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

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Prepare the Heathen’s Stand! By order of purification!

Apostle (2018)
(SPOILERS) Another week, another undercooked Netflix flick from an undeniably talented director. What’s up with their quality control? Do they have any? Are they so set on attracting an embarrassment of creatives, they give them carte blanche, to hell with whether the results are any good or not? Apostle's an ungainly folk-horror mashup of The Wicker Man (most obviously, but without the remotest trace of that screenplay's finesse) and any cult-centric Brit horror movie you’d care to think of (including Ben Wheatley's, himself an exponent of similar influences-on-sleeve filmmaking with Kill List), taking in tropes from Hammer, torture porn, and pagan lore but revealing nothing much that's different or original beyond them.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

You can’t just outsource your entire life.

Tully (2018)
(SPOILERS) A major twist is revealed in the last fifteen minutes of Tully, one I'll happily admit not to have seen coming, but it says something about the movie that it failed to affect my misgivings over the picture up to that point either way. About the worst thing you can say about a twist is that it leaves you shrugging.

No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams.

Ridley Scott Ridders Ranked
During the '80s, I anticipated few filmmakers' movies more than Ridley Scott's; those of his fellow xenomorph wrangler James Cameron, perhaps. In both cases, that eagerness for something equalling their early efforts receded as they studiously managed to avoid the heights they had once reached. Cameron's output dropped off a cliff after he won an Oscar. Contrastingly, Scott's surged like never before when his film took home gold. Which at least meant he occasionally delivered something interesting, but sadly, it was mostly quantity over quality. Here are the movies Scott has directed in his career thus far - and with his rate of  productivity, another 25 by the time he's 100 may well be feasible – ranked from worst to best.

Well, you did take advantage of a drunken sailor.

Tomb Raider (2018)
(SPOILERS) There's evidently an appetite out there for a decent Tomb Raider movie, given that the lousy 2001 incarnation was successful enough to spawn a (lousy) sequel, and that this lousier reboot, scarcely conceivably, may have attracted enough bums on seats to do likewise. If we're going to distinguish between order of demerits, we could characterise the Angelina Jolie movies as both pretty bad; Tomb Raider, in contrast, is unforgivably tedious.

If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.

Phantom Thread (2017)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps surprisingly not the lowest grossing of last year's Best Picture Oscar nominees (that was Call Me by Your Name) but certainly the one with the least buzz as a genuine contender, subjected as Phantom Thread was to a range of views from masterpiece (the critics) to drudge (a fair selection of general viewers). The mixed reaction wasn’t so very far from Paul Thomas Anderson's earlier The Master, and one suspects the nomination was more to do with the golden glow of Daniel Day-Lewis in his first role in half a decade (and last ever, if he's to be believed) than mass Academy rapture with the picture. Which is ironic, as the relatively unknown Vicky Krieps steals the film from under him.

This is it. This is the moment of my death.

Fearless (1993)
Hollywood tends to make a hash of any exploration of existential or spiritual themes. The urge towards the simplistic, the treacly or the mawkishly uplifting, without appropriate filtering or insight, usually overpowers even the best intentions. Rarely, a movie comes along that makes good on its potential and then, more than likely, it gets completely ignored. Such a fate befell Fearless, Peter Weir’s plane crash survivor-angst film, despite roundly positive critical notices. For some reason audiences were willing to see a rubgy team turn cannibal in Alive, but this was a turn-off? Yet invariably anyone who has seen Fearless speaks of it in glowing terms, and rightly so.

Weir’s pictures are often thematically rich, more anchored by narrative than those of, say, Terrence Malick but similarly preoccupied with big ideas and their expression. He has a rare grasp of poetry, symbolism and the mythic. Weir also displays an acute grasp of the subjective mind-set, and possesses …

Outstanding. Now, let’s bite off all the heads and pile them up in the corner.

Venom (2018)
(SPOILERS) A 29% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes can't be wrong, can it? To go by the number of one-star reviews Sony’s attempt to kick-start their own shred of the Marvel-verse has received, you’d think it was the new Battlefield Earth, or Highlander II: The Quickening. Fortunately, it's far from that level of ignominy. And while it’s also a considerable distance from showing the polish and assuredness of the official Disney movies, it nevertheless manages to establish its own crudely winning sense of identity.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.