RETRO REVIEW: “Escape from Alcatraz” (1979)

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For the past few months I’ve dedicated Wednesdays to doing Retro Reviews. The way it works is I put up three options on my Twitter feed (you can follow me @KeithandMovies). Followers vote, I rewatch the movie, and then post the review the following Wednesday. Whatever film finishes second comes back the next week against two new choices. So basically you pick what I watch and review.

There is something so simple about “Escape from Alcatraz” yet so foreign to much of modern day cinema. It’s the art of quiet visual storytelling. It’s when a filmmaker is so deftly in sync with his camera and the composition of every scene is so keenly utilized that he or she is able to speak volumes with hardly any dialogue.

Take the film’s fantastic opening. A man we come to know as Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) is escorted by two trench-coated men to a docked boat waiting in the San Francisco bay. He’s handed off to officers who take him below deck and chain him down as the boat heads toward Alcatraz. It’s a pitch-black night and rain pounds the island prison as the boat slowly approaches. The wily camera, ominous score and distinct use of sound brilliantly places us withing the setting. And not a word of dialogue is spoken until Frank is inside the prison being processed.

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Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

“Escape from Alcatraz” was directed by Don Siegel and it was the last of five films he would make with Eastwood. The film was adapted from a 1963 non-fiction book by J. Campbell Bruce. The story begins on January 18, 1960 with Morris arriving at Alcatraz after previously escaping from the Louisiana State Penitentiary. We’re aren’t told much about Frank or his past crimes. Only that he has escaped from other prisons which prompts the stern and confident warden (Patrick McGoohan) to inform him that no one has ever escaped Alcatraz.

Siegel gives great attention to the daily regimen within the maximum security prison. Through these routines Frank befriends several inmates including the embittered and wrongfully incarcerated English (Paul Benjamin), an elderly painter named Doc (Roberts Blossom), and the chatty Litmus (Frank Ronzio). And as you would expect he makes an enemy or two as well.

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Photo Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Clint Eastwood is a great fit. Tall, athletic, and with plenty of grit, he has the quiet strength that is perfect for Siegel’s approach to this story. But that’s no surprise. Siegel tapped into those same strengths with movies like “Dirty Harry” and “Two Mules for Sister Sara”. But Eastwood brings more to his character than toughness and brawn. Frank is actually a genius and the only thing higher than Alcatraz’s security level is his IQ. And as the movie’s title makes obvious, he instantly begins planning his escape.

Siegel’s storytelling is as precise and methodical as Frank’s escape plan. Even when it appears he’s shooting nothing more than the minutiae of everyday prison life, there are still plenty of details that build the atmosphere and push the narrative forward. After rewatching it I still struggle with one nagging issue – the ending is surprisingly anticlimactic. But even at 40 years old, “Escape from Alcatraz” still holds up as a solid prison thriller sporting a really strong Clint Eastwood performance.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

14 thoughts on “RETRO REVIEW: “Escape from Alcatraz” (1979)

  1. Nice review Keith. I’ve recently come to really re-appreciate Don Siegel’s work (both The Killers and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are favorites of mine), and I was actually considering revisiting it as well. I don’t remember Alcatraz too well to be honest other than the ending and the rather deliberate pacing (quite a contrast to rapid fire directorial style most associated with Siegel), which felt a bit off for me upon that initial viewing, though I did enjoy the film.

    • The ending is very anti-climactic. It’s my one real beef with it. Otherwise it’s a solid prison drama with a really good Eastwood performance.

  2. Clint Eastwood has just soooo many movies in his catalog (as an actor, never mind as a director!) and so I’m always on the hunt for another good one of his. I’m also a sucker for prison-break movies and this sounds like a hit.

    • This was one I hadn’t seen in years so it was a lot of fun catching back up with it. If you like Clint (like me) this is one worth checking out. He has that same tough, gritty persona but he’s hardly the Dirty Harry type. A lot more calculated.

  3. This is a film that I’ve been wanting to see as I’ve seen a few of Eastwood’s collaborations with Don Siegel as they tend to bring the best in each other. Clint loved Don so much that he dedicated Unforgiven to him and Sergio Leone.

  4. Pingback: RETRO REVIEW: “Escape from Alcatraz” (1979) — Keith & the Movies – Chicago FEEDBACK Film Festival

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