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.
“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.
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