V’s Ten for Ten: #10 – “Escape from Alcatraz” (1979)

· Films & Video Games

We don’t make good citizens, but we make good prisoners.” – The Warden

Welcome to the end of the Ten for Ten.  The end of the experimental decade in cinema, the end of Clint Eastwood’s serial acting collaboration with any director (from this moment onwards, he has acted in fewer than ten films that were directed by someone other than himself… out of over 25), and the unofficial end of the filmmaking career of one of America’s greatest filmmakers Don Siegel; not with a bang, but a quiet fade to black.

But Escape from Alcatraz is not an experimental film.  It is a return to the classic technique of Hollywood where actors act for both the environment and camera, and where the camera plants and moves to follow the movement of its characters and focal points or highlight what the viewer needs to see for the next moment to make sense.

I don’t really have a grand theme for this one, a fancy story, or a musing about larger ideas or themes in cinematic history.  It just seems like the right movie to end this experimental segment on because of the way it quietly paces itself through its story beats from beginning to end, and treats the viewer to a dark reality.  Every character has already accepted his situation and role within it at the very beginning, and so commences a lean, taut, and incredibly subtle picture that feels action packed even though there’s only one moment of raw violence.  And it feels heavy with ideas and emotion even without any mouthpiece to speak them.

Clint Eastwood has always been a better actor than he was a director, even with having created such excellent films like Play Misty For Me, The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Gauntlet, Sudden Impact, Heartbreak Ridge, Bird, Changeling, and Gran Torino.  Both of his Best Picture winners are overrated (but still very good).  Letters from Iwo Jima is a fine enough war film that gets more credit than it deserves because of the battle subject, the fact that not enough people have seen Tora! Tora! Tora!, and the fact that it’s a companion piece to Flags of Our FathersPale Rider is perfect if you’ve never seen Shane, and merely the best western of the 1980s if you have.  A Perfect World and White Hunter, Black Heart are fine but too overstuffed with Oscar bait to be great.

And finally, his popular The Bridges of Madison County is just Titanic before Titanic.  As in – during a brief period in the life of a domesticated European woman, she meets a worldly, free-spirited Midwestern American man with a talent for illustration but little publishing to his name, and they both unexpectedly fall in love. The experience with him, during which he captures her image, is so life altering that she keeps his secret for the rest of her life (symbolized by a necklace) and then, upon enlightening her heirs of the affair, joins him in death.

But it’s a mistake to underestimate Clint Eastwood’s capabilities as a filmmaker and conscientious storyteller.  It was too easy to make fun of him in 2012 for that fateful conversation he had with the empty chair, but Eastwood spent the next decade making by far the richest, most thoughtful, expressive, and introspective films of his career.  His lineup of films from American Sniper to Sully to The Mule to Richard Jewell to Cry Macho are not being fully appreciated at the present moment, but all of them are unsung masterpieces quietly waiting to be understood.  I have already included the clearest of them, Sully, in my list of the 21st century’s best films.  But all of these films are imbued with musings and observations about not only heroism, but citizenship, detachment, closure, and generational connection.  They each carry a populist edge, yet Eastwood’s restraint gives them humility and wisdom worthy of a broader appeal and closer study.

So it is especially rewarding to rewind the clock by about four decades and return to Escape from Alcatraz, where we find that nearly all of Clint Eastwood’s best modern qualities were apparent then too.

If the film has a weakness, it may be the fact that few today can appreciate Patrick McGoohan as the Warden, which I’m not even sure made much more sense as a casting decision in 1979 other than for the irony.  After his iconic introduction in the film, the Warden has comparably little left to do, which feels like a missed opportunity for storytelling.  The film’s texture informs so much of what it’s about, and its vertical penetration goes deeper than simply the raw metaphors on the surface.  McGoohan needed and perhaps deserved more time so that his foil could be more keenly felt as a rivalry.  Then again, maybe I’m entirely wrong about that because what little we have of him nevertheless informs the layers of the tightrope tale.  His philosophy on Alcatraz as a kind of dark enclave from civic life is well stated and even better applied when he revokes Doc’s painting privileges.

The beauty of Escape from Alcatraz lies in its ability to let you imprint almost any larger thematic idea you want upon the base conflict in the story and still find yourself fascinated and riveted by the rising and falling action.  Like an organic, interactive skeleton, you can construct for yourself the image of the person over the bones, and this person will surprise you.  I watched the film as a teenager, and thought it was just a cool suspense thriller.  I watched it again years later, having forgotten almost everything (including the fingers), and it became a beautiful parable.

Eastwood’s character arrives at Alcatraz in a thunderstorm.  Both the prison and the protagonist are imposing enough to speak for themselves, as he struts naked through the central corridor.  Thunder and lightning time his entrance.  The first shot angles downwards from the vented roof, where the prison almost looks like a dark library.  Then Eastwood walks through, and he looks tall enough to break the ceiling.

Welcome to Alcatraz,” the guard says as the first meaningful line of dialogue.  But Eastwood is such a towering figure that he might as well be saying, “no, Alcatraz, welcome to ME!”  Sure enough, his first meeting with the Warden makes this even clearer.  The procedure of his escape then commences without any further setup.  No sob story about some sympathetic person counting on him, no context about the crimes or suggestion of his innocence, no big breakdown behind the bars that make him suddenly refuse to accept capture, no eureka moment where he suddenly sprouts a brilliant escape plan, and no initiation into any kind of club that’s been waiting for him.  He simply smuggles a pair of nail clippers from the Warden’s office and starts digging.  Then he gets a spoon, rallies a few buddies, and continues.

The escape only gets more interesting as the men get closer to pulling it off.  Each endeavor is a new challenge yet what the characters all have in common is their willingness to tackle it.  No one is uniquely equipped for any one particular task.  The escape gang isn’t divided by skill like a communist equation.  Every chip off the concrete, every wrench of the ceiling bar, and every duck under the light feels like a bigger and bigger reward, as if you the viewer have labored with them.  And the ending is the perfect ambiguity.  Our better judgment tells us that they probably drowned.  But nothing in the movie makes you feel stupid for choosing to believe otherwise.

Even with his excellent contemporary run as a director, Eastwood’s directed films do not have the timeless quality that matches the strength of his collaborations with Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.  But Leone was imperial as a western genre artist; films such as Once Upon a Time in the West and My Name Is Nobody* prove that he could have generally succeeded without Eastwood.  Siegel afforded himself brilliantly as the king of the B-Movie in the 1950s, but his team-up with Eastwood in the late ’60s and decade run thereafter is why he is taken seriously as a filmmaker.  Coogan’s Bluff, Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Beguiled, and Dirty Harry made the most of both Siegel’s efficiency and Eastwood’s rising profile.  In that decade he also made Death of a Gunfighter and The Shootist (John Wayne’s final film).  Escape from Alcatraz is the payoff of that period, yet it is also perhaps the first post-70s movie.  The ’70s was the most paranoid, cynical, and pessimistic era in American cinematic history.  It may take place in one of the darkest real places in the country, but the film itself is as uplifting as anything could be.

Escape from Alcatraz is not really a prison or incarcerated life movie.  Siegel already made that masterpiece in 1954 with Riot in Cell Block 11.  The politics of prison itself were no longer interesting to Siegel or Eastwood, which is why so much of the film feels like a poem for the larger aspects of life and the things for which we yearn.  And here finally is where the line about citizenship becomes relevant.  Escape from Alcatraz is all about what it might take to gain or restore your citizenship.  Morris may or may not have survived his escape from Alcatraz, but Alcatraz itself did not.  The Rock was shut down after the real guys broke out, never to be found, and as such made the perfect set for the film.  And the film merely respects the individuality of its protagonist enough to make that in and of itself a case for his freedom.  It is one of the most compelling triumphs I have ever seen.

And so my ten for ten ends. It ends with the film I have grown to appreciate the most out of all the others, and with an earned tribute to an old legend for his work in a film that was the career sendoff and fitting closer for one of the men who made him what he is today.  Today is as good a day as any other to appreciate them for it.

– Vivek

V’s Ten for Ten (2022)
#1: “48 Hrs.” (1982)
#2: “Battle Royale” (2000)
#3: “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949)
#4: “Rope” (1948)
#5: “Malcolm X” (1992)
#6: “6 Underground” (2019)
#7: “Broken Blossoms” (1919)
#8: “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (2011)
#9: “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935)


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