash out of Turkey in 1970. Shortly after he’s thrown in his cell, he steals a blanket, for which he’s punished – bound, beaten, and raped. Ninety more minutes to go until he completely mentally disintegrates. Granted, the 23-year-old American was guilty of drug running and perhaps a bit dim for attempting to bring them onboard an international flight during the hijacking scares of the early ’70s. But the audience immediately empathizes with Hayes through his point-of-view shots and the loud thump-thump of his heartbeat, a great device in building suspense.

Only its Academy Award-winning electronic score by Giorgio Moroder feels dated; his synthesizers must be dinosaurs in comparison to today’s wizardry. The high-pitched drum machine may be more at home in the VIP room at Studio 54 than in a chase scene through Istanbul, but the catchy score insinuates itself, propelling the film forward and providing some of the few moments of desperately needed tenderness. If you watch the photo gallery extra, you get a chance to listen to the accompanying film soundtrack for 15 uninterrupted minutes.

Even 30 years later, the negative portrayal of Turkey is not forgotten. The reaction that the film was anti-Turkish took Parker by surprise, but, as he explains in the extras, he wanted to avoid the cliché of including the good among the bad, and that under the circumstances, and in Hayes’s memoir, there weren’t any heroes. He freely admits that he and debut screenwriter Oliver Stone took liberties with the facts in building the dramatic conflict. (However, Stone’s script certainly goes over-the-top with Hayes’s court rant: “For a nation of pigs, it sure is funny that you don’t eat them.”) But the one thing the politically incorrect film is not is homophobic. Parker handles, matter-of-factly, a Swedish prisoner’s attraction for Billy. In fact, the shower scene, quite tame compared to HBO’s prison-set Oz, features what amounts to the film’s love theme, even as Billy gently declines the offer (unlike in real life).

The disc offers plenty of options and anecdotes. Depending on your time, the booklet by Parker and the three featurettes offer almost the exact information as the director’s commentary, from Parker’s chance encounter on Fifth Avenue with executive producer Peter Gruber that led to the film’s genesis to the casting process and more. (Richard Gere, favored by the studio, refused to audition for the director.) On the set, John Hurt, as a fellow prisoner, would kid Brad Davis (as Hayes in his first feature film let alone starring role) for his method-based antics before takes – doing push-ups and, oddly, peeing into a bucket. But ironically, it was Hurt who refused to bathe in order to feel filthy during the shoot. Kent Turner
February 8, 2008



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