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ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ (director: Don Siegel; screenwriters: Richard Tuggle/based on the book by J. Campbell Bruce; cinematographer: Bruce Surtees; editor: Ferris Webster; music: Jerry Fielding/Gilbert Thomas, Jr.; cast: Clint Eastwood (Frank Morris), Patrick McGoohan (Warden), Roberts Blossom (Doc), Fred Ward (John Anglin), Jack Thibeau (Clarence Anglin), Paul Benjamin (English), Frank Ronzlo (Litmus), Bruce M. Fisher (Wolf), Larry Hankin (Charley Butts), Fred Stuthman(Johnson), Madison Arnold (Zimmerman, prison guard); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Don Siegel; Paramount; 1979)
One of the better prison break films.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Don Siegel (“The Lineup”/”Invasion of the Body Snatchers”/”Riot in Cell Block 11”)directs one of the better prison break films.It’s based on the alleged true story of an escape from San Francisco Bay’s Alcatraz, known as The Rock, a maximum security prison that no one ever escaped from and has the rep of being an escape-proof prison. Writer Richard Tuggle adapts his taut screenplay from J. Campbell Bruce’s book. It details the breakout of lifer inmate Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood), with a rep for escaping from other prisons, and he’s joined by the Anglin brothers (Jack Thibeau & Fred Ward). “Alcatraz” ends on an ambiguous note as the trio escape but even though their bodies were never found it’s widely believed by the prison authorities that they drowned since they were never heard from again.

Siegel shows in detail the drudgery of prison life and how the mean-spirited egotistical warden (Patrick McGoohan) makes his own rules and proudly tells the inmates “We don’t make good citizens, but we make good prisoners.” The film’s centerpiece shows with meticulous detail how the felons used handmade tools and a nail clipper to dig away the walls surrounding the ventilation grills and squeezed their way through the newly created narrow opening to an airshaft opening on the roof of their cellblock. From there they swam in the icy bay waters, and the only trace of the trio was their discarded personal items found on distant Angel Island.

A year after the escape, Alcatraz was closed and converted to a park that became a popular tourist attraction. It was filmed on location, and the film crew had a hell of a job trying to capture the authentic look of the prison before it was refurbished.

This was the fifth and final collaboration between Siegel and Eastwood (Coogan’s Bluff, The Beguiled, Two Mules for Sister Sara and Dirty Harry), in “Play Misty For Me” Siegel made a cameo appearance as a bartender in Eastwood’s first directorial effort; all their films were acclaimed and did a good box office. There’s little action in “Alcatraz,” but Clint gives a fine restrained performance making it believable and making his criminal character a sympathetic figure. It’s also more interesting than the usual Hollywood prison escape pic, as it does a better job of realistically showing the dehumanizing routine of prison life and adds the wry Bresson-like commentary from the prisoner’s POV: “We count the hours, the bulls count us, and the king-bulls count the counts.”


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”