Monday, October 24, 2016
Reeling Backward: "Escape from Alcatraz" (1979)
Director Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood made four films together in the space of three years from 1968-71, including "Dirty Harry," but hadn't worked together in awhile by 1979 -- and never would again.
Partly that was due to Eastwood taking over the helm of most of the films he appeared in, after an apprenticeship that began with 1971's "Play Misty for Me." But it also was because the two wrangled over rights to the spec script by Richard Tuggle, who spent six months researching the infamous prison after reading the book by J. Campbell Bruce. Siegel ended up buying the rights to the screenplay out from under Eastwood's nose. They went ahead with "Alcatraz" for old time's sake, but never made another picture together.
The film is a well-done iteration in the prison drama genre, though it doesn't really break much new ground. Eastwood delivers his typical inscrutable tough guy performance of that era; you can pretty much swap out his acting style between movies without missing a beat.
But it worked, so why change? As the old saying goes, actors play roles but stars play themselves.
What I found most interesting about it is how much later films, particularly "The Shawshank Redemption," resemble it. Keep in mind the latter movie only came out 15 years after "Alcatraz" did, and Stephen King's novella, upon which "Shawshank" was based, was published in 1982. I'm not accusing anyone of lifting from anyone else, but let's just say there seemed to be a lot of "inspiration" going on between the three works.
The similarity in character types is pretty amazing. The main character, Frank Morris, is a fairly non-communicative fellow, smarter than the rest, whose arrival shakes up the status quo in the inmate populate. He befriends an older black man, English (Paul Benjamin), a long-timer whose wisdom and caution have propelled him to the top of the food chain. He's threatened with homosexual rape by a vicious thug, Wolf (Bruce M. Fischer), who wants to turn Frank into his "punk," aka prison wife.
Sounds familiar, huh? Well, the parallels go even further.
There's an old man, Doc (Roberts Blossom), who leaves the story about halfway through under tragic circumstances that underline the plight of the main character. In this case, Doc is an artist who lives to paint portraits. He does one of himself with a flower pinned to his shirt, representing "the part they can't take away." But the spiteful warden (Patrick McGoohan), who thinks the purpose of Alcatraz is punishment rather than rehabilitation, takes away Doc's paints, crippling his spirit.
A young uppity inmate, Charley Butts (Larry Hankin), enters the story around the same time Doc leaves, whose gentle nature and enthusiasm for life lifts the other prisoners' mood. He gets roped into Frank's plot to escape, along with two generic tough guy brothers, John and Clarence Anglin (Fred Ward, Jack Thibeau), who are veteran jailbreakers.
Throw in a few other archetypal prison types -- like Litmus (Frank Ronzio), who puts up a hard front but keeps a pet mouse in his pocket -- and you could almost transpose the entire cast of "Alcatraz" into "Shawshank" without much of a bump. (Danny Glover has a blink-and-you'll-miss-him cameo that marks his feature film debut.)
It should be noted that Frank and the Anglins were real people, while pretty much everyone else is made up or a variation on reality. There was indeed a fourth inmate in on the escape attempt who was left behind, but his name wasn't Charley Butts. The real guy cooperated with investigators and never received any punishment for his collaboration.
Pretty much the entire second half of the film is a tense crime procedural as Frank and his co-conspirators work out the method of their escape. Using a nail clipper -- ostensibly stolen from the very desk of the warden himself -- welded to a spoon handle, Frank chips out the rotting cement around the grate underneath the sink in his cell. The three men squeeze through into a utility corridor, climb up and out the roof by bending some bars with a pipe and use life preservers and a crude raft fashioned from raincoats to swim away.
To conceal their work, they dump the gravel from their excavations into the prison yard through their pant legs, as we've seen in "The Great Escape" and countless other prison break films. They fashioned paper mache dummy heads, complete with pasted hair from the prison barber, to make it look like they were asleep in their bunks. And similarly fashioned facade grates covered the holes in their cells.
"Escape from Alcatraz" was filmed in the actual prison itself, which was shut down shortly after the Morris escape in 1962, but remains a tourist destination to this day. All the automatic cell doors and everything else still worked, though the studio had to spend half a million dollars to run massive power lines under San Francisco Bay, since the prison's electrical plant no longer functioned.
Obviously, this lends the film a lot of innate authenticity, as we get to see how inmates lived and moved around in cells that were literally the size of a broom closet -- 5 feet by 9 feet. Watching how the men arranged their meager belongings on shelves, or using their commodes as a desktop, I kept musing to myself that prison inmates were the original pioneers of the "tiny home" fad.
There's never really a huge sense of peril in the movie since it's, y'know, Clint effing Eastwood. Unlike Andy Dufresne, you just know he's not going to take it up the keister from time to time. Although it is notable that Frank is marched into the prison in the buff, which as far as I know represents Eastwood's only nude scene in his long career.
Historically, it is highly debated what happened to Morris and his two fellows. Alcatraz had long been fabled as the prison from which no one escaped alive, and there's a certain inspiration for officials to want to keep that streak alive. No bodies were ever found, so there's no way to be certain either way.
"Escape from Alcatraz" looks at first glance like a by-the-numbers prison flick that borrowed heavily from other movies -- until you realize other movies are borrowing from it.