Escape From Alcatraz

Escape From Alcatraz (1979) Director: Don Siegel

“Some men are destined never to leave Alcatraz… alive.”

★★★★★

Escape from Alcatraz is an American realist film about the infamous 1962 prison break from America’s most impenetrable prisons. The movie stars Clint Eastwood, Patrick McGoohan, Fred Ward, Jack Thibeau, Larry Hankin, and Danny Glover (his cinematic debut). The film is a modern take on the once-popular genre of prison break movies, like The Big House in 1930. However, Escape From Alcatraz is gritty, almost cold, character study and the pacing is slow. The tone is perfect. The central narrative tension builds throughout the film until the prisoners escape -they are criminals yet heroes- and the ending is ambiguous leaving audiences to wonder whether the inmates truly did, in fact, escape from “the rock.”

The story is based on a 1963 novel of the same name. It details the extraordinary efforts by three men, led by the genius Frank Morris, to break out of Alcatraz. Frank’s cool and calculating demeanor is contrasted with the Warden (played by Patrick McGoohan) who is a strict Nurse Ratchett-esque character a la One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.

“If you disobey the rules of society, they send you to prison; if you disobey the rules of the prison, they send you to US. Alcatraz is not like any other prison in the United States. Here, every inmate is confined alone… to an individual cell.”

Throughout the film we are introduced to a variety of amusing prisoners, the half-crazed doctor, a jaded black man who becomes friends with Frank, a violent prisoner who attempts to assault Frank. Amusingly, we meet the anachronistic Al Capone (in reality, Capone would not have been Alcatraz at this time). Nevertheless, it serves to provide a rich portrait of prison life. The technique is later copied in another classic prison break film, The Shawshank Redemption.

The great joy in the film is watching the escape plot develop over time, and then take pleasure in watching the Warden foiled at the end. In reality, the prisoners were never caught. Director Don Siegel, famous for working with Eastwood on other films including Dirty Harry, initially wanted the film to end with the Warden discovering the false paper-mache heads, but Clint Eastwood disagreed. Eastwood’s version of the ending is what appears in the final cut -the Warden finds a chrysanthemum as it washes ashore on the mainland of the Bay Area -a plant not typically found on the mainland but populous on the island of Alcatraz.

Escape from Alcatraz was filmed on location at Alcatraz island, which was officially closed as a working prison not long after the 1962 break. The film has been widely praised by critics and fellow directors and it has long been a favorite of mine.

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