Wednesday, April 9, 2014

SINS OF OMISSION - Entry #7: Escape from Alcatraz (1979)

Running Time: 112 minutes
Directed By: Don Siegel
Written By: Richard Tuggle, from book by J. Campbell Bruce
Main Cast: Clint Eastwood, Patrick McGoohan, Roberts Blossom, Fred Ward, Larry Hankin
Click here to view the trailer

As noted many times in the recent past here at the "1001 Movies I (Apparently) Must See Before I Die" blog, in the next 12 - 18 months the ultimate goal of this blog will transform from 'one man's journey to watch all 1001 movies in the "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die" book' to 'one man's journey to create his own, personal canon of 1,000 favorite films and show "those 1001 people" just how it's done! Sins of Omission will become a regular feature on the blog where I'll take one film that WAS NOT included in any incarnation of the "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die" book and DOES NOT appear on the next list of 1000 films that I plan to tackle, give it a formal review and make it a permanent part of my list, which is entitled: 1000 Films You REALLY Should See Before You Die: A Personal, Ongoing Canon of My 1,000 Favorite FIlms.


Trying to get back into the swing of things here guys, so pardon my mini absences. I hope you're finding enough archival stuff to keep you busy and I hope this review comes as a treat. Also, just so everyone knows, I haven't forgotten about the March recap and will have it posted sometime in the next twenty-four hours. Now then, onto the good stuff...

If you haven't seen this little gem from 1979 starring Clint Eastwood, then you owe it to yourself to track it down. The title pretty much sums up the entire plot, so I won't have to do much more explaining, but I'll add in a few details just because. Based on a true story, the film begins with Frank Morris (Eastwood) being brought into Alcatraz via boat (for the unaware, Alcatraz Prison is located on Alcatraz Island, just off the San Francisco Bay). It seems that Morris has been sent to Alcatraz because he's been a problem child at other prisons, racking up more than a few escape attempts, some successful. Now on "the rock", Morris spends his first few weeks getting acquainted with the regulars. First there's Litmus, an aging man who carries around a small mouse in his pocket. feeding it scraps from his lunch tray (think Michael Clarke Duncan in "The Green Mile"). There's also English, an aging black who is serving two, back to back life sentences for killing two white men. There's Doc (Blossom), an elderly man who likes to paint and there's Wolf, who flirts with Morris and gets a black eye for his troubles. Of course, the characters are just a piece of the pie, as it's the escape that takes center stage and gets underway after we're done meeting everyone. Morris, along with new cell neighbor Charley Butts (Hankin), John Anglin (Ward) and Clarence Anglin, make intricate plans to dig their way to freedom. Morris starts with a nail clipper, using it to chip away at the corroded cement around a small grille in his cell. After busting through the grill, it's only a short hike to a tunnel that leads to the roof. Together with the resources of his three fellow escapees, Morris plots to create some dummy heads out of paper-mache (to lay in their beds the night they leave, so as not to arise suspicion from the guards) and some life preservers and life jackets out of old raincoats, which John gets from the laundry.

Despite loving this movie, I was planning to begin my review by being my normal, picky self and saying that the movie is just a bit too contrived. It seemed that every time our characters needed some supply, despite being in prison, they managed to get it. Hell, Morris even manages to make a drill out of a fan and talk Litmus into tracking him down a drill bit, for God's sake! Add to that the facts that they manage to make life vests and a raft out of old raincoats, chip through the walls of their concrete cells with finger nail clippers and fool perfectly capable, adult guards into thinking that dummy heads are actually sleeping cons and you've got yourself some heavy contrivances. However, with the little bit of research that I've done, it looks like most of these things actually happened in the real case of the Alcatraz escape. The dummy heads thing was definitely true to life, as was the digging out the cell with a spoon and recreation of ventilation grille's, to make it look as if nothing was out of the ordinary. It actually makes this movie even better, because the whole time I just kept picking on the film, saying things like "Oh, that could never happen" or "Oh, they'd have definitely been caught by now", and to know that all of my nitpicking is busted by true facts makes me love this movie even more!

I'll never forget watching this movie for the first time. My brother had been watching it on television and I walked in toward the very end. I asked what it was and he told me what it was & what it was about. At the time, one of my favorite films was "The Shawshank Redemption" and so even at that younger age, I was hooked on prison films and fascinated with escape movies. I remember seeing the scene with the guard pulling back the covers and the camera focusing on the dummy head and the guards face as he realizes what's happened and knowing I needed to see this movie in it's entirety. It just so happened that whatever channel was airing the film was re-airing it immediately afterwards and so I stuck around to catch the full show and was hooked! It doesn't take a lot of explaining to say why: I love prison films and more specifically I totally dig escape movies (see what I did there? - escape movies, "digging"). This one is particularly good because it has Eastwood and Eastwood in the seventies was almost never miss. It also features a host of other fine actors including Fred Ward, Larry Hankin, Roberts Blossom, Paul Benjamin and Patrick McGoohan, not to mention some seriously great character development, even though that's really not what the focal point of the film is. This is one that could have gone another hour, as they could have easily piled in even more character development and a few more escape details.

Stephen King fans will notice MANY similarities between this and both "The Green Mile" and "The Shawshank Redemption". For starters, you've got the whole mouse in the pocket thing, which not only borrows from the John Coffey character, but also the Brooks Hatlen character from "Shawshank" and his bird Jake. You could also say that the Brooks character is also somewhat patterned after the Doc character, in that he's the oldest member of the film and that he takes drastic actions when he feels there's no other solution. The wardens of both "Alcatraz" and "Shawshank" are also very similar in their demeanor and personality. Both rough, stern men who TRY to have a rapport with the inmates, but usually end up being even bigger jerks. Yep, it's safe to say if you love "Shawshank" (and who doesn't) then you'd also love this and it's a shame that half as many people have heard of this one. Seriously, why THE BOOK didn't stick this one in there, in place of one of their out of left field choices, I'll never know. This would've been a perfect one to tout as something many have yet to discover and something that truly is a quality film. Oh well, that's why I'm making my won list and why this one is a definite inclusion!

RATING: 10/10  I could've lowered it a bit for some nitpicky things, but why squabble over it. I love it and that's that. On a side note, I'm going to try and knock out four more of these sometime in the next week or two, to bring my personal 1000 list to 250 films total.

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