Sunday, May 16, 2010

Escape from Alcatraz

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Clint Eastwood / In category: 6 of 10 / Overall: 32 of 100

The fifth collaboration between Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood, ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ is a steadily-paced, slow-burn drama adapted from J.Campbell Bruce’s non-fiction book about the most famous (and possibly only successful) escape attempt from the notorious prison island. I use the word “possibly” advisedly. Although the official investigation concluded that the escapees – Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin – were drowned, their bodies were never found. The film adds a fictitious but nicely understated coda which both implies the success of the escape attempt and serves as a “fuck you” to the Warden.

In the film, Morris is played by Eastwood and John and Clarence Anglin by Fred Ward and Jack Thibeau respectively. The Warden at the time of the real-life escape was Olin Blackwell; he was the last Warden of Alcatraz and the facility closed a year after the Morris/Anglin escape. The Warden, played by Patrick McGoohan, is unnamed and at one point refers to Blackwell as his predecessor (presumably to avoid litigation since Richard Tuggle’s screenplay paints the Warden as a sadistic bastard). ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ marks Tuggle’s debut (he went on to write and direct the dark and ambiguous ‘Tightrope’ for Eastwood) as well as Fred Ward’s and that of Danny Glover, who appears in a small role as one of the inmates.

It’s the casting of McGoohan, however, that’s most interesting. A decade after his career-defining turn as Number Six in ‘The Prisoner’ – and following some run-of-the-mill parts in ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’, ‘Silver Streak’ and TV series ‘Rafferty’ – ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ gave McGoohan the first part he seemed to fully engage with since he escaped The Village. As Alex Cox remarked in an introduction to the film as part of the “Moviedrome” series, “Number Six has become Number Two.” It strikes me that in ‘Escape from Alcatraz’, Number Six becomes a specific Number Two.

For anyone whose only exposure to ‘The Prisoner’ is the misconceived remake with Jim Cavaziel in the McGoohan role (a so-called “re-imagining” that tried too hard both to incorporate tropes from the original and do its own thing, and ultimately got lost somewhere inbetween), Number Two was played by a different actor in virtually every episode (although Colin Gordon appeared in two episodes and Leo McKern in three). It’s Patrick Cargill’s prissy, twitchy, malicious characterization of Number Two in the episode “Hammer Into Anvil” that McGoohan seems to be channelling in his portrayal of the Warden; and the final scene of ‘Escape from Alcatraz’, where the Warden is summoned back to the mainland to answer to his superiors, is reminiscent of Number Two’s defeat by Number Six in that episode.

Fortunately, though, there is no attempt to synthesize Number Six into Frank Morris, otherwise the ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ could have been as overloaded with ‘Prisoner’ subtext as this article! Eastwood’s minimalistic style of acting is entirely suited to Morris, and Siegel’s direction – unintrusive and attentive to detail – is just as appropriate. The first half of the film captures the routines, cadences and repetitions of prison life, the slow passing of hard time occasionally interrupted by the threat of violence, here personified by Wolf (Bruce M Fischer): a big bastard hellbent on making Morris his bitch. When Wolf puts the moves on Morris in the shower block, Morris the only cock he gets is cold-cocked (sorry, couldn’t resist!). Later, Wolf tries to shank Morris in the yard; the fight is broken up by the guards and both Wolf and Morris are put into solitary confinement, despite Morris’s justified protestation that “he came at me”.

Solitary, with its attendant humiliation of being hosed down, piques Morris’s hatred of the Warden. When privileges are pettily revoked from two older timers Morris has befriended – Doc (Roberts Blossom) and Litmus (Frank Ronzio) – resulting in one of them immolating himself and the other suffering a heart attack, after which the Warden threateningly informs Morris that “some men are destined never to leave Alcatraz … alive”, Morris decides that escape is the best form of revenge.

Slow-burn gradually flares into legitimate tension as the escape attempt gets under way, with shakedowns, the reappearance of a vengeful Wolf and the possibility of Morris’s transfer to another cell block forcing the conspirators to make their bid for freedom earlier than originally planned. The escape itself is a mostly wordless sequence that Siegel films with taut realism. Indeed, realism was Siegel’s watchword: the film was shot on Alcatraz itself, the prison buildings restored to their 1962 condition, and despite a few anachronisms a powerful sense of confinement and claustrophobia is achieved.

‘Escape from Alcatraz’ is a reined-in, low-key piece of film-making, one that probably bemused audiences anticipating the Eastwood/Siegel dynamic of ‘Coogan’s Bluff’ or ‘Dirty Harry’ but would have come as no surprise to aficionados of ‘The Beguiled’. With Eastwood taking increasing control of his own projects – more and more frequently fulfilling the triumvirate of actor, director, producer – this was the last film Eastwood made with Siegel; it was a sobering and atmospheric swansong.


Drew said...

Nice! This has always been one of my favorites of the Eastwood/Siegel collaborations. It's just a really taut and effectively atmospheric piece of film making. It also - as you point out - has a lot of interesting things going on in regards to depicting the doldrums and rhythms of prison life, an aspect that can sometimes slip beneath the cracks of prison films, or at least be given a cliched rendering. Really nice write-up!

Keith said...

Hello. I hope this finds you doing well. I've been on a blogging hiatus since the beginning of the year, so it's been quite some time since I've been around to visit some blogs. I'm back from my break now. I wanted to make sure to visit your blog. I enjoyed checking out the latest posts on your blog. Great job. I'm back blogging now myself. I hope you'll take a look at what I'm doing. Thanks. Take care. Have a great week.

Neil Fulwood said...

Drew - thanks for dropping by and for commenting. 'Escape from Alcatraz' is one of the most underrated films on Eastwood's CV, so it's good to hear from someone who appreciates how taut, claustrophic and grittily realistic it is.

Keith - hey, my man. Good to hear from you. Glad you're back and blogging again. Hope your time away helped you achieve some of the goals you talked about in your last post of 2009.