Monday 22 April 2013


“Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you're a man, you take it.” - Malcolm X
I must say that I have grown to like what Clint Eastwood has achieved in the movies. Beginning from a rather mundane and stock acting career as a Hollywood tough man, he has matured into a redoubtable character actor and significant director. Having seen some of his recent films such as “Gran Torino”, it is difficult perhaps to go back and appreciate his earlier work with equal fervour. However, there are still some gems (I guess we can call them classics), which will remain in his oeuvre as landmark works. We watched one of these again last weekend and it was a very enjoyable experience.

It was the 1979 Don Siegel film “Escape from Alcatraz”, starring Clint Eastwood, Patrick McGoohan, Roberts Blossom. It is one of those films which although deals with a stock plot contains such an excellent cast and builds up to a well thought out climax via series of engaging episodes, that it easily becomes one of the classics. The characters also help, of course, as does the direction and cinematography. The plot is based on a true story and perhaps that is part of the appeal of the film, but also maybe it is the fascination that seizes the viewers when they realise that suddenly one feels a sense of sympathy for the antiheroes that the cast comprises – a group of prisoners locked up in Alcatraz, some for the rest of their lives, some for having committed heinous crimes.
This is very much Clint Eastwood’s film and his solid, tough man performance sustains it with every other character very much dependent on his. In the 29 years of Alcatraz’s existence, and despite almost impregnable defences, 39 prisoners tried to escape from this maximum-security prison during its existence. Thirty six of these escapees failed. This film is about the other three, of whom nothing is known. They may have drowned in San Francisco Bay, or they may have got away. Eastwood plays Frank Morris, a new prisoner brought to Alcatraz for bank robbery, and his induction into the prison including an interview with the sadistic warden (Patrick McGoohan) plunges us straight into the claustrophobic environment of the prison.
Frank finds his new fellow inmates to be overtly hostile or hopeless and resigned to their fate. Among the desperate prisoners, Frank meets “Doc” Dalton (Roberts Blossom), a convict with a talent for painting who resorts to violence when the warden refuses to let him paint. The Anglin brothers, Clarence (Jack Thibeau) and John (Fred Ward) are a pair of prisoners with a reputation for attempting to escape from the prisons they have been incarcerated in. Frank and the Anglins put into action an audacious escape plan. Using stolen spoons they dig their way to a ventilation shaft while an elaborate camouflage scheme keeps their activities covert.
The film doesn’t contain mindless fight scenes, impossible action scenes, cartoon-like special effects or cardboard cutout characters that film-makers nowadays are obsessed about. It is a well-realised story of an escape from a high security prison. Some aspects may be considered clichés but they are part of the story and not all of it. By concentrating on the brutality of the warden’s mini empire the film makes the viewer sympathise with the escapees at the price of suggesting that prison break-outs are actually a good thing. This is a successful film that has aged well, with no excess sentiment or melodrama. The plot concentrates on the unadorned details of the story, and the director uses a subtle approach to bring the full force of the story out.
Fans of Eastwood and McGoohan, who both give excellent performances, will appreciate this movie. Prison movie fans will love this movie. Fans of suspense movies in general should love this. If you are after endless fight scenes, car chases, violence for the sake of it, computer generated special effects and explosions, don’t bother looking at this movie. It is instead an intelligent, low-key suspense movie, with excellent performances all around.  We watched it again with the same interest as we did several years ago and we highly recommend it.

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