October 26, 1987 12:00 PM

In one scene in this film, Nick Nolte, as a man who has just been paroled from a prison sentence he thought would never end, is about to go to bed with a woman for the first time since his release. There is no dialogue, just Nolte watching the woman, played by Rita (Torchlight) Taggart, undress. He manages, with the subtlest shifts of his eyes and cast of his body, to convey a swirl of emotions—lust, impatience, fear, shock, confusion. The scene reflects the talents of director John (Bang the Drum Slowly) Hancock and Taggart too of course, but it is really Nolte’s triumph—a difficult, honest, touching performance that he sustains throughout the film. Based loosely on the life of a prisoner Hancock met while doing volunteer work with the San Quentin Drama Group, the movie examines a man who had been convicted for armed robbery and given a life sentence without possibility of parole. Alternating between solitary confinement and suicide attempts that land him in the prison hospital, he is the image of desperation—an image Nolte creates with a minimum of histrionics—until he starts a frenzy of reading. Asking the prison librarian for the longest books he can find, Nolte is gradually inspired to write a play about life in confinement that Taggart, as a “food and drama” critic for a Bay Area newspaper, reviews with a rave. The ensuing publicity helps spring Nolte, and he forms a theatrical troupe of his old prison buddies, traveling around the country performing his play, which he constantly rewrites—more so when someone realizes that he has plagiarized large segments of Genet’s Death Watch. There is an eventful dramatic story here, and Nolte gets substantial help in playing it from, among others, co-stars Lane Smith, Ernie Hudson, John Toles-Bey, real ex-con J.J. Johnson and especially William Forsythe, as a brutish sort of kleptomaniac who suggests Lenny in Of Mice and Men. (Anne Ramsey also has a brief but moving role as Nolte’s senility-afflicted mother.) But Hancock and co-writer Dorothy Tristan seem to have more in mind than whether or not the troupe’s play will be a success in New York. At its best moments this movie is about the persistence of optimism and faith even in the face of merciless defeats. While Nolte is far too cynical to become heroic, his stubbornness earns a grim kind of respect. The film zooms to an upsettingly melodramatic ending that seems out of synch with what’s gone before. That’s not enough, though, to really affect the memory of Nolte as his own play’s star, snarling out through the bars of his prison within a prison, an animal defying his entrapment. (R)

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