“Alcatraz was built to keep all the rotten eggs in one basket, and I was specially chosen to make sure that the stink from the basket does not escape.”
When it comes to prison films the first movie that comes to mind is Frank Darabont’s Shawshank Redemption. It ranks on some popular online sites as one of the best films ever made, so when I finally got a chance to watch Don Siegel’s 1979 prison movie I was underwhelmed. The greatest problem is that this film hasn’t aged well and these characters are all playing familiar stereotypes. Modern prison films have captured the right atmosphere where you actually believe most prisoners are criminals and not just victims of a system. They’re dark, gruesome films, and above all they feel genuine. Even popular TV shows have managed to give us a much more raw sense of prison life. But you don’t get any of that from watching this film because almost every prisoner in this movie is presented as a victim. I had a hard time believing these characters were actual prisoners and the interactions among them were predictable and cheesy. Don Siegel had worked with Clint Eastwood since the late 60’s, but it had been several years since they had last collaborated together. Escape from Alcatraz was their fifth film together and despite its success it was there last collaboration. Clint Eastwood had long solidified his career as a star and he basically comes into this film playing himself. He isn’t given much of a personality other than being the quiet and reserved prisoner who you know is smarter than anyone around him simply because he’s Eastwood. He is so slow at delivering every one-liner that you can predict everything he is going to answer back to whoever tries to intimidate him. I was surprised the screenplay was so predictable, but Eastwood has such strong charisma that you just enjoy the way he delivers the lines even though you know exactly what he’s going to say.
Escape from Alcatraz, which was based on J. Campbell Bruce’s book of the same name, was inspired on true events. Richard Tuggle, who would later go on to direct Eastwood in another film, adapted the screenplay and did some research of his own on the 1962 escape attempt of Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers. The film begins very silently (there is hardly any dialogue during the first 10 minutes) as Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) is being escorted by officers to the Alcatraz prison. The long ride to the prison cell and the extreme security measures give us a sense of how improbable it is for someone to escape the prison, but Frank is determined and seems to have the IQ for the task. In case he didn’t receive the message, the warden (Patrick McGoohan) gives him a friendly reminder that he will never leave the island because no one has ever been able to escape. He is later introduced to some of the other prisoners: English (Paul Benjamin), who works at the library and exchanges a couple of friendly racial insults with him, Litmus (Frank Ronzio) the prisoner who enjoys the company of his mouse (such a cliche now for prison movies) and is always bargaining with Frank for his dessert, Wolf (Bruce M. Fischer) the bully in the prison who wants Frank to be his pet, and Butts (Larry Hankin) who is in the cell next to his. Frank realizes that the salt in the water has eroded some of the walls and he comes up with an escape plan that he shares with Butts. When two brothers, John (Fred Ward) and Clarence Anglin (Jack Thibeau), arrive at the prison Frank realizes he can use their help as well and the four come up with a plan. The suspense begins to grow as the film centers on their escape attempt.
The film works much better when it focuses on the escape plan because the characters aren’t really developed too well and the interactions between them are painfully dull at times. None of the prisoners have a personality of their own and every subplot is simply used as a filler. Once the escape plan gets underway however the film works at a much better pace. Eastwood is a star and he can turn any one dimensional character into someone compelling, which he manages to do here. Any attempt to give the rest of the characters something compelling to do fails. You could care less about the threat that the Wolf or the warden present to Frank, and the bonds he makes in prison aren’t very interesting either. The scenes he shares with English were pointless. Larry Hankin is probably the only other sympathetic character here. The lack of character development kind of lowers the stakes of the actual escape, but Eastwood manages to make it compelling nonetheless. The tension escalates in the second half of the film and makes the experience worthwhile, but overall I felt underwhelmed by this classic.