Escape From Alcatraz (1979)

Directed by Don Siegel

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Escape From Alcatraz isn’t longer than it has to be, which is great.  It’s a quiet, methodical film like The Martian.  We focus on one character’s mission, spending more time on the intricacies of his escape than character development.  In fact, we don’t know much of anything about our protagonist, Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood).  He’s a quiet, determined man who we learn early on has attempted to escape from a number of prisons, most recently one in Atlanta.  As the warden tells Frank, prison is where people who break the rules are sent, and Alcatraz is where prisoners who break the rules are sent.

Frank doesn’t go out of his way to be nice to fellow prisoners, but he shows them enough respect to be respected himself.  He makes friends with a number of prisoners, Litmus, English, Doc, Charlie Butts and the Anglin Brothers, with whom he ultimately escapes.  Each character serves some kind of purpose to Frank, even though that’s not made immediately clear from the beginning (other than the fact that this is a movie and that’s how movies work; characters are set up for a purpose that they ultimately fulfill later in the story).  Doc is a kind, old man who enjoys painting.  The warden takes away Doc’s painting privileges for no reason other than he’s the antagonist.  He’s made more evil than he needs to be, as if to give Frank a reason to escape other than, you know, he’s in prison and already wants to get out.

Doc tells the guard who takes away his paint and canvas that without painting he has nothing.  Later, Doc takes a hatchet and chops off his own fingers as a sign of revenge.  His character is never seen again because his purpose has been fulfilled: to be a kind of martyr in Frank’s fight against the warden.  Now, I think making the warden evil itself serves an important purpose.  Frank is a prisoner, sent to Azkaban, I mean Alcatraz, which implies that he has made some pretty steep mistakes.  Are we meant to root for a prisoner, who has broken the laws of society, to escape from prison?  In this case, yes, yes we are.  Clint Eastwood isn’t just a prisoner, he’s Clint Fucking Eastwood, Dirty Harry, etc.  We are immediately on Frank’s side, because we want to see him, possibly just anyone, escape from this prison.

But since the film spends no time on Frank’s backstory (we never definitively hear how he ended up in prison), the story needs to find another reason to ensure that we like our hero and will root for him.  The way it does that is by making the warden an asshole.  After an early conversation between the two men in which the warden states the impossibility of escaping Alcatraz, we see Frank steal a pair of fingernail clippers from the warden’s office, demonstrating how sly Frank is, already undermining this authority.

So Doc is the sacrifice.  He’s established as an almost wholly (and holy) good person.  He’s old and kind and artistic and nice to the guy we like, Frank.  When Doc is punished for no reason (and snaps, cutting off his fingers), it’s insurance on the script’s part to make sure we like Frank and are onboard.

English, lets’ discuss him.  He is established early on as an inmate with which Frank works delivering books.  English is black, and there is some obvious racial tension between the men.  We’ve already established that prisoners align in groups based on race, so we know there is a barrier between Frank and English that can either be brought down or further enforced.  It doesn’t help that English demeaningly calls Frank “boy,” and Frank immediately returns the favor.  Still, there is some underlying respect for no reason other than to again make Frank likable.  Not only is he tough (he doesn’t back down), but he transcends racial prejudice at a time when that wasn’t a given (the story takes place in 1962).

Later, when another prisoner is about to attack Frank with a knife, English intervenes on Frank’s behalf and ushers the prisoner away.  Purpose served.

Now, that prisoner who tries to kill Frank, he has his eyes on Frank right away in the manner you expect and are familiar with based on any prison movie you’ve ever seen.  When a new prisoner arrives, there is always another prisoner who either wants to fight/fuck/use that new prisoner.  I’m sure it’s just a move cliche more than anything resembling reality.

Anyways, without this prisoner, there is nothing remotely dramatic about the prison.  We know Frank wants to escape from the getgo, but there is no hurry to escape.  So to make the issue more pressing, we have this guy who represents the danger of the prison and, when his first attack on Frank results in solitary confinement, he’s like a ticking bomb since we know he will be released and present another source of conflict before Frank’s escape.

So English prevents the attack and both characters have served their purpose.

The Anglin brothers have a purpose more relevant to Frank’s story than the movie story since they also escape.  Their purpose is stated clearly, as Frank tells them what to steal for their escape (life vests and material to make a raft).

Charlie Butts is a more intriguing character.  He is part of the plot to escape, but he ultimately gets cold feet which puts him back long enough that by the time he decides to join the escape, it’s too late.  His character was necessary to the escape plot as a lookout, watching for guards while Frank dug the hole in his cell.  But in terms of the story, what was his purpose?

The three men escape with relative ease, and when Charlie doesn’t join them, he feels like another sacrifice which makes the escape feel like it came at a cost.  There is also some good cross-cutting between Frank’s/Anglin bros’ escape and Charlie trying to follow them.  At one point I thought he might attract the guards’ attention, putting Frank’s escape in jeopardy, but alas he did not.  He simply returned to his cell, crying.  His fate feels more tragic than that of the three escapees who may or may not have survived.

The end did surprise me.  The men are last seen in the middle of the night, swimming away on their raft, and everything looks great!  Then we cut to the next morning when the guards discover that they’re gone, and the search begins.  The ending is open to interpretation.  The warden finds a series of photos owned by one of the Anglin brothers, and he suggests it means that they drowned.  A guard suggests it means they wanted it to look like they drowned.  Then the warden finds the flower that Doc originally gave Frank and that stands as a symbol of the fight against the warden.  Though this doesn’t logically offer any more information than the recovery of the photos, it represents more in terms of the movie because we as the viewer are told to assign more value to the flower.  We know what it means, and it reads as a “fuck you” from Frank to the warden.  The implication is that Frank won in the end, meaning he successfully escaped.

The film ends with the information that the real life prisoners were never found.

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