Escape From Alcatraz

On January 1, 2013 I reviewed the movie TROUBLE WITH THE CURVE, and made up a superstition that it’s good luck for movie critics to start a year with a Clint Eastwood review. So then I ended up kicking off 2014 writing about A PERFECT WORLD, 2015 with THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, 2016 with KELLY’S HEROES, 2017 with PINK CADILLAC, 2018 with TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA, 2019 with THE MULE, 2020 with WHITE HUNTER BLACK HEART and 2021 with THE GAUNTLET.

It would be hard to argue that any “good luck” panned out in some of those years, and yet I will stubbornly continue the tradition. ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ is from 1979 and it was the last of Clint’s five movies directed by Don Siegel, because they had a falling out over which one of them got to produce it. (Siegel’s only subsequent movies were ROUGH CUT starring Burt Reynolds and JINXED! starring Bette Midler.)

It’s based on the true story of the only maybe successful escape from the notorious island prison. Three guys got out, they may very well have drowned, but they were never found. I remember going on a tour of that place as a kid and hearing the story. Man, prison tours are fucked up.

Clint stars as Frank Morris, transferred to “The Rock” after escaping from what sounds like multiple other prisons. It starts with him on a boat, carried over the treacherous waters he’ll later try to cross without such luxury. When he arrives, the “bulls” as they call them strip him down and make him walk through the prison naked, but to me the best little detail to capture the inhumanity of prison is when a guard says threateningly “Better button your collar, boy,” and he doesn’t flip any attitude, he hurriedly complies. To see Clint motherfuckin Eastwood buckle down for something so dumb, it’s dispiriting.

The warden (Patrick McGoohan, THE PHANTOM) calls Frank into his office to communicate that this is not like those other horrible prisons, this is way worse. “We don’t make good citizens, but we make good prisoners,” he brags.

Frank doesn’t speak until ten minutes into the movie, when he’s in the mess hall and notices they don’t have forks. The guy he happens to be sitting across from is Litmus (Frank Ronzio, FEAR CITY), who will end up being important for acquiring contraband, and he also has a funny scene where he convinces a new fish that he’s Al Capone. But the best thing about Litmus is his pet mouse, who he even takes into the shower and scrubs with soap. When they first meet Frank notices Litmus doing something with his pasta, looks under the table and sees him feeding the mouse on his knee. Frank looks back up at him and nods slightly. I mean, what can you say about it? Just nod.

The other guy he meets that day in the mess hall is Wolf (Bruce M. Fischer, NIGHT FORCE), a giant guy who of course threatens to do things to Frank that Frank has not consented to. I like the economical way they handle this familiar subplot. I think it goes down in only five scenes: #1, Wolf making eyes at him in the cafeteria. #2, Wolf confronting him in the shower, and Frank stuffing a bar of soap in his mouth. #3, Wolf trying to shank Frank in the yard, so they both get put in the hole. #4, Wolf gets out and threatens Frank again. #5, the rematch.

I’m tempted to say the best of those scenes is #1, because I love how it plays out, unremarked upon, during his conversation with Litmus. Wolf is smiling at him, suggestively sucking on noodles and burning a match and shit, and Frank is just looking over there with that trademark Clint “oh, fuck” scowl. But the best is actually #3 because of the smart way he uses a coat to defend against knife attack.

The best friendship in the movie is with English, who runs the prison library. He’s played by Paul Benjamin, who I recognized from DO THE RIGHT THING (he plays ML, one of the old shit-talkers that hangs out in front of the red wall along with Sweet Dick Willie and Coconut Sid). When Frank is sent to work at the library there’s some tension, but English seems impressed that Frank isn’t intimidated by him. Later Frank further proves this by saying a racial slur to his face, so… make of that what you will. But the crucial part is when English tells his story of getting two back-to-back 99 year sentences for killing two guys who attacked him with knives.

“Seems like you could have pleaded self defense,” Frank says, confused.

“The dudes were white, man, just like you.”

So I say to today’s Americans of a certain political bent, don’t tell me you don’t know what systemic racism is. The star and the director of DIRTY HARRY, of all people, understood it 40+ years ago. And seemed pretty confident the audience would understand it without having to go into detail. It doesn’t have to be said that this is reality and this is unfair. Everybody knows it.

Pretty much as soon as Frank arrives he starts looking for an escape plan, and then one day the Anglin brothers, John (Fred Ward in his first major role) and Clarence (Jack Thibeau, who would reunite with Clint in ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN, SUDDEN IMPACT and CITY HEAT), are sitting in the mess hall when he comes in. They knew each other in the joint in Atlanta, so Frank proposes a plan for them to do along with Frank’s nervous neighbor Charley Butts (Larry Hankin, DEATH WARRANT, PAIN & GAIN), who wants out to see his terminally ill mother.

The plan is very fanciful, but not at all exaggerated from the real one. It involves slowly digging out the grates in their walls to get into an unguarded corridor, climbing up to the roof and then over some fences. To hide their digging they constructed and painted fake grate and wall pieces that covered their progress, and to hide when they were out of their cells they sculpted very impressive dummy heads from toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, the dust from the concrete they were chipping and hair clippings from the barbershop. Then when they got to the shore they inflated life vests and a rubber raft made out of stolen rain coats, inspired by an article in Popular Mechanics.

Unsurprisingly Ward is very likable, and has some good banter with his brother and Frank. When you got Clint and Fred on the team you’re pretty sure they’re gonna escape. It’s just such a cool plan, with well constructed suspense as they slowly execute it, keeping watch for each other, almost getting caught. Once they get out of the building they feel so close but so exposed. Every sound is nerve-racking.

Unless I missed it, it’s never specified what crime Frank originally went in for. I’m interested in the way a movie like this can show us these convicts, not tell us their backgrounds, and trust us to sympathize with them as humans or as underdogs trying to accomplish something very difficult. If it were made today some people would want it to specify that they were actually innocent or got railroaded or at least didn’t kill anybody who didn’t deserve it. And in this true story it wouldn’t be lying – Morris was an orphan whose first conviction came at the age of 13. He was busted for drugs, stealing cars and, at worst, armed robbery. The Anglins were also life long petty criminals and claimed to have never used a real gun. They did bad things but they were not murderers, and they were clearly failed by the system. They could get some sympathy on that basis.

I personally wouldn’t want to vouch for them or invite them over to my place. But sometimes I find it touching to see a movie like this that just starts from a base level of “it’s shitty for human beings to be treated this way” instead of feeling it has to first prove the worth of the specific humans.

Another example is Doc (Roberts Blossom, DERANGED), a sensitive guy who spends his days painting and growing flowers because “That’s something inside me they can’t lock up with their bars and walls.” It’s devastating when the warden discovers a painting of himself in the cell and bans him from painting. He sends a guard to confiscate everything and even the guard seems to feel bad about it. You can tell he feels horrible saying “I don’t know” when Doc asks why.

I don’t know, maybe we would feel different about Doc if we knew what crime got him there. But we know for sure that he’s locked up and this warden and this system are taking away the one comfort he has in his life. What justice is achieved by that?

I guess English isn’t involved in the plan because he injured himself trying to escape before. But there’s a great moment where Frank says goodbye to him and he understand what that means and they shake hands. Later, we get a shot of English smiling when he hears the guards freaking out about Frank being gone.

There is some sentimentality for characters who are no longer with them at the end, with tokens of their humanity used to represent them. I love that when Frank is climbing out he sees Litmus’s mouse, says, “You’re goin too,” and puts him in his pocket. It is unknown whether the fictional characters or their real life inspirations survived the swim, but in my opinion the mouse for sure survived and proved the warden wrong by becoming a good citizen.

Being a Malpaso co-production, ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ involves a bunch of people Clint worked with often. Bruce Surtees (THE BEGUILED) was cinematographer, it was #11 of editor Ferris Webster’s 15 Clint movies in a row, with future Clint editor Joel Cox as an assistant, and Jerry Fielding (THE ENFORCER) did the score. It does not have any jazz in it but there’s a brief part with a prison band playing blues. (Clint’s character plays accordion, but only to cover up the noise of their digging.)

The script is based on a book by J. Campbell Bruce, adapted by first-timer Richard Tuggle, who was roundly rejected until he tricked Don Siegel’s agent into reading it by claiming Siegel had met him at a party and wanted to read it. That worked out pretty well because he also got to write and direct TIGHTROPE starring Clint and direct that Anthony Michael Hall movie OUT OF BOUNDS. His one other credit is with Arnold Schwarzenegger, writing his directorial debut, that one episode of Tales from the Crypt.

This is also notable as the film debut of Danny Glover, seen as an inmate giving Frank some shit about pushing the book cart. He had only been in a reporter on an episode of B.J.and the Bear.

Anyway, I liked this one. A good start to 2022. May we all work together and make a plan to escape this year.

This entry was posted on Monday, January 3rd, 2022 at 7:20 am and is filed under Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

25 Responses to “Escape From Alcatraz”

  1. James Gandolfini was originally offered the role of Boggs in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, a role eventually played by Mark Rolston (ALIENS, THE DEPARTED). If he had taken the role it would have been an easier comparison to Wolf as he was much bulkier than Rolston.

    Two great films with some really choice moments that elevate this above what people maybe expected of Clint’s movies at the time. One is those scenes with Doc culminating in his shocking exit, and when a few of the prisoners have visitors. Especially between Butts and his wife.

  2. *a great film, of course my first comment of 2022 has such a foul-up lol

  3. Haven’t seen this since elementary school, when I caught it on TV one morning while being sick (Or most likely pretending to be sick). Wanted to rewatch that for a long time (I think I even have the DVD somewhere on my shelf). The only two things that I remember are that it’s REALLY good and the scene where the one artist guy freaks out and chops the guard’s fingers off. (Unless that was a different movie.)

  4. Thanks for the review. I watched this move a lot of times back when it was on one of the cable television and really liked it a lot. I haven’t seen it in at least 30 years or so and will probably watch it at some point in the future to see if it still holds up, but based on your review, it does.

  5. I like THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION well enough, but it’s a movie made by people who’d seen prison movies. ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ, and, of course, RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11, are movies made by people who had seen prisons.

    In a better world Clint and Siegel would’ve settled their differences and gone on making lean and efficient genre movies for the rest of Siegel’s life. As it is, we have five movies I find it almost impossible to rank, except that DIRTY HARRY sits above them all, if only for its ongoing influence. I don’t really care for THE BEGUILED, as Southern Gothic really doesn’t do it for me, but it’s a helluva trip, and COOGAN’S BLUFF may seem of its time, but Siegel’s fimatism just grabs you and won’t take any arguments.

    Happy New Year!

  6. I love this annual tradition!

  7. Happy new year, Vern. I’ve come across a few comments about Jinxed in my old magazine perusals. Morbidly curious to check it out. It’s streaming on my library’s app Hoopla.

  8. “ The warden (Patrick McGoohan, THE PHANTOM) calls Frank into his office to communicate that this is not like those other horrible prisons, this is way worse. “We don’t make good citizens, but we make good prisoners,” he brags.”

    That has to be a reference to McGoohan’s role as the star/producer of the trippy, awesome British cult TV series THE PRISONER. Kinda a reverse of his role there, from prisoner to warden.

  9. This movie is a masterpiece. Not a term I throw around a lot. This one is one.

  10. I like this one. It’s one of the quieter Clint movies…no guns, no shootouts or noisy car chases…just the quiet but constant struggle of a man looking to escape horrible conditions.

    I also took the Alcatraz tour when I was a kid, and yes, prison tours are fucked up. Even years after it had been shut down that place gave off a creepy vibe, and this was during a bright, sunny, otherwise cheerful day.

  11. As good a lead as CHARLIE VARRICK, TELEFON and ROUGH CUT has I would have loved to see Clint doing them. Just to broaden his range.

    CJ, didn’t he cut off his own fingers?

  12. Might be. Like I said, it’s been over 30 years since I saw it, but scene truly stuck with me. (Also interesting how German TV would show that scene uncut during daytime back in the days.)

  13. Visually it’s very unclear, and I can see why you would think that, because he asks the guard to come over when he does it. But I think it’s supposed to be his own fingers, because they drag him away and not the guard, and we never see him again.

  14. I can’t imagine or wish to change the leads of CHARLIE VARRICK or TELEFON. Burt is indeed great in ROUGH CUT and apparently did all he could for Siegel, but maybe Clint would’ve been able to protect him more.

    If anything, I’d really wish for more Bronson movies directed by Siegel. TELEFON is a gem.

  15. I wouldn’t want to take anything away from Bronson either, but since both he and Matthau disliked working with Siegel, there’s a slight chance the final movies would have been even better with Eastwood. And wouldn’t you have just loved to see Clint and Andrew Robinson together as partners in crime? That would be on the level of seeing Ned Beatty and Bill McKinney playing best friends in JUDGE ROY BEAN the same year as they did DELIVERANCE.

  16. I like how the movie doesn’t have them discussing the crimes that landed them in prison, that’s very much a true to life detail the movie get’s correct

    And I’ve always loved Fred Ward. Besides being in a long list of really great movies from the late 1970s through the 2000s he was also Remo Williams.

    Great start to the year Vern.

  17. Sometimes 70s pacing defeats me, and I confess that this was one of those times. I’m not proud of it.

  18. Crushinator Jones

    January 4th, 2022 at 10:11 am

    Mr. Makestyk, I kid you not I was just coming down here to comment on how I’m normally a bit of a hyperactive goober about movies but this one’s languid pacing really works for me. Funny how this stuff works, eh? Anyway this is a real “they don’t make ’em like they used to” film and while I don’t have any burning desire to rewatch it I really enjoyed the character work. Damn I wish we had more great movies about interesting characters, they tend to stand the test of time.

    Also, like all of y’all I’ve done the Alcatraz tour and you can feel the evil that seeped into that place’s foundation. You really can.

  19. 60s/70s pacing throws me off too sometimes. Apart from THAT car chase, much of BULLITT proceeds at a pace I like to term…..glacial.

    There’s an uninterrupted take of McQueen entering a convenience store, picking up something, paying for it, and walking out which adds nothing to the narrative except running time.

  20. This is EXACTLY why I love movies from the 60s and 70s. Newman finding a shirt that’s clean enough to wear in HARPER, Bronson listening to music in THE MECHANIC or McQueen making coffee in BULLITT. Just by how they move in these everyday situations we get to know more about the character than all the reading of badass resumes in later movies.

  21. I like HARPER and THE MECHANIC but found BULLITT nearly unwatchable. The car chase and the theme song are all it had going for it. I don’t actually find Steve McQueen all that cool (to me he comes off sullen, not laconic) so that doesn’t help.

    I chalk this up to growing up without a dad. I feel like you can only properly appreciate certain films if you see them on a square TV with commercial breaks and the old man pointing at the screen with a Miller Lite in his hand saying, “Now THIS is a real movie…”

  22. Majestyk may have a point, as minus the Miller Lite (and substitute it with a pack of Dunhills and a glass ashtray), my introduction to movies was a square TV and my dad frequently pointing at the TV and going ….”There’s a good action scene”, “The dialogues are really good”, and given the fact that his favorites were John Wayne, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Sean Connery, Steve McQueen,Charlton Heston and then later on Eastwood, Bronson, Reynolds, Norris, Stallone and Schwarzenegger, I’d also get..”Now these are men. REAL.MEN”. He liked using the word Macho long after it ceased being a positive glorification of masculine ideal. So I still gots me a soft spot for the above luminous Alumni because I guess a lot of the Old Man’s likes rubbed off.

    So, coming back to the point, the languid pacing of scenes in these older movies are perfectly ok with me (I love shots that linger) but I’m also aware that sometimes they don’t serve any specific purpose. Padding is sometimes just padding.

  23. My dad was never a moviegoer, so when we started renting videos at our house he was as much a novise as me and my brother. And of course, having a lot more free time on our hands than him, it didn’t take long before we sat there pointing at the screen telling him who was who and explaining that this is good and that’s a cool guy. The smokes and the beer and some whiskey were definitely there, but Bronson, Eastwood, McQueen and Bud Spencer were our heroes first.

  24. Glad you mentioned Bud Spencer, pegsman! How could I forget? Terrence Hill & Bud Spencer were also perennial favorites. The Trinity Westerns, Odds & Evens (Which my dad and I went to the theatres to see), Watch Out! We’re Mad! Loved them all! Wonder if Vern has ever reviewed a Hill & Spenser flick? Man, they were the ultimate Buddy Ass-Kickers, before Buddy Ass-Kickers became a thing.

  25. I also interpreted it as self-mutilating and Doc chopping off his own fingers.

    I’m pretty sure Clint Eastwood largely shadow directed Tightrope and got Richard Tuggle demoted after Tuggle wasn’t moving fast enough for Clint.

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