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Escape From Alcatraz (1979)

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Directed by Don Siegel
Written by Richard Tuggle (based on novel by J. Campbell Bruce)
Starring Clint Eastwood, Patrick McGoohan, Paul Benjamin and Larry Hankin


There have been many films based on the Rock or Alcatraz, the infamous maximum security prison just outside of San Francisco. The more famous of them all is Birdman From Alcatraz starring Burt Lancaster. But most would agree that this Don Siegel directed, Clint Eastwood starring, based on real incident prison flick is the best of them all. And this is not coming from a Clint Eastwood fan. Maybe...

Watching this movie (or probably when reading Robinson Crusoe), I realise how gifted we all are. I think of how much resource there are around us and yet we have failed to utilise them. Having been lazy in doing that, we continue to complain the insufficiency of comfort in life. The prisoner in question, Frank Morris (Eastwood) starts off by using a mere nail clipper to work his way out of a prison by chipping off concrete around a ventilation grill. Of course, Frank is someone with superior IQ. Therefore, I rest my case.

Being a prison movie, it has many cliches and at the same time avoided many. There is the obligatory visiting scene which is thankfully short. There is the spiritual advisor thing going on between Frank and a black guy, English (Paul Benjamin). There is the shower scene (of men, too bad). There are a few brawls with a mean, probably gay, character. Thankfully it managed to avoid the over-the-top villainous warden act. It also managed to avoid showing prisoners being badly mistreated in open and sympathy seeking manner. There are many such scenes, but they are shown in subtle manner. The anger reaction from us audience does not erupt, it boils slowly.

That is where Eastwood proves that he can be a great actor. Like Steve McQueen (who did a couple of prison movie himself), he shows very little but somehow manage to convey the turbulence he is going through with a simple squint, clench of teeth and tightening of muscle. Very few people can get away with this little body language, and Clint, alongside McQueen, is the best of the lot.. Here it is used to the maximum. Frank is a caged beast. And an intelligent beast at that. You can't expect to see him lying there forever.

This movie is also always remembered for Patrick McGoohan's wonderful portrayal of the warden. From Frank's point of view, he is cruel and inhuman. But then, we know that he has to. He is amongst the best collection of scums from USA, remember. You can't be a Mr. Nice Guy. You will have a mixed feeling about this warden. You will hate him, but you will also stop and ponder why. Such is the impact of McGoohan's performance.

Bruce Surtees, the cinematographer and Eastwood's constant collaborator makes great use of the real Alcatraz to give us the feeling of claustrophobia and tremendous sense of danger, not physical, but psychological. I suppose you got to credit Don Siegel for that too. He makes a great use of silence (very little dialogue here, written by Richard Tuggle who would go on and direct Eastwood in the excellent Tightrope) and is masterful in building suspense and tension. The pace might be very slow, but it is never boring.

The question remains as to whether the prisoners have actually escaped. The question is extended at the climax of this movie. Siegel wisely left it to the viewers to make a choice. Of course, you want them to escape. You got to, especially when he is played by Clint Eastwood.

I have not seen Don Siegel's other films, but have seen all he had done with Eastwood except for Coogan's Bluff. Together they make one hell of a team. This is the last film they did together and what a finish!

I like this review I found in Movie Review Query Engine. Check it out: http://www.prisonflicks.com/escape.htm