For an early-’70s social-issue telefilm, The Glass House has an impressive pedigree: Truman Capote co-wrote the story, and ace scribe Tracy Keenan Wynn (The Longest Yard) wrote the teleplay. Alan Alda stars as Jonathan Paige, a college professor convicted of manslaughter for inadvertently killing the man who injured Paige’s wife in a car accident. He’s sent to prison on the same day that an idealistic guard, Brian Courtland (Clu Gulager), starts work at the institution, and as these unsuspecting men fall into the web of corruption and violence spun by prison overlord Hugo Slocum (Vic Morrow), a brutal killer incarcerated for life, the heroes come to realize the hopelessness of escaping, much less changing, the merciless status quo inside the big house.
Paige’s descent is tied to the abuse visited upon a sweet-faced young man (Kristoffer Tabori) whom Paige fails to protect, and Courtland’s disillusionment stems from his realization that the aged warden (Dean Jagger) is content to let inmates kill each other. Unobtrusively directed by journeyman helmer Tom Gries, the picture moves at a strong pace from the bleak opening sequence to the horrific finale, making a simple statement about the seeming impossibility of retaining humanity inside a maximum-security lockup.
Abetted tremendously by Alda’s characteristically sensitive performance, the script does a strong job of depicting Paige as a man who can’t win: Keeping to himself doesn’t steer the professor clear of danger, and neither does taking a principled stand. What’s more, the script expertly weaves together various strong personalities, with Morrow commanding the screen as a predatory monster, and Tabori giving a poignant turn as innocent doomed by circumstance. Billy Dee Williams shows up in an important featured role, and the film slyly employs his super-cool swagger to present a complex character who’s part peacenik, part revolutionary, and part straight-up badass. Depressing but focused and purposeful, The Glass House is solid stuff.
The Glass House: GROOVY