- Movie Rating -

Escape from Alcatraz (1979)

| June 22, 1979

“No one has ever escaped from Alcatraz . . . and no one ever will.”

So says the hard-bound warden of the infamous Alcatraz island prison to a new inmate who has more or less made a career out of escaping from first one prison and then another – yet obviously, not so good that he can’t keep from getting caught.  It’s a tasty little like a dialogue with that dramatic pause in the middle that is a gift to the movie’s advertisers (it’s even on the poster) and a challenge to the inmate played by Clint Eastwood.

Escape from Alcatraz is one of the best post-spaghetti westerns of Eastwood’s career which seemed to be rescued from the genre by director Don Seigel who revitalized his career with Dirty Harry back in ’71 and has since directed him in Two Mules for Sister Sarah and Coogan’s Bluff.  He’s a skilled action director who knows how to use Eastwood, both for his screen presence and for his action scenes.

The story here is based on the still-debated escape of Frank Morris and three accomplices from Alcatraz back in the early 60s and, yes, the third act chronicles the escape more or less the way the history records it, but strangely enough that escape turns out to be the films’ major flaw.  It’s too short, too disorganized and seems fundamentally to be rushing to a conclusion that we already know.

The strength of the movie is in showing the motivation that set Morris on his mission, the brutal conditions present in the prison both from the inhuman treatment by the prison staff and from the population of violent inmates who seemed ready to murder each other without purpose and without warning.  The collaboration of Eastwood and Siegel was reportedly tense during this time with Eastwood directing many of the scenes.  Yet, Siegel’s slow-handed direction is present here.  The film is slow to build, creating an environment while focusing not just on the escape (as it would have been in lesser hands) and in building a portrait of the living conditions on ‘The Rock’ and a motivating factor of what made Eastwood’s character so determined to escape.

The population of the prison helps create that atmosphere, not only a large group of men who are some of the worst, most hardened criminals in the country, but also men who have been worn down by life, whose souls have rotted away and who have further been part of the worst place imaginable.  And, even in the sympathetic light such as the elder inmate Doc, you can see the fate of men who will never, ever leave the island.

In that, it’s kind of too bad that the final act, the escape itself, feels so routine.  The movie is so good at building the terrible environment of the prison one might have hoped the last act might have felt like a victory, but some bad editing and a far-too-rapid pace keep us from really getting as involved in the escape as we did in the preparation for it.  Still, this is a solid film, very efficient, very lean and very exciting.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1979) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized