REVIEW: Escape From Alcatraz (1979, Don Siegel / C. Eastwood, P. McGoohan)

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Escape From Alcatraz is somewhat based (especially the events) on a true-story of a convict called Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood), who escaped from notorious prison of Alcatraz in 1962 with a few fellow convicts, but wasn't ever heard of afterwards. The so called "impossible-to-escape" prison of Alcatraz was located in an isolated small island, with no equipment to get cross the sea to mainland, but some suspect Morris succeeded, because his body was never found, while the others believe that he drowned. The case has remained a mystery and fascinated several people, including film makers, and musicians. Focusing on films, though, Alcatraz is also presented on a classic nineties action movie hit The Rock.

Escape From Alcatraz from 1979, however, was directed by old-school director Don Siegel, who had already directed movies as early as in 40s. Siegel had already worked with Clint Eastwood on films such as Dirty Harry (the original) and Two Mules For Sister Sara. Escape From Alcatraz was one of his last ones, and we can be only lucky he had time to make it.

If you expect this to be another action driven film such as "Dirty Harry in prison", or heavily realistic tied to the fact that it's based on "true story", you are probably going to be disappointed in the both scenarios (although less in the latter mentioned, as this movie is relatively 'retrospective' in terms of it's events and characters). Escape From Alcatraz is quite slow-paced movie, and doesn't feature much real action, yet it manages to be very suspenseful. Eastwood plays his role in his trademark-style as you would expect, except without the high pace featured in Dirty Harries and such: a lonewolf-type who doesn't talk too much, but when he does, it's certainly something important. A man who doesn't take crap from anyone, but doesn't like to get involved into fight before necessary. A man who can fight relatively good to defend himself. You've seen this role before by Eastwood. A rather grumpy and sarcastic, smart guy. Not sure how true it stays for the real persona of Morris, but it doesn't really matter. The happenings of the movie do follow the true story quite well, however.

(Arrival in to the scene)

If you expect an explosive beginning with high-speed chase or bank robbery, or anything like that, with a story build-up about the events leading into custody of Frank Morris, you'll be disappointed (I can't remember what Morris did to end up in the jail in the first place, but it's not relevant in this movie, anyway). The movie begins at the situation, where Frank Morris arrives into Alcatraz. A rather silent beginning, showing the guards leading him to the prison from the boat of arrival. No flashbacks from the past freedom or of the crime itself. The beginning makes it clear that this movie is about the presentation of, and life within, the prison, and about the escape plan of Morris, rather than about the crime itself. Prison life is presented with rather dark and serious tone, realistic even, with violent guards and prisoners nonexistent rights (although violence isn't often really shown fully in it's bloodiest form, per se, as the movie is Rated PG-13). They live their lives the same way every day, except for Morris, who's bound to escape.

The movie's split into two segments: firstly, Morris' arrival and adaptation to prison life, and secondly, planning and executing the escape plan. The pacing is rather smartly deliberate. While the first half of the movie is interesting, when the viewer can truly identify with Morris, who enters the prison without really knowing anyone (although, sense of realistic helplessness is reduced by Eastwood's take on Morris' persona with his regular tough-guy role), and will bump into other prisoners with different kind of personalities. A constantly suspicious, rather impassive, and disciplinary warden (Patrick McGoohan), who keeps constantly punishing the prisoners, revoking special rights granted to them. Doc (Robers Blossom), a lone and quiet painter. Charley Butts (Larry Hankin), a rather goofy lanky man, who stresses too much about everything. A black man called English (Paul Benjamin), a leader of the blacks in the prison, a tough but clever, thinking guy, who doesn't think much about Morris at first, but soon discovers he has found a another scareless man rather similar to himself, a new friend. A rather funny incident is the way English calls Morris "a boy" every time, but Morris gives the same back at the right time. It soon ends into sort of a "friendly" harassing, that grows into a friendship.

(Morris dares to approach English)

A biggest prison cliche in the film along with the ever-necessary "evil warden" is Wolf (Bruce M. Fisher). That stereotypical "big guy" who wants to boss a "new fish" around. After getting to know the more nice faces, Morris bumps into Wolf in the shower, a homosexual convict, who's about to find a new "friend". Wolf soon finds out that Morris isn't so keen to "drop the soap" in the shower, and will not take any threats too kindly, either. After a little brawl, both are sent to solitary prison cells for some time, despite the fact that Morris explains he only defended himself from an assault. Morris starts to see that he is trapped into prison with total injustice, and starts building an escape plan. This is backed up by warden revoking certain rights from the convicts, leading one to commit suicide.

The second segment of the movie is about the escape plan and execution. That's where the movie starts building up the heat and thrill! Morris finds out a "soft-spot" in his prison cell and starts to scout the possibilities to get out of Alcatraz all together. A plan that needs extensive scouting with the escape-route is almost suicidal in high security prison, where guards keep patrolling constantly, not giving much space to breath. To execute his plan, Morris has to ask some other convicts to co-operate with him. Luckily enough, some of his old friends, Anglin brothers, John (Fred Ward) and Clarence (Jack Thibeau), have just been transferred to Alcatraz. And for the fellas, who are looking long time inside the rock, possible escape sounds more than tempting, although Morris describes the chances to succeed as "thin". Charlie Butts also accompanies them, although it may not be a wise choice, for he doesn't have nerves of steel.

(Planning the escape with Anglin brothers)

(Once you've pissed Wolf off, you've pissed him off for life)

The second half of the film is really good slow-burning thriller the four prisoners planning and executing the escape under the eyes of suspicious guards and warden, a escape-plan running on thin ice, ready to break if any extra weight set on it. More heat is brought on, when an old friend, Wolf, gets out from the solitary cell, and takes sets his goal to finish off Morris, who cannot afford to get locked up for long in the middle of the plan. While the escape plan and "making the route clear" out from Alcatraz is very thrilling phase, the escape-day itself and the escape, could had been bit more action-packed. Also, there's no much dialogue at the phase. It may be realistic, but it could had been tad more entertaining. The ending comes quickly after the rather quiet escape, leaving the end-result totally open and mystery, realistically, as the case was never solved.

One more complaint: the darkest screens on the escape do "flicker" weirdly, and I don't know if it's in this particular Blu-Ray release, or in the original film. Light-levels vary very much on those scenes, being unstable. Every time more light is let in the scene, graininess reduces noticeable and picture sharpens up, while when light is reduced, the opposite happens. This happens in several scenes at the end-side of the movie. However, I'm pretty sure that overall, Blu-Ray release is update to DVD release in quality. There's healthy amount of grain (no losing detail by over softening), mostly, but sharpness of the image varies quite much between different scenes. Some look great while others acceptable for a Blu-Ray. But overall, very tolerable picture quality, though far from perfect (It's '79 so what would you expect?).


Escape From Alcatraz is a stylish, retrospective, slow-burning thriller, with smart, deliberate pacing. The dialogue is rather brief and clever, but only in the right places, and the movie is more about portrayal of the characters and their actions, as well as about presenting the escape plan itself - a piece of mysterious history. The scenery and shots do give impression that the movie didn't have that big budget, though, as scenery looks rather "generic" and realistic, rather than full of expensive props and special effects, but it certainly can represent a realistic prison well. Eastwood puts his own personal touch to his character Morris, although perhaps not realistic, we know he's entertaining in his regular role. This movie probably would had been too dry without a few generic prison-glitches, such as the evil warden and homosexual and violent convict Wolf, too. Yet the glitches are only a few. Siegel does well present Morris' early times in the prison, building up relations with the other convicts, and seeing brutality of the guards, while trying to find a way out. The escape preparations under guard surveillance and Wolf breathing to Morris' back is very suspenseful chapter in the movie. Only problem in this film is, that while realistic, it could had been slightly more flashy. Also, the beginning of the movie, which simply starts out as arrival to Alcatraz without almost any dialogue, and without showing how Morris ended up there in the first place, cuts off some important things, that could had build up and presented his character in better, more thrilling way. Same goes for the ending, which is quite brief, although understandable, due the fact, that Morris' body was never found and he was never seen again.

(How durable is this frame?)

An interesting movie, that stands test of time well, especially with good cast and realistic way of presentation. This movie was as suspenseful as the first time I saw it, although, it may not be the best choice for those seeking more flashy prison film with lot of action and prison glitches, or over-the-top characters. I give the movie "tight eight" bullets out of ten, rounded upwards.

The Good

  • Eastwood is entertaining
  • Realistic prison-set and story
  • Deliberate smart pacing of story works
  • Thrilling escape!
  • Friendship between Morris and English
  • Controversy with Wolf
  • Retrospective

The Bad

  • Scarce action
  • No take on the crime itself
  • Scenery and probs look to be a bit cheap end
  • Some picture quality problems
  • Limits of a retrospective film
  • Rated PG-13

8 Bullets out of 10

(One of the Eastwood's underrated films, not so explosive, but very suspense-building)
Buy Escape From Alcatraz as DVD disc from 

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