The Film: Escape From Alcatraz (1979)
The Principals: Director Don Siegel, Clint Eastwood, Larry Hankin, Jack Thibeau, Fred Ward, Patrick McGoohan, Paul Benjamin, Frank Ronzio, Roberts Blossom, Bruce M. Fischer, Fred Stuthman, David Cryer, Madison Arnold.
The Premise: Based on the actual escape (successful or not) of Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin, Escape From Alcatraz is a thriller with Eastwood as Morris, a cunning inmate at The Rock who discovers a way to break out of the inescapable prison. Working with the Anglins (Ward and Thibeau) and Charley Butts (Hankin), Morris devises an intricate escape plan involving digging through the corroded concrete of the individual cells, fashioning dummy heads out of papier-mache and creating life rafts out of rubber rain coats. Looming over their carefully crafted plans are a cold-hearted warden (McGoohan) and an inmate who intends to kill Morris.
Is It Good:
No, it’s great. A product of well-crafted, atmospheric direction by frequent Eastwood collaborator and noted director, Don Siegel, as well as a cunningly efficient performance by Eastwood. It has many of the hallmarks of familiar prison movies, without falling into many of their cliches. Escape features a disconcertingly cold performance by Patrick McGoohan as the Warden. What a passive aggressive prick and vindictive bastard he was. Bruce Fischer is particularly off-putting as Wolf; and Eastwood’s relationship with Paul Benjamin’s English is nicely affecting. Roberts Blossom’s portrayal of Doc is notable, as is the fresh-faced Fred Ward.
Even if you’ve seen the movie before and / or know the history of Alcatraz, Morris and the Anglins, the film never loses its ability, particularly in the late second and third acts, to make you anxious as to whether or not the three cons will actually make good their escape. It ably conveys the sense of claustrophobia and especially, the tension, of the characters as they painstakingly effect their escape plans. Performances are solid all around and the hopelessness of the feat which the protagonists are planning is always in the background. Richard Tuggle’s script is smartly paced and nicely follows its own roadmap with few deviations into emotional or narrative tangents.
Is It Worth A Look: It doesn’t matter what time of day it’s on, nor how many times I’ve seen it, if I ever come across Escape From Alcatraz, I’m compelled to watch it. It’s an endlessly entertaining thriller that never seems to show its age and inexplicably maintains the drama of the situation unfolding onscreen. You can still get that anxiety as to whether or not Morris, Butts and the Anglins are going to get caught, especially during the first couple of night excursions outside the cell walls. I still get the urge to give Butts a kick in the pants to get some balls and join in the escape. And every time I’m still disappointed when he has that pathetic look on his face as he eyes the guard coming to check on Morris on moving day.
Plus, it never loses that “what if” factor. Did the three convicts make it? If they did, then yay! And even if they didn’t, at least they stuck it to the warden, one way or another. Never a more poignant “fuck you” than a chrysanthemum. Escape From Alcatraz is one of the all time great prison movies.
Look close for the debut of Danny Glover. Also, in the pivotal escape sequence where Morris and the Anglins climb down a pipe and swim into the channel, Eastwood, Thibeau and Ward did the stunts without using doubles. This was also the last of the Siegel / Eastwood teamings, which included Dirty Harry, Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules for Sister Sarah and The Beguiled.