Saturday 22 January 2022

Movie Review: Escape From Alcatraz (1979)

A prison drama, Escape From Alcatraz explores life behind bars preceding an audacious escape attempt.

In the early 1960s, highly intelligent criminal Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) is transferred to the maximum security Alcatraz prison, located on a rock off the San Francisco coast. Frank is a master at escaping, but the warden (Patrick McGoohan) assures him no one has ever escaped from Alcatraz. 

Frank settles into the prison community and befriends prisoners Litmus, who has a pet mouse; Doc, who loves to paint; English, who works at the library and leads the Black contingent; and Butts, who occupies the neighbouring cell. He also tangles with the abusive goon Wolf, earning himself a stint in solitary confinement.

When brothers John and Clarence Anglin (Fred Ward and Jack Thibeau) are also transferred to Alcatraz, Frank finally finds suitable partners to plot an escape. He hatches a plan to dig out the dilapidating concrete around the cell vents to access the utility corridor and search for a way out.

A dramatization of real events, Escape From Alcatraz gains a sense of place through dedication to a single environment. The entire film takes place at the prison, writer Richard Tuggle adapting the book by J. Campbell Bruce into a taut drama of a male-only society confined to a concrete fort. Director Don Siegel adopts a sparse and economical style, avoiding claustrophobia by minimizing dialogue and briskly moving shots between cells, corridors, the food hall, and the outside courtyard.

The characterizations are thin and precious little is revealed about the men's pre-incarceration lives. But star power compensates, and a domineering Clint Eastwood is in top flinty mode, as Morris quickly absorbs and adapts to his new home with the sole purpose of making it temporary. Siegel surrounds him with a cast of relative unknowns representing men cast away from society. The prisoners range from artistic to brutal, this Alcatraz a miniature representation of all that society offers.

After a patient and slightly overextended set-up, the actual escape logistics activate in the final third. The tension mounts, Morris exploiting his environment, stature, and friendships to devise ingenious tools and diversions to keep the guards clueless as he chips away at the cell wall. His smarts extend to recognizing the need for fellow-escapees, this break-out only viable if several men work together towards a common cause. Escape From Alcatraz works hard to establish an individual mood, then cleverly breaks free.

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