Welcome to Alcatraz
Before Tim Robbins escaped in "The Shawshank Redemption", and before Alcatraz became the focus of military action in "The Rock", there was Clint Eastwood's "Escape from Alcatraz". Based upon the real life story of Frank Morris who in 1962 was part of a small group who may have been the only one's to successfully escape from Alcatraz although Frank was never found alive or dead to prove or disprove it. But their escape from the secure facility whether they got across the Bay or not was a contributory factor in the closure of the Alcatraz just a year later, as they realized the prison was in a seriously dilapidated state and was no longer viable as a non money making facility.
After arriving at Alcatraz, Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood - Every Which Way But Loose) is introduced to the narcissistic prison warden (Patrick McGoohan - Silver Streak) who assures Frank that despite having escaped from other prisons he wouldn't escape from Alcatraz because whilst men have tried no one has succeeded. Having quickly made friends with a few of his fellow inmates as well as enemies of others, Frank discovers that two old friends from another prison, the Anglin brothers are both banged up with him. It doesn't take long to start organizing an escape from the now archaic and crumbling Alcatraz.
Released back in 1979, "Escape from Alcatraz" attempts to paint a realistic picture of life in Alcatraz, even though it comes across as slightly watered down. Compared to the epic "The Shawshank Redemption", which dwelled upon each grizzly aspect of time on the inside, "Escape from Alcatraz" may be perceived as poor relative. But considering its age it is still a decent movie, which uses many subtle techniques to convey the atmosphere and story, which modern day movies seem to ignore.
Straight from the opening scenes, involving the arrival of Frank to the prison, you realize that "Escape from Alcatraz" is going to be slightly different to other prison based moves. For the 5 minute duration of the opening sequence, we get introduced to the bleak and miserable world of Alcatraz through the sounds of the beating rain and the sound of the handcuffs around Frank's wrists; there is no dialogue at all. It is a technique used through out the movie and helps to demonstrate what a miserable life it was in the prison.
The actual dialogue when used is not the typical cliche ridden text that is the main stay of a lot of movies and at times shows a real intelligence in what is being said. On the subject of sound, it should be mentioned that "Escape from Alcatraz" does not use a soundtrack other than the opening and closing credits. This also helps in not only setting the mood but also allows it to create a strange sense of suspense and drama. Admittedly, I found this lack of soundtrack a bit unnerving to start with, but it really helps to set "Escape from Alcatraz" apart from other prison movies.
"Escape from Alcatraz" came at a point in Clint Eastwood's career, where he was venturing into roles where he was not necessarily a gun wielding force to be reckoned with. Although he was playing a typically strong silent type in Frank Morris, he was able to demonstrate his skills as an actor in areas we had not seen from him before. Although his performance is convincing and captivating, it lacks some of the class he has demonstrated in more recent movies and at times he relies heavily on his tough guy image rather than his acting ability.
"Escape from Alcatraz" also has some great characters such as the stern warden played by Patrick McGoohan, as well as Fred Ward as one of the Anglin brothers. But in all honesty, the focus of "Escape from Alcatraz" is the character of Frank Morris, and it is a testimony to Eastwood's ability as an actor that it ends up as good as it is.
"Escape from Alcatraz" was the fifth and final collaboration between director Don Siegel and actor Clint Eastwood, having previously worked together on both the Spaghetti Westerns and the Dirty Harry films. This final collaboration proved that Siegel and Eastwood knew how to get the best from each other and in my opinion, although not their most famous of joint efforts, it demonstrated their abilities to a much greater extent than their previous efforts. In the same way that Clint Eastwood was experimenting with this different sort of role, Siegel was experimenting with a slightly unorthodox way of creating atmosphere and drama by dispatching with the soundtrack and overlong dialogues. This resulted in a rather unsettling movie, with long periods of silence, but in reality it was remarkably effective in getting over the point of how depressing the atmosphere on Alcatraz really was.
What this all boils down to is that although "Escape from Alcatraz" is now over 30 years old and has been surpassed by the truly magnificent "The Shawshank Redemption", it is still a remarkable piece of cinema, considering the era that it was made in. The fact that it is based upon a true story adds to its appeal, especially as it manages to maintain a gritty realism in telling the story but keeping it entertaining at the same times.