Hilts: “You see the way the goons got those towers placed?”
Goff: (glancing at the towers) “Yeah.”
Hilts: “There’s a blind spot right in the middle.”
Goff: “A blind spot?”
Hilts: “A guy could stand at that wire and not be seen by that tower or that tower. The one on the end is too far, they’d never see me, especially at night.”
Goff: “You’re crazy.”
Hilts: “You think so? Well, let’s find out, right now!”
[Steve McQueen to Jud Taylor, “The Great Escape” (1963)]
We all enjoy freedom or at least what we feel is something that can reasonably be called “Freedom.” Let’s say, you are taking a walk in the woods, and you see some plant growing around or through something in its way rather than be restrained. No living thing likes to be impeded or imprisoned. There is also an inherent need for every human being to be physically free, and when an individual is confined or constrained, they will just about do anything to escape or to be free in some other way. Numerous movies and various television dramas have explored this dynamic in many different, varied, and surprising ways. It is a subject that this month’s Blog Post will explore in further detail.
Two famous works of literature exploring one’s imprisonment, escape, and ultimate triumph were both written by Alexandre Dumas. They are “The Count of Monte Cristo,” and “The Man in the Iron Mask.” “Cristo” told the tale of 19-year-old Edmond Dantes, who, in 1815, is unjustly denounced as a traitor and sentenced to life imprisonment at Chateau d’lf in France. After being imprisoned for fourteen years, but educated during his imprisonment by a fellow prisoner who also tells him where to find a hidden treasure, he finally escapes and finds said treasure making him fabulously wealthy. He then proceeds to seek retribution against all of those who framed him. This popular adventure tale has been adapted so many times for films and television that it defies belief. It also has been done for numerous theatrical plays and musicals, audio adaptions, animated adaptions, and even video games. “Mask,” which was based on an actual historical fact that during the reign of King Louis XIV of France, a particular individual sentenced to life imprisonment was forced to wear an iron mask for the rest of his life, was also adapted by Dumas into a rousing adventure tale. In Dumas tale, this man was supposedly King Louis’s identical twin, Philippe, who was helped by the “Three Musketeers” (Yep, those swashbuckling guys again) to escape and take the King’s throne. Although not as insanely popular as “Cristo,” it still had a number of popular film and television adaptions made. Maybe the best versions of both tales were performed by the same actor, Richard Chamberlain, who ably starred in two well received made-for-television film adaptions made in 1975 and 1977.
However, criminals or unjustly convicted individuals incarcerated in prisons were also a surprisingly popular subject for films and television. An early acclaimed film focusing on the horrors of the Georgia chain gang prison system, and adapted from the memoir by Robert E. Burns, was “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” (1932) directed by Mervyn LeRoy. This film starred Paul Muni as veteran James Allen who, when unsuccessful in finding any work while drifting into poverty in the South, is arrested and sentenced to the Georgia chain gang after being tricked into becoming an accomplice in a robbery. Warner Bros. Studios in the nineteen thirties was the Hollywood standard-bearer in tackling socially relevant issues in the USA, and this hard driving and brutal expose of the chain gang system prevalent in the South caused an uproar. Both the book and this movie helped to ultimately bring an end to the Georgia chain gang system. As a film, this downbeat movie was, for it’s time, pretty brutal although the censors never allowed the studio to mention exactly where in the South this story took place. Hmm! Maybe it was in Never-never Land!
Anyhoo, upon its release (no pun intended) this film was banned in Georgia, LeRoy and Jack L. Warner, the head of Warner Bro. were both barred from entering the state, and a libel suit was filed against the studio by the state of Georgia as well as by two prison wardens. None of them won a Damn thing! My own opinion is that, even though this picture is pretty dated, it still has some powerful moments, and Muni’s performance is still gripping. Although he was justifiably, at times, criticized for overacting, Muni was also a powerful and commanding presence on both the stage and screen. He was justly Oscar nominated for his performance. By the film’s end, he has a final scene where he is on the run again and meets his girlfriend to wish her a permanent goodbye on a dark street at night. She asks, “How do you live?” Then, in a closeup of his desperate and frightened face, he replies, “I steal,” before his face disappears into the darkness! Someone once said, bluntly, of Paul Muni, “That baby can act!” He sure could Dear Reader. He sure could!
Of course, most prison movies did not pertain to people wrongly incarcerated. Fortunately, a number of them were still excellent films about life behind bars and not just films about convicts trying to escape. For every great prison escape film like “Brute Force” (1947), you also had a fine film like “Birdman of Alcatraz” (1962) about prison life in general. Although not as well-known as those two and with a much smaller budget, I especially want to mention “Riot in Cell Block 11” (1954), an excellent film about prison life, and the equal to those two pictures as well. “Riot” concerns a prison riot (no surprise there) where a bunch of hardened inmates overpower the guards in their cell block and use them as negotiation pawns to demand changes to their brutal living conditions. Their leader is Dunn (Neville Brand), who makes his demands to their liberal-minded prison warden Reynolds (Emile Meyer) who has also been complaining about these same conditions for years to his higher ups to no avail. As the negotiations drag on, the tension builds, not helped by a bureaucracy that is intransient to their demands, and by the instability of one of the other inmate leaders, Carnie (Leo Gordon), a violent psychopath nicknamed, “Crazy Mike.” “Riot” was directed by the always underrated Don Siegel (“Dirty Harry”), a great action/suspense director, who could crank up the tension with the best of them. Some of the people involved in the making of this film actually had their own personal experiences of life in a penitentiary. Actor Gordon previously served five years for armed robbery in San Quentin, and producer Walter Wanger previously served a 4-month prison term for shooting (in the groin) his wife’s lover. This film was shot on location at Folsom State Prison using real inmates and guards in background roles. Brand and Meyer, usually better known for playing “bad guys” or in supporting roles, gave standout performances in the lead roles. The issues reflected in “Riot” along with the overall downbeat conclusion of this film have only been repeated over and over again in real life, all the way up to our present day. Maybe some things will never change!
Speaking of some things that actually do change, but not in a good way, were prison films involving women incarcerated. There were a few that were made during the pre-code and censorship days, but when the censorship laws were finally relaxed or ultimately eliminated, starting around the end of the nineteen sixties, a virtual tidal wave of “women in prison” films were made for release to the general public. Besides the fact that around 99% of them were made with a budget less than what you would find in a “piggy bank”, quality-wise, they were all not even good enough to deposit into your local garbage dump. Of course, although it did provide enough lame excuses to show as much female nudity, violence, and Lesbian sex as was humanly possible for adults and prepubescent teens to enjoy, the general degradation of women was not a factor that anyone making these films seemed to care anything about. Television, sort of, got into the act too, but it blew up in their faces bigtime when actress Linda Blair, who got an Academy Award nomination at age 14 for the overrated “The Exorcist” (1973), followed that one up with the controversial NBC made-for-television prison drama, “Born Innocent” (1974). Here, her character, a constant trouble making runaway from an abusive home, is sentenced to a girls’ juvenile detention center where she is later graphically raped by other girls in a shower during her incarceration. Although TV censorship rules didn’t show any nudity or the extreme violence found often in films, and it was the highest rated TV movie for that year, it caused such an uproar among the general viewing public that it was one of the catalysts for the National Association of Broadcasters creating a family viewing policy since this was definitely an “adult,” rather than a “family” friendly movie. Funny thing, around 10 years later Linda Blair did do a couple of prison sexploitation films [“Chained Heat” (1983) and “Red Heat” (1985)] where her acting skills were basically relegated into how often she removed her clothes. Well, at least she did get a Raspberry Award nomination as Worst Actress of the Year for one of them. For which one, you may ask Dear Reader? Does it really matter?
Nevertheless, there was one truly great “women in prison” motion picture made years earlier that still holds up very well after all of these years. That picture is “Caged” (1950) starring Eleanor Parker. Here she played Marie, a 19-year-old innocent sentenced to prison as an accomplice to her husband in a robbery that went bad. Now with her husband dead, and herself pregnant, she has to face surviving in a tough prison environment amongst the inmates, and deal with a monstrous and sadistic prison matron named Evelyn (Hope Emerson). “Caged” was definitely not an exploitation film, but a serious drama about the dehumanization of an individual, and how the prison environment can create worse criminals instead of rehabilitating them. The screenplay by Virginia Kellogg is terrific, and she even arranged, with the assistance of authorities, to be incarcerated for a while with a false conviction in four different prisons to ensure its accuracy. “Caged” was also directed very well by John Cromwell (“Of Human Bondage”) who captured the grim, drab existence of prison life, and how it could drain the humanity out of anyone. Eleanor Parker gives an incredible performance slowly losing her innocence while changing into a hardened future criminal by the film’s end. Both she, Emerson, and Kellogg all received well deserved Academy Award nominations for their efforts. If you ever want to see maybe, the one really great film about women incarceration, see “Caged.”
Made-for-television films and cable series were also capable of producing excellent dramas about prison life. For example, on cable you had HBO’s “Oz” (1997-03) about an experimental unit in a men’s prison which was created by Tom Fontana (“Homicide: Life on the Street”), and who also wrote or co-wrote all of the episodes. You also had Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black” (2013-19), based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of her experiences in a women’s minimum security federal prison in Danbury, CT. starring Taylor Schilling as Kerman. Both series were well received and were nominated for multiple awards over the years. An example of a couple of great award-winning made-for-television prison films were CBS’s “The Glass House” (1972), and especially, ABC’s “The Jericho Mile” (1979).
“Mile” starred Peter Strauss (“Rich Man, Poor man”) as Larry “Rain” Murphy, a loner serving a life sentence in Folsom Prison for killing his abusive father. Nicknamed “Lickety-Split” due to his obsession for running around the prison yard, he doesn’t know how fast he actually is until he attracts the notice of the prison psychologist who has someone time him. Once they discover how fast he really is, the warden has the state track and field coach (Ed Lauter) bring in a couple of top distance runners to compete against him and who he handily beats. It’s at this point that the coach, with the warden’s approval, starts to train Murphy to possibly compete in the upcoming Olympic trials. Unfortunately, conflicts between rival prison gangs along with Murphy’s sole friend, Stiles’ (Richard Lawson) involvement in the gang situation may derail his plans. “Mile” was an original story by Patrick J. Nolan adapted by Michael Mann (“Miami Vice”, “The Insider”, “Heat”, etc.) who also directed. This was Mann’s breakthrough film that launched his motion picture directing career, and despite TV network restrictions back then (for language, violence, etc.) it is still terrific. His direction shows the intensity, fast editing, use of music, and sudden violence that his future films were known for. He is matched in that intensity by Strauss’s performance as Murphy. He’s an unrepentant “lifer”, perfectly willing (as they say) “to do the time” rather than submit to society’s need for him to express remorse for his past crime. Strauss won an Emmy for his performance as did Mann and Nolan for their screenplay. Whether it’s a prison film, a sports film, an inspirational film, or all of the above, it doesn’t really matter. All I can say about it is that it’s a Damn fine film!
Prisoner of war movies or films about individuals imprisoned under a dictatorship can also qualify as dramas about incarceration, and many films have also been made under this classification. Of course, some of them could really be putrid like, for example, “Prisoner of War” (1954) with such noted thespians as Steve Forrest (Dana Andrews less talented younger brother), Dewey Martin (who makes Tab Hunter look good by comparison), and Ronald Reagan (before he decided to make a career change) as POWs (all with perfectly coiffed hair) in North Korea brutally treated by Oskar Homolka (who played more spies and Russian officials than Hugh Hefner had girlfriends). All I can say about this film is… Boo! Bad! Ugo! Ugo! Now you also had some really good ones like the French World War I prisoner of war film, “The Grand Illusion” (1937), and the Brazilian “Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1985), a drama about two prisoners sharing a prison cell during a Brazilian military dictatorship. However, the one that I really want to praise in this genre is the great World War II prisoner of war escape film, “The Great Escape” (1963).
“Escape” chronicled the true story of one of the largest POW mass escapes in World War II. Although the names of all of the characters were changed, a number of the individuals portrayed were fictitious or composites of a number of different persons, and most of the incidents (especially by the POWs after they escaped) were also fictitious, it is still, one great movie. The details of how the escape occurred, how the escape tunnel was built, and how the POW concentration camp looked is extremely accurate. The film is also great due to terrific direction by John Sturges. At his best, Sturges was a great action and suspense director, and for an almost three-hour film, it never drags and is almost always engrossing. He is helped by a great film score by Elmer Bernstein and expert cinematography by Daniel L. Fapp (“West Side Story”) who captures both the beautiful European landscapes while also capturing the claustrophobic conditions the POWs endured while digging their escape tunnel. Best of all is the acting by his large ensemble cast. James Garner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Richard Attenborough, and others in smaller roles all have their moments to shine acting-wise. And then, there’s Steve McQueen’s performance as Virgil Hilts! As good as everybody else was, McQueen steals the film. His Hilts is sardonic, irreverent, subtly insolent, and quietly intense, a loner who escapes so often that after being repeatedly recaptured and placed in solitary confinement (The Cooler) he is nicknamed, “The Cooler King.” Everyone always remembered him in “Escape” for his wild motorcycle ride across the German countryside where it seemed almost like the entire Third Reich was after him. However, I prefer to remember him best for his little scene just after his friend Ives is shot dead while trying to escape. The sudden shock of it on his face and then his quiet non-verbal facial change into intense determination to quit being a loner and join with helping the mass escape attempt is just plain great acting. “The Great Escape” is a fine film.
Some other more recent prison dramas have been made, ranging from good to bad:
- The Good: The Clint Eastwood picture, “Escape from Alcatraz” (1979) with Clint playing real life con, Frank Norris who engineered an escape with three others in a makeshift raft in 1962 where, to this day, it is believed that they all drowned. Despite making the inmates, along with Clint’s Norris, a little too likeable, and the prison staff a little too unlikeable, it is directed expertly, once again, by Don Siegel who crafted a great suspense film.
- The Bad: The Sylvester Stallone turkey, “Escape Plan” (2013) with Sylvester unintentionally laughable as a lawyer(?) turned prison security tester(?) incarcerated in the world’s most “special super-secret secure” prison (Try saying that one five times). Watching Stallone try to play some high-tech savvy security expert is sort of like watching an ape trying to put a square peg into a round hole over and over and over again. Fortunately, I executed my own escape plan when I saw Sylvester’s film. It was right through the “Exit” door of the movie theater.
However, the last great prison drama that I want to praise for this month’s Blog Post, and which is based on a Steven King novella, is the film, “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994). “Shawshank” starred Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne, sentenced to life imprisonment in 1947 for the supposed murder of his wife and her lover and his friendship with “Red” (Morgan Freeman), a fellow long-term lifer who, in voiceover, tells the story of Andy over the next two decades there. Although this could be considered an escape film, it’s really a relationship drama between these two individuals, their fellow prisoners (James Whitmore, William Sadler, Gil Bellows, etc.) and Andy’s interactions with his sanctimoniously corrupt prison warden, Norton (Bob Gunton), and the warden’s equally corrupt sadistic captain of the guards Hadley (Clancy Brown). Frank Darabont brilliantly directed this story, also providing a terrific screenplay which allowed every actor’s performance to stand out. He also utilized Roger Deakins incredible cinematography and Thomas Neuman’s delicate film score to highlight, rather than distract, from the powerful dramatic and emotional scenes. Maybe the best film scene, of which there were many, is a sequence after Andy obtains a recording of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” from a recent library donation and proceeds to play it (after locking the door) over the prison’s public address system. No words are spoken but the inmates and even some of the prison staff stop whatever they are doing and just listen as the cinematography sweeps over all of the inmates on the prison grounds while showing the contentment on Andy’s face. That, Dear Reader, is just plain outright great directing, and this film should have won the Oscar for Best Picture that year. Unfortunately, “Shawshank” was not a financial success when first released, and despite the fact that it received a number of Academy Award nominations [Best Picture, Screenplay, Music Score, Actor (Freeman), etc.], it won…Nothing! The greatest insult of all was that Darabont wasn’t even nominated for Best Director. However, maybe now he is having the last laugh because “The Shawshank Redemption” has only grown, just like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, more and more popular, and has received more and more acclaim over the following years. It is now considered an American classic of hope and of humanity!
In closing, to quote Andy Dufresne…
“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living, or get busy dying.”
It’s a simple choice for all of us to make!