Don Siegel’s Escape From Alcatraz

For such a measured, introspective and anti-Hollywood prison break film, Don Siegel’s Escape From Alcatraz is a fantastically entertaining and unbearably suspenseful thriller. This isn’t a film with action sequences, huge set pieces, scenery chewing wardens, shanks in the shower fight sequences, extreme near misses or anything you’d expect from a studio escape film. The warden (Patrick McGoohan with malfeasance on a low burn) is a terrifyingly strict piece of work to be sure, but he’s curt, to the point and buttoned down. Our hero Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) isn’t a preening rapscallion or rascally rogue but a straightforward, quiet, surprisingly compassionate and determined fellow. The obligatory aggressive inmate (Bruce M. Fischer) he clashes with isn’t some contraband adorned gang chess piece but rather a hulking bruiser who gets right to the point. The escape itself is a dank, claustrophobic trek through corroded crawl-spaces and could be considered anticlimactic of it didn’t feel so darn authentic. Like, this is what it would *really* be like to bust out of that joint of all joints in the curiously tranquil San Francisco harbour and I both admired and greatly enjoyed this film for its down to earth, by the book presentation. That’s not to say it’s dry or boring, despite being remote. Most of the story is told through quick glances, offhand mannerisms and clipped dialogue, but beneath that, if one intuits it out, are carefully placed pockets of psychological depth, wellsprings of human behaviour buried under the blunt aspects that are a wealth to anyone who loves complexities not readily apparent. Just look at Frank’s carefully cultivated relationship with stone-spirited bookkeeper English (Paul Benjamin) and the payoff that comes later, given their subtle interactions. Or examine the cold heartbreak and mental unravelling of Doc (Roberts Blossom) when the warden takes away his painting privileges, an activity that singlehandedly fuels his will to survive behind bars. That sequence cuts deep in a way that’s tough to impart in words. This film treats the day to day life in prison with the same dutiful care and attention to craft as it does the eventual escape and the result is something that feels lived in, mature, effortlessly magnetic and so simple that one might need to do several double tales to soak in the yawning profundities tucked in behind every monosyllabic utterance, every deliberately chosen camera placement, every flick of the eyes towards the prison walls that seem like dimensional barriers and the skies above them, somehow so close and so far. Few Hollywood prison films reach for heights in such a direct way, and succeed in doing so. Great film.

-Nate Hill

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