Convict 4 (aks Convict Four, and Reprieve): Millard Kaufman’s Prison Drama, Starring Ben Gazzara, Stuart Whitman, Ray Walston, Vincent Price, Rod Steiger

Millard Kaufman directed Convicts 4 (aka Reprieve) a low-budget independent film, set within a prison, starring Ben Gazzara.

The film is a fictionalized version of the life of death-row convict John Resko, who wrote his autobiography: Reprieve.

On February 5, 1931, Resko and an accomplice, Frank Mayo, killed a grocer, Samuel Friedberg, during an attempted robbery of his store at 885 East 167th Street in the Bronx.

Resko confessed to the crime. Both men were sentenced to death, and the jury recommended clemency for Resko, who was 19 and had wife and infant daughter. The jury recommended clemency, as the foreman said he was a tool “in the hands of a hardened criminal.”

Resko’s sentence was commuted by then-Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt to life imprisonment after he testified against Mayo, who was executed on July 21, 1932.

Resko became a noted artist while in prison and was freed shortly before Christmas 1949 by Governor Thomas E. Dewey.

The film mixes fact with fiction, turning the killing into a crime of passion.

The tale begins in Christmas, 1931, when John Resko (Ben Gazzara) wants to give his baby daughter new teddy bear. He goes, without money, into a shop and tries to get the shopkeeper to give it to him. The prosperous shopkeeper, who cleans his eyeglasses with a dollar bill, refuses. Resko grabs a gun he saw in the till, but the shopkeeper lunges at Resko and is shot. Resko, only 18, is condemned to the electric chair.

Pardoned by the governor the last minute, Resko is sentenced to Dannemora Prison, where he has difficulty adjusting to life behind bars. It becomes even less bearable after hearing that his wife (Carmen Phillips) has left him and that his father (Jack Kruschen) has died while rescuing a drowning child to make up for the life that was lost.

Resko attempts to escape twice, and does long stretches in solitary confinement. Meanwhile, he is befriended by fellow convicts like Iggy (Ray Walston) and Wino (Sammy Davis Jr.) who help him to pass the time.

When he takes up art as a hobby, Resko’s work is seen by critic Carl Carmer (Vincent Price), who believes he shows potential. In 1949, after 18 years in prison, Resko is released.

In the last scene, his daughter (Susan Silo) and granddaughter are waiting when he gets out.

The film was initially released as Reprieve to poor box office. It was distributed again as Convicts 4, but without commercial success.

Although the film did not find an audience in the theaters, it played often on late-night television,

Resko was technical advisor of the film, whose prison sequences were shot at Folsom State Prison.

Sammy Davis Jr. put on a show for the actual inmates after filming.

Ben Gazzara as John Resko
Stuart Whitman as Principal Keeper
Ray Walston as Iggy
Vincent Price as Carl Carmer
Rod Steiger as ‘Tiptoes’
Broderick Crawford as Warden
Dodie Stevens as Resko’s Sister
Jack Kruschen as Resko’s Father
Sammy Davis Jr. as Wino
Naomi Stevens as Resko’s Mother
Carmen Phillips as Connie Resko
Susan Silo as Cathy (as an adult)
Timothy Carey as Nick
Roland La Starza as Duke
Tom Gilson as Lefty
Jack Albertson as Art teacher