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

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018) (SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop .

That’s what people call necromancer’s weather.

The Changes (1975) This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones , The Owl Service ). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus