While we all can rattle off dozens upon dozens of movie titles starring the horror legends Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price, it’s often within those non-horror efforts that hides a forgotten classic. It’s fun to go through their IMDB listings to discover something new. For example, a young and 27 year old Cushing starred alongside Laurel and Hardy in A Chump at Oxford (1940) and Lee was a guest star in the Boris Karloff TV series Colonel March of Scotland Yard in 1956. But Vincent Price? Well, he seemingly appeared in everything.
Price would gladly guest star on television shows such as The Bionic Woman or Love, American Style just as much as he would star in a horror flick. But Price also had a long history of starring in dramatic flicks. In 1962, he took a small role as art critic Carl Carmer in the prison film Convicts 4. This was a fictionalized account of death row convict John Resko based on his own autobiography, Reprieve: The Testament of John Resko. This was the one and only film directed by Millard Kaufman, who is better remembered for writing such classics as Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and Gun Crazy (1950). Oddly enough, he was also a co-creator of the classic cartoon character Mr. Magoo. He also wrote the screenplay for Convicts 4.
The movie begins as convicted killer John Resko (Ben Gazzara, Anatomy of a Murder) is being prepped for the electric chair. Just before he is to die, he receives a last-minute reprieve. The movie follows his story, now serving a life sentence in prison. Gazzara turns in an amazing performance but he’s almost overshadowed by the tremendous supporting cast. Stuart Whitman (Shatter) follows Resko from working as a guard to the eventual warden at the prison. Rod Steiger (The Illustrated Man) appears briefly as the first and obviously sadistic warden Tiptoes. Ray Walston (My Favorite Martian) is wonderful as the potentially mentally imbalanced Iggy while familiar face Jack Albertson (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) appears as the art teacher.
However, two of the best supporting performances come from Vincent Price and Sammy Davis Jr. Price appears in only one scene as art critic Carl Cramer, clearly mimicking his own real-life passion for art. It was in the same year of 1962 that Price began his long standing relationship with Sears, launching The Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art. In the movie, Cramer is a key to convincing Resko that he has talent as an art student, which is part of a bigger effort for prison reform. Price is doing simply what he loves to do but he does it so well. And Davis appears in only a couple of scenes as well, playing inmate Wino. Not the jovial Rat Packer we remember him as, Davis could act and does so here, showing an edge we seldom got to see.
For many years, Convicts 4 remained buried in the Warner Brothers vaults but thanks to the Warner Archives burn-on-demand DVD series, it has resurfaced and is now readily available for a new generation. The movie really is quite entertaining and all of the familiar faces help make up for the limited Price on-screen time. Nonetheless, it is certainly worth tracking down. Check it out on DVD and a clip from the film on YouTube. I also highly recommend watching episode 47 of Dr. Gangrene’s Fantastic Films of Vincent Price series.
That’s it for this month’s tribute to Cushing, Lee and Price. I hope you enjoyed it. Come back in a few days as I have something special lined up for the summer of 2016 and it all begins this Friday!