Thursday, June 18, 2015

Escape From Alcatraz

Escape From Alcatraz (Don Siegel, 1979) The recent elaborate escape from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora has been labeled (for want of a concise headline) the "Shawshank" escape—after The Shawshank Redemption, the Frank Darabont film based on Steven King's 1982 novella "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption," which is, ostensibly about a long-in-the-planning prison break. There are elements of that—maybe.  

But truth is stranger than fiction. And the movie that little escapade put me in mind wasn't so much Shawshank as the film and incident it was based on that probably inspired King in the first place, a rather unpretentious vehicle for its star Clint Eastwood that played against his star persona by casting him as an unrepentant hood. The movie is Escape From Alcatraz and one hopes its results are less successful than the ones played out in this film.

It's based on a true story.

In Escape From Alcatraz Clint Eastwood re-teamed with director Don Siegel for their fifth and last collaboration as actor-director (although Siegel appeared as a performer in Eastwood's Play Misty for Me). That film pre-dates the publication of King's novella by three years, and although I'm not sure how long it takes for King to punch one of his novellas out, but it's conceivable Escape from Alcatraz led to "Shawshank." 

"Clintus" (as Siegel liked to call him) plays Frank Morris, a con with a containment problem—the man can't enter a room without scoping out the exits. As this runs counter to the dictates of the penal system, he has been relocated to "the Rock"—Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay, which has never seen a successful escape in its history. For Moriss, that isn't a problem, so much as an opportunity.
Morris "settles" in, which means he sets his boundaries and comfort zones, clobbering any bulls who try to become alpha's, and being passive-aggressive with the prison's warden (a supercillious Patrick McGoohan, who, in his television career, also had containment issues), who is particularly proud of the prison's escape-proof reputation. But Moriss thinks he's not a number (AZ1441, by the way), he's a free man, and within a short time he's already plotting his exit.  
But, he can't do it alone. Locked in a one-man cell, it is only during exercise periods in the prison yard and meals that he can find like-minded prisoners, like Charley Butts (Larry Hankin), Litmus, (Frank Ronzio) and Doc (Roberts Blossom)—there's always a prisoner named "Doc." But, it isn't until he meets brothers Clarence (Jack Thibeau) and John Anglin (Fred Ward, only his fourth film) that the plan starts to narrow down the possibilities. 
Morris discovers that the concrete around the vents in the cells have become soft and brittle with moisture—by using a spoon smuggled from the mess-hall, and hardening it with solder from the machine shop, it makes an effective chisel/shovel to chip away at the ventilator, widening the hole, and smuggling in cardboard and paper and paint to make a reasonable facsimile of the ventilator cover to hide the work done overnight. The process is long and laborious, taking months, but eventually the opening is big enough for Morris to shimmy through and he explores the infrastructure of the prison looking for paths to the outside. But, even if he can escape his cell, he still has to get off an island.
That is the most dangerous part of the plan: many men have gotten out of the prison in the past, but getting off "the Rock" is an entirely different matter. There are sheer cliffs, fences, and the matter of crossing San Francisco Bay with its swift currents and unforgiving conditions. However fast the escape would be, the hardest part and the most time-consuming is struggling against the Bay and so to put off a search for as long as possible, distractions have to be made to keep the guards from getting suspicious when they do their bed-checks early in the morning.
Siegel directs this economically, taking advantage of the best possible angles and not wasting any footage on fancy editing (he usually edited in the camera). When things get visceral, he goes hand-held, but mostly he stays true to his B-movie roots, keeping things tough and unsentimental, even if motivations turn very personal. Siegel and Eastwood had been exploring the edges of audiences' sympathy for a movie's lead since they featured Eastwood's amoral Yankee soldier in The Beguiled (and Eastwood's "Man with no Name" persona in the previous Two Mules for Sister Sara. And certainly Dirty Harry taxed audiences' loyalties. But Escape from Alcatraz was the first time Eastwood had played an out-and-out criminal (as opposed to the unjustly accused men of other Eastwood vehicles). The usual uncertain moral terrain of Siegel's movies is even more slippery here, and the film's stance is leavened by its uncertain outcome. Siegel leaves it on a ambiguous note, so those rooting for Eastwood's criminal are given no satisfaction. Those rooting against him—well, they went to the wrong movie.
The last two images of Escape from Alcatraz: a title card as indeterminate aftermath
and one of the papier mâché heads, dreamily expressive.

Morris, and the Anglins: fates unknown (?)

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