Escape from Alcatraz (1979) — A quieter, more thoughtful prison break

“Sometimes I think that this place is a huge count. The prisoners count the hours, the bulls count the prisoners and the king bulls count the counts.”

Lissa’s rating: Please tell me I’m not the only one that has the urge to call it Azkaban. (The similarities ARE frightening.)

Lissa’s review: Back in October, Duckie and I decided to take one “last” adult-only vacation, and wandered out to San Francisco and Napa Valley. Of course, no trip to San Francisco is complete without a visit to Alcatraz, aka The Rock. By far America’s most notorious prison, tales or impressions of violence, brutal treatment and killings, and the most evil criminals of all time have kind of seeped into folklore. On that note, I admit to being a little disappointed with Alcatraz itself. The truth is a lot of the prisoners were difficult, but not all that off their rockers, and no one was ever killed at Alcatraz. However, both legend and fact say it’s near-impossible to break out of Alcatraz.

It’s the last that forms the basis for Escape from Alcatraz. Okay, so that’s not exactly a shocker, given the title of the movie, but still. Clint Eastwood (looking surprisingly like Kevin Spacey, which disturbed me) plays Frank Morris, a convict brought to Alcatraz after trying to escape a Georgia prison. He’s your fairly typical anti-hero; for a guy that’s done enough bad things to get to this prison, he still has his own sense of honor. We never get the full details of what he did to get incarcerated, which I suppose makes sense because otherwise he wouldn’t be a sympathetic character (although it is hinted at that it has to do with grand larceny, theft, burglary… and an obsession with escaping prisons). He’s smart, quiet, and typical Clint Eastwood. And, of course, he wants out.

Along the way he’s joined by a few cohorts: the mouse-obsessed Litmus (Frank Ronzio), the reverse-racist English (Paul Benjamin), the artistic Doc (Robert Blossoms), new buddy Charlie Butts (Larry Hankin), and the Anglin brothers (Fred Ward and Jack Thibeau). It’s an entertaining cast, although again, you really wonder if these men are really THAT horrible. Their crimes are definitely brushed into the background, and the more likeable parts of their natures are pushed forward. Again, understandable, and it’s not too over the top, but it amuses me nonetheless. I mean, after all, they ARE supposed to be criminals.

It’s not a very action driven film, in a lot of ways. Don’t go into this expecting lots of fancy effects, gunshots, or even high suspense. For an escape movie, it’s very quiet. The actual escape sequence is devoid of any embellishment — which is a refreshing change, really. No near-catches, no typical gags about the prison guards and hiding in uncomfortable places and trying not to breathe…. Like I said, nice change. But although the plot is exceedingly simple, but it’s intriguing to watch snatches of life in this prison, as well as how the men actually pull off their escape plan. And life in prison is always kind of interesting to me, because it’s (I assume) a life I will never know and have kind of a morbid curiosity about.

I’m not much on prison escape movies, but this approach does strike me as rather different. The prisoners are a rather peaceful lot. Sure, you’ve got your major troublemaker (who quickly gets tossed into solitary confinement), but there’s no major violence. And that makes sense, really. For one, I would expect that would be the atmosphere that the guards are trying to achieve. And for two, a lot of the prisoners at Alcatraz weren’t the mindless-violence sort. But there’s definitely friction, as well as a social hierarchy, and that rings very true to me. And with the lack of guns and fistfights and whatever else today’s movie makers insist on putting in action flicks, the interpersonal relationships and the character of Morris take the forefront, instead of violence. And I really liked that, because it made this movie very different and let you focus on what was (well, to me) the most interesting parts.

I really liked some of the characterizations of the other prisoners, even if (again) they really glossed over the crimes. The men all had distinct personalities and reacted to their imprisonment in different ways. The writers touched on the black/white divide without going nauseatingly overboard in a PC-tolerance lesson, as well as played off some preconceived notions you might not even realize you hold. And even though I mention that the writers pretty much ignored the crimes of the prisoners, it does bring up an important point, that a person is more than their actions at one point in time.

I also think there’s something to be said for the fact that the Warden was not made into a huge villain. Usually in this sort of movie, the Warden would become an evil dictator who laughs at the pain of the prisoners and rubs his hands together plotting ways to exploit them. This Warden is portrayed as perhaps not a very understanding man, but certainly, aside from that, exactly how a warden of prisoners should be. He’s not a guidance counselor or trying to be all buddy-buddy with the inmates. It’s not his job to reform them, per se, but rather to punish. And yet, you don’t despise the Warden just for existing. His presence makes a viewer understand why escape would be desired, but doesn’t go over the top as an effort to generate sympathy for the convicts.

The actual escape is based on a true story, and I’ve gotta admit, I’m a sucker for these obscure true stories out of history. There’s something very intriguing about looking at actual people that AREN’T the big guys running the world, but are extraordinary in some way. I think that’s one of the reasons I enjoyed this so much; knowing that it actually happened (and this probably wasn’t that far off) made it really interesting to me, instead of just leaving it as a jailbreak story. I do wonder how much was whitewashed, but given what I’ve heard of the “real” stories of Alcatraz, I’m thinking not too much, aside from the characters getting a bit of it themselves.

I wish I could say something more profound, but Escape from Alcatraz is one of those what-you-see-is-what-you-get movies. I didn’t really detect any deep social commentary. Nothing offended me. Nothing made me sit and think and ponder. But it was a really enjoyable movie, with every single element about it being completely solid. It’s also not a movie for a niche audience; it’s a very “general” movie in that I really can’t imagine not being drawn to this story. (But I am biased.) It’s completely worth the rent and the two hours that you spend to watch it. So go do it. You won’t be sorry!

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