Escape From Alcatraz (1979) – A Review

Clint Eastwood as Frank Morris in Escape From Alcatraz 1979
Clint Eastwood in Escape From Alcatraz

It’s 1960 and Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) has arrived at his new home – the maximum security prison Alcatraz.

Morris has been transferred due to his history of escaping from multiple prisons. Alcatraz warden Patrick McGoohan flatly states escape is impossible, so Morris best follow the rules and enjoy his time on the Rock.

But with his superior IQ, creativity, determination and some patience, Morris and some cohorts craft a plan to break out of the inescapable and legendary Alcatraz.

And it’s all true.

On June 11, 1962 Alcatraz inmates Frank Morris and brothers Clarence and Johbn Anglin broke out of the most notorious and famous prison of them all. Did they survive and live an anonymous life outside of prison walls or did they all drown in San Francisco Bay? The mystery remains and their escape continues to fascinate and has entered into near legend.

This docudrama of the real life escape from Alcatraz was the final collaboration between Eastwood and director Don Siegel and it’s a great one. It delivers on exactly what the title suggests. You know, I hear the name Escape From Alcatraz I’m expecting a cool thriller of a prison movie with a lot of suspense, and boy does this movie succeed!

The movie doesn’t waste time with Morris arriving at Alcatraz and meeting McGoohan as the warden, who you take an instant dislike to. You can tell the guy is an arrogant pain in the ass. the moment Morris walks into his office The way he clips his nails while lecturing you, uh I couldn’t wait for the guy to get owned.

Escape From Alcatraz 1979 Clint Eastwood prison thriller suspense

The first hour or so is Morris settling into life on ‘The Rock’. There’s a lot of standard prison movie tropes that drop in. Along with the nasty warden. there’s the old timer, the new arrival, making friends, making an enemy, defending himself, getting thrown into solitary, the dismal conditions of the place, setting up the obstacles of what needs to be overcome.

A lot of prison movies have this stuff not just later ones, like The Shawshank Redemption really comes to mind, but earlier ones like Cool Hand Luke, Papillion, A Man Escaped. heck even Stir Crazy. There’s these recurring road signs that come up on the road of most prison movies. That doesn’t mean that stuff has to feel tired and they can’t be effective, it’s all depends on how it’s executed and Escape From Alcatraz makes it all compelling. You may have seen these clichés before but Siegel and the actors make all the characters and scenes effective.

There’s those close call moments of Eastwood and the guys almost getting found out after all their work

One funny tidbit while I was rewatching this. I hadn’t seen it in years and I’m watching the older man who loves painting and he’s getting friendly with Morris. I really felt bad for him when the warden exercises his control over the poor guy. What a skunk! Anyway, I was listening to the actor talk, I knew he sounded familiar and then it hit me – he’s the old guy from Home Alone! Wow, I never made that connection before.

Escape From Alcatraz 1979 prison thriller docudrama Clint Eastwood

The first hour is a setup to the layout, rules and security of Alcatraz. When the escape kicks in it becomes a quiet exercise in watching Morris plan and execute. It gets really riveting how he maneuvers his way around the limitations he’s faced with. How he deceives the guards, the intricate planning and how he gets so inventive with the tools he has.

From what I read about the real life story the movie is very accurate to all the methods they used for the escape. What Morris and the guys managed to pull off is really impressive! I think even the guards had to give them a round of applause. I always wondered if any prisons showed Escape From Alcatraz for one of their movie nights. I’m guessing not. It would be like showing an airplane disaster movie on a real flight.

You really start to zero in on the close-ups of what Eastwood pockets, the meticulous scraping of his cell wall, manufacturing a fake vent front. There’s barely any dialogue and those scenes of him at work fill the screen and they completely hold my attention.

One really cool thing is how quiet the movie is. That silence begins to build up so by the time Morris gets to work the sound of footsteps of a guard or a soft whistle creates instant tension. Any little sound can spell disaster. for the whole plan. A lot of the escape work takes place at night, so there’s plenty of darkness with wisps of light and shadows of bars framing Eastwood, but it’s the moments of noise that interrupt the stillness in the prison that really gets you on the edge of your seat.

Escape From Alcatraz 1979 docudrama prison thriller Clint Eastwood as Frank MorrisThey probably could of eliminated all the dialogue completely and just used the sounds of the prison and Eastwood at work and the movie still would have worked.

Fred Ward, Larry Hankin, Jack Thibeau are fine as Eastwood’s escape accomplices, but it’s really Clint’s show. His taciturn performance fits in perfectly with this story. When Eastwood does talk he always says the most perfect succinct response or one-liner. This is a great Saturday night ‘Guy Movie’. It has all the ingredients of a well made macho, suspenseful entertaining flick. You got Eastwood, Alcatraz, true story, breaking out – that’s all Siegel needed and thankfully Escape From Alcatraz delivers on it all.


 

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9 Responses

  1. Capt. Nemo says:

    Did you happen to see Danny "Lethal Weapon" Glover?

    He's one of the guys in the isolation cell that gives Morris a hard time right before he tells a guy about the Dodgers moving to L.A. They obviously dubbed does the voice for the part.

  2. CKulik says:

    And Old Man Marley from HOME ALONE is Roberts Blossom. This is a great review for a great movie, one of Clint's best and its shocking it came out between his two Clyde collaborations. The real-life Alcatraz escape has always fascinated me and while I think we can all agree they made it off the Rock and thus ESCAPED from Alcatraz, then it almost doesn't matter if they lost their lives in the coldest of currents. They knew what they were doing, they had the experience and, amazingly, the tools necessary to make such a leap. This is the type of story that always fascinate me like DB Cooper and the Zodiac killer in that it will most likely never be solved yet will always tantalize people to investigate. Admittedly, much of the story I learned through UNSOLVED MYSTERIES where Robert Stack and the crew actually filmed inside the prison and showed the actual tools such as the crafted dummy faces.

  3. Capt Nemo says:

    I love this film.

    I think it would at least be on my top twenty list of greatest movies of all time. I also liked to watch this film when I graduated a grade in Middle and High school. It felt appropriate.

    As for the film itself, I want to first give a shout out to The Warden of the now defunct Prisonflicks.com. An early pioneer of internet movie critics, he wrote a very good write up of Escape from Alcatraz:

    http://web.archive.org/web/20010806002818/http://www.prisonflicks.com/escape.htm

    I think some of his points are very valid. Hap talks about the silence. But in terms of the cinematography, the movie presents Alcatraz as a shadow of its former self. The paint is pealing, the walls are crumbling and the bars are rusty. Despite the Warden's pronouncements, this prison isn't as tough as it once was. Which is why the challenge isn't as surmountable.

    If the critics say one thing about this movies, its that less is more. And THAT I wholeheartly agree. The filmmakers had a lot of faith in the story and Clint gives a pitch perfect performance. Nothing about it feels false or contrived. You won't see Clint hanging off the ceiling for dear life while a guard walks obliviously underneath him. Which is probably a 2016 remake with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson would look like.

    This movie also follows the The Thing rule of character development. With the exception of Butts, albeit limited, we don't know anything about these guys. The only thing we know about Morris is that he came from Atlanta and had done a few escapes. When someone asks him about his childhood, he said "Short." and that's it. I like the fact you can build a well rounded character without using some speech about where they came from.

    If you notice, they shoot Clint from low angles so that he looks bigger than the prison they are stuffing him away in. No wonder he get the central focus of the film.

    I also like what they did with the ending. They didn't take a stand on it one way or the other. They let the viewer decide if the hard work was worth the redemption.

  4. Capt Nemo says:

    To answer your question Hap, Yes, I know of one instance were this movie was shown in a prison. Specificly, Lompoc Federal Penetentary in California. There was a young inmate by the name of Christopher John Boyce, of Falcon and the Snowman, fame who decided to copy that game plan. He created a paper mache head, ran 10 miles and crowded prison track (another stupid idea), learned about edible plants, and did yoga. On the day of the escape, he put the head in his bead and hit in a storm drain yoga style. He waited till the guards were gone, slid out, hopped a fence and ran. Luckily, he was recaptured 2 years later without anyone getting hurt.

  5. Capt Nemo says:

    Behind the scenes of this movie were interesting too.

    The screenplay was by a first time screenwriter who heard of the story and was able to get the film rights for the book. The story goes that Richard Tuggle was fired from his job. So he brought the story to Hollywood. He shopped it around without success. But then the writer of the book said he had given it to Don Seigel and was interested at the time (why he didn't tell Tuggle that earlier, I don't know). Anyway, Tuggle sent it to Siegel's agent and the agent gave it Seigel and the wheel started to turn.

    The legand of how it got financed was amusing. Siegel's agent called up Michael Eisner and said "Don's got this screenplay called 'Escape from Alcatraz' and he wants to do it." Eisner's immediate response "It's a deal." "Don't you want to read it first?" asked the agent. "Don Seigel directing a picture entitled 'Escape from Alcatraz,' you got a deal." Saner heads prevailed and Eisner read the script. And a deal was made.

    Unfortunately, there was one last hurdle. Clint at this moment in his career was a new full fledged Superstar. His relationship with Seigel suffered because they always had a father-son type relationship. But the son was growing up and wanted more control. Luckily, over a beer they decided to put aside there differences for this last outing.

    Everyone was professional. But I heard that Pat MacGoohan (aka Longshanks of Braveheart fame) hated working on Alcatraz. They shot in the fall and the cold weather was getting to him. When quitting time came, he was first to leave. Sometimes, to alieviate the chill, he took a swig from a bottle of liquear. This prompted an incident. Don wanted a shot of MacGoohan throwing a pair of clippers into an ashtray. But it was approching quitting time. So MacGoohan asked if they could get a acting double to do it. Don said no. When he asked why, Don response was "Because I don't think we can get any actor in Hollywood whose hand is shaking as much as yours to match the shot." MacGoohan damn near walked for that. Clint actually was able to charm him back.

    Seigel had to leave after shooting was done. So Clint handled the post production. The future master filmaker in training. The first cut of the print had the movie strongly implying that everyone died in the end. But Clint decided that wasn't a good finished and had it recut to be much more ambigious. Don approved. Professional to the end.

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