Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Escape From Alcatraz

I’ve always been a Clint Eastwood fan, loving every single movie I’ve seen him in.  I admit, I haven’t seen every single one of his films, but I’m working on it.  A few months back, I watched Play Misty For Me for the first time and I thought it was pretty good.  I’ve seen nearly all the westerns he’s acted in, all the Dirty Harry films, the few comedies he’s been in, but there’s just a few more I need to see.  However, for me, the one film that’s my favorite, out of all the movies he’s ever done, is Escape From Alcatraz from 1979.

Back when my family first had gotten cable TV in 1980, one of the films that had received a lot of rotation on Showtime was this film.  I tell you, I must’ve watched every airing of it or damn near most of them.  Every single scene was watched by me intently, as I was scared out of mind about ever ending up in jail, seeing how violent it was as the guards beat you down or stuck you in a dark cell or other inmates wanting to stab you to death.  It was an eye-opener for my eleven-year-old self back then.

Well, the plot of the movie is actually based on the real life escape in June of 1962 by Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood), and his accomplices, from Alcatraz State Penitentiary.  The premise is pretty simple, about how he ends up in the prison and devises a plan to escape from the most escape-proof prison (at the time) with the help of a few other inmates.

Director, Don Siegel, had worked with Clint Eastwood a number of times before this film and it shows, as he knows how to work with Eastwood and get good performances out of him.  Siegel also does a great job at showing us the life these criminals had had living on “The Rock,” because it feels like we’re really watching criminals in an active prison.  The way he had this place filmed was amazing; he makes it look bigger than the place is in reality.

The beginning of the film is very impressive as it introduces us to Frank Morris as he’s brought to the prison and processed as an inmate, how he’s brought in, stripped of everything—including his
clothes—and escorted to his cell, naked as the day he was born.  It may be a little clich├ęd, but what really brings it home is the guard telling Morris, “Welcome to Alcatraz,” complete with the crack of thunder and flash of lightning.

Eastwood, as Morris, is pretty bad-ass, as he usually is in most of his character performances—saying just the right things, standing up to the prison guards, and being the guy the audience cheers for.  And as a child, I had no problem with that, seeing how much I loved this movie and didn’t really understand the background story to it all.  But as an adult, it’s weird, now, as I realize I was cheering for a hardened criminal.  Strange, how criminals get glorified in these types of movies, huh?

Rounding out the cast is Patrick McGoohan as the unnamed warden (I guess the film didn’t want to point out that it was Olin G. Blackwell who was running the penitentiary in 1962), Jack Thibeau and Fred Ward as the Anglin brothers, Roberts Blossom as Doc, Paul Benjamin as English, and Larry Hankin as Charley Butts.  All performances from this group of actors are outstanding.

There are many memorable scenes in this film, such as the scene when Morris approaches the African-Americans on their side of the yard, as well as the exchange between Morris and English.
 Also, I don’t think many will forget the scene in the wood shop, as Doc protests his loss of painting privileges in a very grisly way.

Yes, this film had an effect on me.  It had even got me into some trouble as a child.  For a few days after seeing the movie a handful of times, I sat outside one of the foundation vents outside of my parents’ garage, pretending I was a prisoner in Alcatraz.  I even borrowed one of my father’s screwdrivers (I didn’t want to mess up one of my mom’s spoons) and started chipping away at the vent, intent on being able to open it up big enough to get through it one day.  Man, I almost had that screen out of the stucco!  But, of course, my dad noticed it one day and I’d received a pretty good yelling at for my effort and he replaced the vent right away with a new screen and fresh
cement.  Also, it was years before I realized that I couldn’t perform the welding of two pieces of metal with coins that we have today.  The coins used in the film were represented as the coins available back in the 60s—silver—and it’s possible to do it with those types of coins.  You’ll see what I mean when you watch the film.  But if I learned anything from my mischief, is that I guess it was possible for them to break out of their cells by chipping away the concrete around the vent holes to enlarge them.

After watching this movie so many times over the years, I finally had gotten my wish to see the actual place—Alcatraz Island—a few years ago.  During an excursion with my wife, for our anniversary, we travelled to San Francisco for a couple of days.  One outing that was planned was to set out on the ferry that sets out to the island and took a tour of the facilities.  It was almost dreamlike to see the cafeteria, the shower area, the exercise yard, and, of course, the cells.  That part of the tour was the most surreal thing to see.  The cells that Morris and the Anglin brothers occupied have Plexiglas in place behind the bars with everything just as it was back in 1962—the bedding on the cot, the concrete around the vent all chipped away, the faux vent grill off to the side, and the dummy heads…very eerie.  I highly recommend anyone to take a tour of Alcatraz Island; it’s very enlightening and interesting.  Not only do you learn about the subject of this film, but you also hear about all the other escape attempts before Morris and the Anglins…pretty eye-opening.

Well, what’s my final “bit” on Escape From Alcatraz?

You can’t go wrong with Clint Eastwood.  He’s the man’s man, no doubt, but he puts on one hell of a performance.  The story, being somewhat true (there’s a lot of embellishment along the way), is awesome and makes you think long after the film is over.  This film is up there as one of his best—although I believe it’s the best in Eastwood’s collection of films, in my opinion—and you can’t go wrong with it.  I never get tired of watching it and it’s one of the few that I watch from the beginning to end no matter how tired I am.  In fact, it’s past due for me to have my annual Clint Eastwood movie marathon.

As an afterthought about how we see Frank Morris as a hero in this film, the story insinuates that he had close friendships with a number of inmates, some of which had had bad things done to them at the behest of the warden and/or carried out by the guards.  So when Eastwood plays out the character sticking up for his wronged friends, we, as the audience, are on his side.  Now, the real Frank Morris wasn’t a violent criminal, only ended up in Alcatraz because he was able to escape out of all other prisons he’s been incarcerated, so maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all.  But most of these subplots regarding friendships and incidents during his time there isn’t confirmed and is probably exaggerated.  Nevertheless, those thoughts don’t take anything away from this film—I’m just making an observation.  Because after watching Escape From Alcatraz, you can’t help but think about the real Frank Morris and Anglin brothers, thinking whether they made it or not.  I know you’ll be thinking what I was thinking: that you hope they did make it, that they made it to mainland and were able to get away and live the rest of their lives free.

Anyway you put it, the fabled escape will remain a mystery and probably will never be solved.

Thanks for reading and I welcome any comments!

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