Eastwood: Escape From Alcatraz

Fingers in a wooden box and paper mâché heads.

I beg your pardon?

Fingers in a wooden box and paper mâché heads.

Before you start thinking I’ve gone completely bonkers. Let me just explain by telling you that when contemplating the movie Escape From Alcatraz, it is those two things that represent the most indelible images burned into my brain from watching the movie as a young teen. Before beginning this retrospective, I already knew that I held this movie in high regard within Clint Eastwood’s filmography (as well as in a more general filmic sense). However, of the six movies I was committed to penning retros on for Filmwerk’s Clint Eastwood series; it was probably the one I’d seen the least, and remembered the least detail about. It is of course no surprise that I have never owned it on video or DVD, as for some reason (and it really does baffle me as I have a large DVD collection); I actually had to buy all of the movies I’ve so far reviewed with the exception of The Good The Bad & The Ugly. Consequently, my awareness and recall of Escape From Alcatraz has always been dominated by the aforementioned fingers in a wooden box, and paper mâché heads. I’m very glad to be catching up with it again after so many years though, as it really has been a very long time since I last saw it.

Anyway, let’s talk about the film for a bit shall we?

So, almost as if in direct response to having softened himself up so much to play things for laughs in Every Which Way But Loose the year before (and very successfully I might add), Clint Eastwood couldn’t have picked a better project to do next. At least in terms of tone, if not overt action and violence. Alcatraz is a dark, sombre, unassuming little movie, and Clint’s role within it is somewhat atypical for him also as he’s not particularly heroic (he’s a convicted criminal after all), although he obviously finds it impossible to leave out the heroics and pathos altogether, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

A successful film in its time, and well known to the casual Clint fan to this day. The story is adapted from the J. Campbell Bruce non-fiction book of the same name, and dramatises the events surrounding what many believe to be the only successful escape from the infamous island prison (although this is controversial). We follow the plight of convicted criminal Frank Morris (Eastwood) who we find being transferred to Alcatraz; sent down there for repeated escape attempts from other prisons. Alcatraz or ‘The Rock’ is believed to be impossible to escape from due in no small part to the cold waters, strong tides and mile or so swim to land.

Morris attempts to settle in to his new home, and connects with several sympathetic or enigmatic characters. However, he soon attracts the unwanted attentions of the resident giant nutter ‘Wolf’, who after being rebuffed by Eastwood (It seems he wanted our man to be his bitch), tries to shiv him in the rec’ yard. They fight, and Morris finds himself in solitary for a week even though he had done nothing but defend himself. As well as this experience, Frank also comes in to direct conflict with the prison’s withdrawn but sadistic and mean Warden (played by a reserved and effective Patrick McGoohan). The character of the Warden (we never learn his name) is interesting in terms of being (like many things in this movie), a real template for so many future prison break movies. I could be wrong, but I would imagine that the portrayals of sadistic prison wardens in films to come (Lock Up, The Shawshank Redemption to name but two I thought of immediately), definitely took a few cues from McGoohan’s performance.

Things eventually get so bad that Morris decides he just has to break out and eventually devises a way to do it. Along the way, he recruits three fellow inmates to help, and the plan is set in motion.

Eventually, come the night of the escape, one of the four men (the fictionally named Charlie Butts), has second thoughts and stays in his cell while Clint and the other two (brothers Clarence and John Anglin) successfully make their escape and set off across the bay never to be seen again (literally).

I really enjoyed watching Escape From Alcatraz again. It’s a very tight, contained, restrained and focused little movie. It’s got that 185 Panavision ratio, so it’s not too wide a movie, and doesn’t feel inappropriately expansive or ‘Scoped’ out. I love width, but the 185 works here. Most of the supporting cast are very solid (at least the ones with significant speaking roles), and Clint is as reserved and subtle as he can get. Actually, that seems like a silly thing to say as Clint Eastwood is known for his subtle, sometimes emotionless and almost sedentary style. But here it’s a little different. He does really well in at least trying to be just inmate Frank Morris, but of course he can’t help but bring a great deal of himself to the role. From a historical accuracy point of view, this is probably severely damaging. He has probably just a touch too much of the Eastwood hard man swagger about him, but I guess we don’t really mind. Perhaps the real Frank Morris, if he actually had been approached by a monster like ‘Wolf’ in the showers, really did fight back, take him down and stuff a bar of soap in the giant’s mouth (as Clint’s Morris does). But there again, it’s perhaps more likely the poor guy got some shower time action of a slightly different kind. Who knows?

Once we are in to the main thrust and the four guys start discussing their escape; I really like the way the film takes a good long time to show us the details and execution of the plan. Having said that, it’s a little unclear over what time period i.e. how long, the breakout prep actually occurs. Is it weeks, months, years even? It’s hard to say, and you’re left wondering about it until someone mentions that the Wolf (the guy that had tried to shiv Eastwood earlier in the movie, and who had just reappeared), had been in solitary for six months. Ah, OK six months then, give or take.

To me, watching this film, and having been a massive fan of The Shawshank Redemption, I really think that Frank Darabont and Co. must have taken a good hard look at it when planning some of the details of Andy Dufresne’s life in prison and escape plan in that movie. To my eyes it’s like Darabont broke Alcatraz down into its individual elements, and where, on a loose scale of 1 to 10; Alcatraz was a 4, they made their movie a 6, and where Alcatraz was a 6, Shawshank was an 8 etc. The films are completely different of course, but at least in terms of the common elements like inmate brutality, the sadistic warden, unfair treatment and the feeling of impotence, and of course the escape itself; I think Alcatraz serves as template. As for Lock Up, well it’s Alcatraz on steroids.

I like the way during the actual breakout, the music is so subtle with tense little swells cued in time with the pulsing red security lights. It’s a very taught scene, with almost no dialogue during the whole thing. It works really well.

Speaking of the music, the score is by the wonderful Jerry Fielding, who you may recall did Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs among many others. It’s a very brave and almost experimental score, blending atonal noises and sound effects with subtle chord progressions or swells. It really works for the movie, as it sits well with the overall subtle and unassuming tone and demeanour of the film. There’s very little in the way of over-dramatics anywhere in here, and the score settles for a mood of tense discomfort. Nice.

One of the amazing things I learned while researching a few of the true events of the escape concerns the aforementioned paper mâché heads the four guys make to put in their bunks while they make their escape. I always thought (and still did while watching the movie), that the heads were just too good, too convincing. It somehow didn’t ring true that these things would be quite so well formed. But you can actually go online and find pictures taken at the time of the actual heads, and if anything; the real ones look better than the ones in the movie. It’s really amazing. Anyway, just thought I’d mention it, and it’s amazing what folks can do when they really want to get the hell out of somewhere like Alcatraz.

Of course, this is no Shawshank Redemption. There are no feel good moments of ‘rightness’, no minor victories, no warm voiceover and no balmy tropical beach awaits Morris and Co. Or at least, we never find out if a beach like that was going to feature in their destinies. But then again, these are not innocent men, so we cannot give them too happy an ending, and we don’t. No, for Frank Morris and his chums; contemplating the freezing cold black waters of the bay, and a mile journey across it on a makeshift raincoat raft is where we leave them. Herein lies the unknown part of this story. Did they make it, or did the freezing water claim them?

Although at the time of production it was generally thought that Morris and co must have drowned, the movie seems to set it’s own banner up with the opposing belief (which actually garners much more support today). A yellow Chrysanthemum features a few times throughout the movie being originally passed from a likeable tragic character (Doc, the owner of the aforementioned fingers in a wooden box), to Morris. The flower is seen and partially crushed by the Warden (and retrieved by Morris). At the end of the movie while the search for the escapees continues in earnest, the Warden has taken a boat-launch over to the nearest free shore, and sees a similar (or the same) little yellow Chrysanthemum on the rocks. The filmmakers uses this obvious device to tell us that we, the audience can relax and should leave the movie thinking that Frank, Clarence and John made it. So we do.

Ultimately, Escape From Alcatraz is a tough, gritty and hard hitting movie based on tough, gritty and hard hitting true events, but veteran Eastwood collaborator Don Siegal and his crew expertly deliver the story in a subtle, believable and reserved manner (and it’s all the better for it).

Ben Pegley

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