‘Escape From Alcatraz’ or — The Grate Escape Part II?
Don Siegel’s ‘Escape From Alcatraz’ (1979) has, much like a newly arrived prisoner, a lot stripped away from it. There’s minimal character back-story, the dialogue mainly concerns practical issues, the pacing is measured, the musical score used sparingly. It’s almost like being in prison!
Of course, the question at the heart of ‘Escape From Alcatraz’ is (spoilers!) how do you escape from Alcatraz? This is also the only question on Clint Eastwood’s mind too. But just how is he going to do it?
‘Escape From Alcatraz’ is a prison escape movie so has a lot in common with other prison escape movies, most notably Jacques Becker’s excellent ‘Le Trou’ (1960). This isn’t a surprise because they both deal with the same conundrum — how does someone escape from a cell without alerting the guards? This is also the thrill and pleasure of these situations so we don’t mind variations on a theme.
And so we follow Eastwood’s inmate as he pieces together a plan to break free. We don’t know much about him and, to be honest, do we really want to know much about him? He’s a criminal after all and if we were to discover what sort of person he is we might lose sympathy for his situation.
Of course, one way to sympathise with bad guys is to insert an even badder bad guy and ‘Escape From Alcatraz’ provides one in the form of Patrick McGoohan’s utterly sadistic warden; a vain, thin-skinned bully of a man who revokes (permanently) privileges purely out of spite (the moment he sees his sneering portrait and realises how the inmates see him is, for me, the highlight of the film). It doesn’t matter how bad these inmates are, at least they’re not as nasty as this guy. No wonder they want out.
So McGoohan acts as the driving force for escape as well as providing dramatic tension when the film isn’t dealing with the technical aspects of the escape plan as he exerts his brutality. And what is the escape plan? Well, without giving anything away it’s pretty cool and does, surprisingly, involve more arts and crafts than I was expecting although it does prove that paper-mache can be exciting on camera.
Oh, and you’ll also need an accordion because an accordion plays a vitally important element in escaping from Alcatraz so if you’re ever in prison and want to break out then that’s the first thing you should acquire, if you can.
And do they escape? Well, I won’t say anything but is the answer really important? What’s more important is what the warden thinks and it could be a thought that will, hopefully, torment him forever, especially as it’s unanswerable.
‘Escape From Alcatraz’ is a very good prison escape movie. It’s not quite up there with the very best, lacking the final gut-punch of the aforementioned ‘Le Trou’ and not quite having the unbearable tension of ‘A Man Escaped’ (1956), but this is a great example of visual story-telling, of Siegel allowing the audience to observe and piece together both the technical, and emotional, elements at play. It’s a brutal film about brutal men in brutal conditions but it’s also vastly more exciting and tension than another movie set on Alcatraz which shall remain nameless… but it’s directed by Michael Bay.