Skip to main content

Do chrysanthemums grow on this island?

Escape from Alcatraz
(1979)

Escape from Alcatraz holds particular allure within the prison break genre. Not only is it based on an actual (successful) escape but it relates to the most famous prison of them all. The Rock has featured in other successful films; Burt Lancaster romanticised the Birdman of Alcatraz and Sean Connery was a silver-locked escapee in The Rock. But Escape’s merits lie in its stripped-down, unglamorous approach. It may feature an immaculately coiffured Clint Eastwood at the centre but it’s his star power that enables the story to unfold with slow-but-sure confidence.


This was Eastwood’s fifth time out with Don Siegel, a working relationship that took in a fish-out-of-water cop thriller (Coogan’s Bluff), a light-hearted western (Two Mules for Sister Sara), and a weird psychosexual American Civil War drama (The Beguiled), before presenting an iconic fascist for the ages (Dirty Harry). Common to the quintet is Eastwood as the loner/outsider protagonist. Escape came eight years after Dirty Harry and Siegel, as much of a formative influence on Eastwood as Sergio Leone, was now approaching 70 (he would direct two further films).


Reportedly the star and director disagreed on aspects of the production (the film ended up carrying Eastwood’s Malpassso banner but was released by Paramount rather than the star’s preferred Warner Bros) but eventually made up.  Richard Tuggle penned the script (he would go on to direct Eastwood in Tightrope), adapted from J. Campbell Bruce’s novel (Siegel had written his own treatment of the novel more than a decade before). Filming on Alcatraz, by then out of service for more than 15 years, required considerable outlay to render the facility fit for purpose (to the tune of $500m); much of this work was retained following the production. Such a cost shouldn’t have concerned the studio; Escape became a sizable hit, comparable to Eastwood’s flashier Dirty Harry sequels if not on a par with his pairings with Clyde the orang-utan (Clint in his most shamelessly lowbrow, Burt Reynolds-esque, audience-pleasing mode).


Indeed, the film treads a balance between strong storytelling and commercial appeal, something the actor/director all but lost touch with during the ‘80s. Eastwood was willing to try something different (Bronco Billy, Honkytonk Man) to public indifference, but his crowd-pleasers during the ‘80s would tend towards the knuckle dragging. This was also a very rare occasion where Clint plays an actual person (the other being John Huston by another name in White Hunter Black Heart). Not that you’d be any the wiser, as Frank Morris is Clint personified through-and-through (did I mention the hair?) It’s a nice ego-stroke too that Frank has a superior IQ (Eastwood noted that it was 148) and, in common with Eastwood protagonists, there is little in the way of backstory (he has no family and expects no visitors). Morris is defined by his values such that, although he is a bad guy (an inmate), he is a good guy (treats others decently and with respect). However, Frank doesn’t really escape because he (or his friends) is being oppressed by an unjust system; he escapes because the need to escape is in his nature.


Siegel’s film is at its strongest once Frank has resolved to break free; prior to this the plot beats are broader and more traditional. While some of the characters and scenarios carry the whiff of Hollywood formula, the godsend to this is the use of real locations. They bring a sense of verisimilitude, one that tempers the broader impulses on display. Siegel takes time with the induction of Morris and the establishment of the routine of the prison. The gang of nice-guy-really reprobates Frank encounters are readily identifiable “types” but they mostly remain on the right side of cliché (they motivate the narrative rather than define it). I guess Siegel and Eastwood might have gone for an ultra-minimalist approach but, by Hollywood standards, they’ve stinted on the largess quite significantly already.


So we meet Litmus (Frank Ronzio) and his pet mouse; he’s a gentle soul you see, and loves animals. The mouse is extraordinarily smart, able to relay messages to Frank, so it’s no wonder he includes him in the final breakout along (“Yeah, you’re coming too”). One wonders how much of an influence this picture was on Stephen King’s prison tales. Then there’s Doc (Roberts Blossom) a lifer who only has his love of art and beauty (he paints and grows chrysanthemums) to keep him sane. Naturally, Clint sides with these misfits and rejects. Accordingly he takes to new prisoner next door, car thief Charley Butts (Larry Hankin, Kramer in the pilot within a pilot episode in Seinfeld and Mr Heckles in Friends). He further cements his status as saviour of the oppressed when he shows his thoroughly progressive streak by making pals with English (Paul Benjamin), the wise African-American librarian.


Of course, prison movies also need their stock adversaries. One wouldn’t be complete without the threat of rape, so Frank must deal with the advances of Wolf (Bruce M Fischer) who turns persistently murderous after he is subjected to a mouthful of soap. 



Really though, he’s no big deal set next to Patrick McGoohan’s sadistic Warden (no surname provided). Actually, although the Warden is commonly labelled sadistic, unflinchingly authoritarian would be a better description. He doesn’t appear to take enormous pleasure in the punishments he metes out, and Siegel seems to be suggesting that his greatest crime is pride. It isn’t just as a warning to Frank that that the Warden ushers him in for a new-arrival pep talk, announcing, “No one has ever escaped from Alcatraz. And no one ever will”. The Warden has a reputation to uphold, which means there is no room for niceties. As he warns, “We don’t make good citizens here but we make good prisoners”. We expect the Warden to be unsympathetic, and hosing poor Frank down when he’s in isolation is de rigueur treatment for the wilful inmate. But where the Warden loses us completely is in his lack of basic human empathy. He removes the privileges of the elderly artist, for God’s sake! Unforgivable.


The Prisoner becomes the Warden. Patrick McGoohan is quite awesome as the Warden. He can’t be on screen for more than 10 minutes, so an actor with the presence and commanding tone is needed; one who makes a worthy foe for Clint.  With his clipped delivery and zero tolerance policy, he represents everything that your basic self-respecting, freedom-loving, criminal should be fighting against.  The Warden’s establishing scene might be the best constructed in the film, as he launches into an oft-rehearsed speech concerning Alcatraz’s strictures while Frank stands silently. The Warden has the room. It is only afterwards that we see Morris has stolen a pair of nail clippers from his desk (Siegel establishes them without undue attention at the start of the scene). It’s a wonderful piece of short hand, informing us that strong silent Clint will outwit his opponents with a trademark minimum of fuss. In part this scene is needed because the Warden must remain a background threat; Frank can’t be constantly on his radar.


This results in an occasionally awkward reminder of the Warden, as Tuggle feels the need to bring the two together. He comes to chat to Frank in the canteen following Doc’s self-amputation (a particularly memorable and nasty sequence) and one doesn’t really believe he would deign to do such a thing, even if the action serves to suggest that somewhere within he recognises he has overstepped the mark. Mostly though, the scene is there to provide Clint with his most celebrated line of the picture, as he rebukes the Warden’s decision to dock the Doc’s painting rights with “There’s always the possibility that some asshole will be offended, isn’t there?” The earlier scene where the Warden happens across Doc’s boggle-eyed portrait of him is particularly strong; he smiles, and you can’t tell how much this he is appreciative of the artistry and how much he is savouring the consequences of this impudence. The Warden’s final scenes, insistent that the escapees have perished against any protestations (“Maybe they want it to look like they drowned” offers a guard) speak volumes.


It isn’t until Morris enlists John and Clarence Anglin (Fred Ward and Jack Thibeau) in his escape bid that the picture fully kicks into gear. These aren’t the showiest of parts, but it’s always nice to see Ward in anything (Danny Glover also has a scene, in another very early appearance). Siegel expertly builds the tension in a precise, unhurried manner. He’s one of those economical, unobtrusive directors who developed his technique from formative days under studio contract. He precisely understood the staging and editing of action, whether on a grand or intimate level, and his work is devoid of flashy, attention-grabbing gimmicks. The planning and digging, chipping away at the ventilation grill bit-by-bit, require exactly his measured approach. Perhaps there isn’t quite a clear sense that this took two years (Frank was transferred to Alcatraz in January 1960, and the escape took place in June 1962) but we’re under no doubt it must have taken a long time.


At points, there is a slightly unnecessary MacGyver vibe (Frank’s method of DIY welding is an enormous stretch, and wholly unnecessary since they just used spoons to dig themselves out anyway; all the things they did achieve are impressive enough, with dummies, a raft, fake grills etc.). We see the standard prison break tropes such as emptying pockets full of dirt in the ocurtyard, and there’s a nifty sleight of hand with a metal detector, but it’s in the excursions through the cell walls that Siegel is at his best. There’s a great scene in which the discovery of Frank’s plaster dummy stand-in seems imminent, and Siegel craftily tricks us by using the dummy in one shot and the real Clint in the next. If the piling on of the pre-big day tension is on the predictable side (Wolf is released from solitary, the Warden orders Frank to be moved to a different cell) it doesn’t detract from the nuts-and-bolts physicality of the attempt itself (in which the actors performed their own stunts). It should be noted that Butts is based on the inmate Allen West; whilst in the film Butts gets cold feet and, by the time he musters the courage, he’s too late to join the others, in reality West found his route blocked by a metal bar.


In spite of some well-worn elements, Siegel instils the proceedings with a sense of conviction. Events play out across a taut canvas, where the setting confers an air of authenticity, while Jerry Fielding’s atmospheric strings effectively underscore the tension. The conjecture over whether the trio made it to freedom or drowned trying is on-going. If the unlikely possibility of survival isn’t quite as unlikely as in the conclusion to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, it’s in the same tradition. Except, according to a National Geographic Channel documentary, evidence has come to light that the trio did indeed reach shore.


****


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

Suspicions of destiny. We all have them. A deep, wordless knowledge that our time has come.

Damien: Omen II (1978) (SPOILERS) There’s an undercurrent of unfulfilled potential with the Omen series, an opportunity to explore the machinations of the Antichrist and his minions largely ignored in favour of Final Destination deaths every twenty minutes or so. Of the exploration there is, however, the better part is found in Damien: Omen II , where we’re privy to the parallel efforts of a twelve or thirteen-year-old Damien at military school and those of Thorn Industries. The natural home of the diabolical is, after all, big business. Consequently, while this sequel is much less slick than the original, it is also more engaging dramatically.

Well, I’ll be damned. It’s the gentleman guppy.

Waterworld (1995) (SPOILERS) The production and budgetary woes of “ Kevin’s Gate ” will forever overshadow the movie’s content (and while it may have been the most expensive movie ever to that point – adjusted for inflation, it seems only Cleopatra came close – it has since turned a profit). However, should you somehow manage to avoid the distraction of those legendary problems, the real qualitative concerns are sure to come sailing over the cognitive horizon eventually; Waterworld is just so damned derivative. It’s a seafaring Mad Max. Peter Rader, who first came up with the idea in 1986, admitted as much. David Twohy, who later came aboard, also cited Mad Max 2 ; that kind of rip-off aspect – Jaws birthing Piranha – makes it unsurprising Waterworld was once under consideration by Roger Corman (he couldn’t cost it cheaply enough). Ultimately, there’s never a sufficient sense the movie has managed to become its own thing. Which is a bummer, because it’s frequently quite good fun.

A subterranean Loch Ness Monster?

Doctor Who The Silurians No, I’m not going to refer to The Silurians as Doctor Who and the Silurians . I’m going to refer to it as Doctor Who and the Eocenes . The Silurians plays a blinder. Because both this and Inferno know the secret of an extended – some might say overlong – story is to keep the plot moving, they barely drag at all and are consequently much fleeter of foot than many a four parter. Unlike Malcolm Hulke’s sequel The Sea Devils , The Silurians has more than enough plot and deals it out judiciously (the plague, when it comes, kicks the story up a gear at the precarious burn-out stage of a typical four-plus parter). What’s most notable, though, is how engaging those first four episodes are, building the story slowly but absorbingly and with persuasive confidence.

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991) (SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II ’s on YouTube , and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.