Talk about your school of hard knocks. In The Shawshank Redemption (Columbia, R), Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a tall, soft-spoken New England banker, is convicted-wrong- ly-of killing his adulterous wife and her lover. It's 1947, and Andy, having received a double life sentence, is shipped off to Shawshank State Prison in Maine, a maximum-security fortress packed to the grimy gills with thieves, rapists, and murderers. How bad is life at Shawshank? So bad that when Andy trudges off the bus along with a dozen other new inmates, the veteran prisoners make wagers on who'll be the first to cry. So bad that Andy finds a huge, wriggly yellow maggot buried in his lunch. So bad that, over the next two years, he is systematically beaten and raped by the Sisters, a crew of leering renegade inmates who take special delight in tormenting their fellow prisoners. Make no mistake: Andy gets worked over-and so does the audience.
But then, good things have a way of happening to unfortunate movie characters. Early in his stay, Andy makes the acquaintance of Red (Morgan Freeman), a sly survivor who is serving a life sentence for murder and who acts as Shawshank's one-man black market, smuggling the prisoners anything they want-cigarettes, reefer, cards with naked ladies (''I'm a regular Sears and Roebuck,'' he deadpans). As soon as Andy bonds with Red, things start to ! look up. He gets hold of a rock hammer so that he can sculpt an elegant chess set. He does the guards' tax returns in exchange for perks like beer on a sunbaked afternoon. He expands the dusty, neglected book room into the most comprehensive prison library in New England. Set over a period of 20 years (the passing decades are marked by Andy's pinup posters of Rita Hayworth, then Marilyn, then Raquel), The Shawshank Redemption begins as a nightmare, a postwar- New England Midnight Express, but it doesn't take long to reveal its true, feel-good colors. The movie is about survival, triumph, and a thing called hope. It's about a hero who rises above the squalor because he's blessed-a saint in the muck. It's Midnight Express Goes Gump.
You need a certain craftsmanship to traffic in twin brands of manipulation- the exploitative and the sentimental-and there's no denying that Frank Darabont, who wrote and directed The Shawshank Redemption (it's based on a short novel by Stephen King), knows just what he's doing. The moss-dark, saturated images have a redolent sensuality; you feel as if you could reach out and touch the prison walls. And Darabont is an accomplished button pusher. He coaches the actors so that you always know exactly who to root for and against. When it comes to a character like the warden (Bob Gunton), all Bible- thumping righteousness, the movie has no compunction about turning up the hissability factor. He starts out mean, then turns meaner, then meaner still. When Andy blasts Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro over loudspeakers to the prison work field, it becomes a full-scale opera-soothes-the-savage-breast number, with the prisoners standing open-mouthed at the sublime sounds. The scene is meant to fire our righteous liberal hearts. It helps, of course, that most of the prisoners don't actually behave like criminals. They never say a word about their pasts-even Andy remains a downtrodden cipher-and this lends the proceedings a hollow, generic feel, as if Darabont had constructed a blueprint out of old prison melodramas.
A movie like The Shawshank Redemption, with its brazenly mechanical plotting and its wish-fulfillment finale, requires a lead actor who can carry us on the wings of his good spirits. Tim Robbins is crafty and likable when Andy is hoodwinking the guards, and he makes you feel the character's mute anguish. Yet in shouldering what is essentially a laconic- good-guy, neo-Gary Cooper role, Robbins never quite makes emotional contact with the audience. His face, foggy and placid, suggests an overgrown baby's; there's something naggingly unformed about him. Morgan Freeman, on the other hand, with his delicate smolder, his eyes that seem to peer directly into everyone's soul, makes Red feel genuine, lived-in. Speaking of the prison walls, he says, ''First you hate 'em. Then you get used to 'em.
After long enough, you get so you depend on 'em. That's institutionalized.'' With his gift for rapt pauses, for caressing just the right syllable, Freeman can make a speech like that sound like one of the philosophical nuggets of the ages. Then again, isn't it time Morgan Freeman stopped playing the soulful sidekick? While we're on the subject of prison walls, an actor as great as he is shouldn't get too used to movies like this one. B-