Over four collaborations that had started in 1968 with Coogan’s Bluff and ended in 1971 with the seminal Dirty Harry, the team of Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood had one last movie left in their partnership. But where Eastwood’s last cinematic jaunt with Siegel had seen him attempt to save San Francisco as the grizzled Detective Harry Callahan, 1979’s Escape From Alcatraz would see him attempt to flee it as they would adapt the true accounts of the real life escape attempt from the infamous prison into a typically masculine thriller that was rife with meaningful glares, clenched jaws and terse dialogue.
To this day, it stands as a prime example of the prison break thriller, but does its tense, no-nonsense exterior play its cards too close to the chest when its gruff, show-no-weakness demeanor may come across as cold and impersonal in the wake of slightly more modern, emotional fare.
Frank Morris, an intelligent con who seemingly blinks only when its strictly necessary, is admitted to the island of Alcatraz, San Francisco’s escape-proof prison that matches its brutal reputation with the fact that the horror stories are actually true. After being processed on a dark an stormy night, Frank – who has been sent to this hellhole thanks to his annoying habit of breaking out of other prisons – immediately gets a good idea of how bad things are going to be as he’s led to his alarmingly small cell start bollock naked, but after taking a short time to settle in, he sees that things are actually worse.
Firstly he has to fend off the advances of the rape-happy inmate known as the Wolf and his subsequent clashes with the hulking brute temporarily lands him into the inhuman conditions of D-Block, but after a while he starts to make some much needed allies. Be it the quiet painter, Doc; the pudding loving Litmus, the sullen car thief Charley Butts or the epically bitter English, a black man doing excessive time for killing two white men in self defence, Morris finds a little community among the hard glares of the guards or the petty punishments cooked up by the vindictive warden.
However, when the warden targets a particularly sensitive member of Morris’ circle that causes a disturbing act of self mutilation, Frank decides that enough is enough and it’s time to escape the inescapable.
Discovering that the concrete surrounding a grill in his cell can be chipped away, he cooks up a plan with the bank robbing Anglin brothers and the nervous Charley that’ll require them to each tunnel through their walls, provide dummies to throw off the guards and somehow fashion a raft in order to brave the ice cold waters of San Francisco bay if they ever want to taste free air ever again.
Seared onto celluloid that seems crafted from pure concrete, Escape From Alcatraz sees Siegel produce yet another intelligent, if typically stoic examination on masculinity as the cast barely features a single female other than a brief appearance from Charley Butts’ better half. However, the director’s brutally economical style, mixed with Richard Tuggle’s mercilessly lean screenplay may leave some modern audiences wanting in certain sections as the movie’s almost matter of fact presentation of events deliberately omits a sense of context in order to maintain a laser like focus.
For a start, in order to remove any conflict in the audience as to whether Morris actually deserves to escape by glossing over why the convict is in jail to begin with, it means that Siegel can plough on with the story without getting sidetracked by having his lead take up precious time to win over the audience’s sympathies. In fact the casting of Eastwood is almost storytelling short hand, with the very presence of big Clint being a reassuring presence that even though he’s a convicted criminal, he’s a convicted criminal who is also seemingly a decent man. However, interestingly, even though Morris takes the high road against Patrick McGoohan’s cold-eyed warden who has the slightly queasy, mottled complexion of a steamed ham, his response is to simply cook up a plan and fuck off leaving everyone else stuck in the squalor. It’s an interesting tactic which subtly propels a similar lack of easy answers at the viewer much in the same way the director did with Dirty Harry – the morals of the situation are merely coincidental, what’s happening is happening no matter what and the name of the game is escape.
The lack of anything else to cling onto other than the dignity of flawed men floundering in abject misery while wrapped in steel and concrete may leave some grasping for something a little more (Morris hasn’t been falsely accused or anything) but the true beauty of Escape From Alcatraz’s overwhelming cruelty precisely what it doesn’t tell you, keeping you as emotionally isolated as the inmates are.
Of course, this also gives Siegel ample time to stage loads of spirit breaking set pieces (Doc’s reaction to having his painting privileges removed is genuinely upsetting) and butt clenching fake outs involving badly timed checks by guards while Morris dilegently chips away at his cell with a modified spoon.
Eastwood’s fellow inmates contains a nice selection of character actors from the late, great Fred Ward to the guy who played Mr Heckles, the moaning, downstairs neighbour in Friends and while they get a similar treatment to Eastwood’s lead (only Paul Benjamin’s scowling English gets anything close to a backstory), it adds much needed colour to the drab surroundings while simultaneously almost making the titular prison a black hole that absorbs people’s very souls to the point that any pre-Alcatraz history they have might as well not exist.
It’s such a shame then that the actual escape itself doesn’t seem that strenuous and Siegel’s meat and potatoes approach possibly could have used a little more flair to give the finale a bit more oomph than simply just watching these guys put their plan in action. Don’t get me wrong, it’s tense the first time you watch it, but as a set piece, it simply doesn’t have the staying power of the lengths the cons have to go through to put the plan in place.
A mature treatment of male dignity that offers no easy solutions right down to its enigmatic ending – Morris’ true fate is sort of left up in the air, but any triumphant smirk at the Warden is left to the euphoric looking paper mache head left in his bunk – some may find Escape From Alcatraz a bit too emotionally repressed for it’s own good, however, the artistry involved bringing such a measured and controlled thriller into being simply shouldn’t escape you.