Mel Stuart's Mean Dog Blues is a well-paced, enjoyably pulpy prison picture that provides consummate character player Gregg Henry (already balding) with a rare starring role and surrounds him with an able cast of veterans including George Kennedy, Kay Lenz, Scatman Crothers, James Wainwright, Gregory Sierra, Felton Perry, William Windom, and Tina Louise. It's something of a throwback to Warner Bros. prison films of the '30s and '40s updated with some '70s-appriopriate levels of sadism and language. This might not sound like such a strong endorsement, but, indeed, I found the film to be constantly engaging--downright riveting at times--even as it explores well-trodden cinematic territory.
Lenz is Henry's dedicated wife; it's not dissimilar to her role in White Line Fever in which she played the loyal wife of frequently and unjustly victimized Jan-Michael Vincent. Lenz and Henry had acted together a year earlier in the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man Book II.
No stranger to playing bullies, on either side of the law, Kennedy is in familiar territory as the prison warden with an unhealthy attachment to his attack dog, something you can see in the effective trailer linked above. That said, Kennedy is in excellent form and he has two of the film's best moments, both involving his dog Rattler. Wainwright, best known as the young Hoover in Larry Cohen's The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, is quite good as Kennedy's second-in-command, a man even more cruel and sadistic than his boss. Crothers makes a brief appearance as Kennedy's unfortunately dubbed "dog n***er," the prisoner entrusted with running from the guard dogs for training purposes. It's a job Henry will inherit from Crothers and use to his advantage...
The film never really achieves any kind of verisimilitude in its depiction of a prison work camp and it often feels something like an R-rated television film, owing to its episodic structure, rudimentary cinematography and mise-en-scene, and its meager production design. Even so, Henry's good guy proves to be a more unpredictable and interesting character than one initially assumes him to be, as the script imbues him with some chutzpah, toughness, and a smart-ass sense of humor, which neophyte actor Henry convincingly pulls off. Henry and Lenz share the film's most tender and moving moment during a conjugal visit, in which they are happy just to hold each rather than do the obvious. It might sound stale on paper, but it works onscreen, and it's scenes like this that make Mean Dog Blues a little bit of a hidden gem and one that really deserves to be more widely seen.
Being a film score aficionado, I should also point out Fred Karlin's jangly original music, which reminds--in a good way--of David Shire's Straight Time...these are the kinds of memorable and hummable, small-scale scores that we never hear anymore in Hollywood product.
D.P. Robert Hauser mostly shot for television, but he did sprinkle in a few interesting features onto his resume, in addition to this one, including: Le Mans and Willard. Stuart is probably best known for Wattstax and Willie Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
Mean Dog Blues is an MGM property now, by way of their purchase of the Filmways / AIP library, and I'm guessing we may eventually see it as an MGM MOD disc unless one of the enterprising independent labels such as Shout Factory! is able to snag it.