Escape from Alcatraz: The final collaboration between Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel resulted in a subdued and suspenseful prison-break thriller

Escape from Alcatraz(1979) brought together Clint Eastwood and director, Don Siegel for the fifth and final time. In this low-key, slow-burn, prison-break thriller, Clint plays Frank Lee Morris, a real-life convict who escaped from the Alcatraz prison in 1962.

“If you disobey the rules of society, they send you to prison. If you disobey the rules of prison, they
send you to Alcatraz. … No one has ever escaped from Alcatraz and no one ever will..”

Alcatraz Prison Warden

Isla de los Alcatraces aka Alcatraz island was so named by the Spanish explorer, Juan Manuel de Ayala (who chartered the San Francisco Bay in 1775), because he found it to be covered with pelicans. In 1848, the island was bought by United States government, and since then, it has served in various capacities: as a military fort, as a military prison, a maximum security federal prison, and today, it’s the hottest tourist destination in San Francisco. For 29 years between 1934 and 1963, Alcatraz served as Federal penitentiary to house prisoners who continuously caused trouble at other federal prisons. The jail has the history of holding some of the most notorious criminals in American history such as Al Capone, Robert Franklin Stroud (the “Birdman of Alcatraz”), George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Bumpy Johnson etc. Over the course of these 29 years, a total of 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts, two men trying twice; 23 were caught alive, six were shot and killed during their escape, two drowned, and five are listed as “missing and presumed drowned”. Thus, the penitentiary holds the enviable record of no prisoner having ever successfully escaped from its confines, that’s until Frank Lee Morris arrived in Alcatraz prison on January 20, 1960 as inmate number AZ1441. Morris is a criminal with an exceptional 1.Q. of 133, and had managed to escape from several other federal prisons. Hence, he’s been now send to the only unescapable prison in the country. Once arriving at Alcatraz, he fortunately finds himself in the company of his old cellmates from the Atlanta prison, the Anglin brothers- Clarence and John. Morris and the Anglins put into action an audacious new escape plan. Using stolen spoons they dig their way to a ventilation shaft; using mirrors they watch the corridors outside their cells for approaching guards; using makeshift mortar they hide their digging work; and using papier-mâché they make lifelike heads which they place on their pillows to make it look like they are sleeping peacefully. Come the day of escape, Morris and the Anglins, carrying the flotation gear, access the roof and avoid the searchlights. From there, they scramble down the side of the building into the prison yard, climb over a barbed-wire fence, and make their way to the shoreline of the island, where they inflate the raft. The three men depart from Alcatraz, partially submerged in the water, clinging to the raft and using their legs as the primary propelling force. The following morning the escape is discovered and a massive manhunt ensues, but the fugitives were never found, and Alcatraz Prison was closed less than a year later.

Don Siegel was known as a director of tough, cynical and forthright action-adventure films whose taut plots centered on individualistic loners. He was also no stranger to prison dramas, having directed a superior one in Riot in Cell Block 11(1954). So, it was natural that when Screenwriter Richard Tuggle prepared his well researched screenplay based on J. Campbell Bruce’s 1962 non-fiction book on Frank Morris’s’ escape from Alcatraz, he would send it to Don Siegel first. Siegel liked the screenplay and passed it on to his protégée and frequent lead actor, Clint Eastwood. Clint, who made a career out of playing individualistic loners, pounced on the chance to pay another one in Frank Morris. Thus, the film soon went into production with Paramount Pictures backing the film; and the studio spending some $500,000 to restore the Alcatraz island, including the decaying prison. Still, some interiors had to be recreated on the studio soundstages. Many of the improvements made to the island were kept intact even after the film company had left. The film is set between the arrival of Morris at Alcatraz in January 1960 and his escape in June 1962. As it was his style, Siegel strips down the plot and characters to their basics. There are no exposition, no character development, not much dialogues, not even much background scoring; everything is defined through action. It’s an extraordinary exercise in pure cinema, where every bit of information is conveyed visually, and Siegel is blessed to have a star and actor like Clint Eastwood, who, with his iconic presence and tightly-wound, economical acting style is more than capable of linking scenes with his presence & performance alone. This film is a perfect showcase for the actor-director synthesis between Clint and Siegel. It’s amazing how much Clint’s acting mirrors Siegel’s sharp, clean and economical style of filmmaking.

The film begins with the arrival of Clint’s Frank Morris in Alcatraz on a dark, rainy night. We see him stripped down, examined and lead across the prison block naked, and then locked up in his cell, with one of the prison guards echoing the ominous words “Welcome to Alcatraz.” There is thunder and lightning to add theatricality to the moment. This is the only bit of over-the-top theatricality present in the entire film. From here on, it’s a cold, clinical examination of prison life and Frank’s elaborate scheme to escape.  Soon after arriving, Frank is summoned to the office of the warden (Patrick McGoohan), who curtly informs him that Alcatraz is unique within the U.S. prison system for its exceedingly high level of security and that no inmate has ever successfully escaped. During the conversation, the warden fails to notice Morris steal one of the nail clippers on the desk. The next few sequences deals with Frank getting acquainted with his fellow inmates, getting familiar with the prison premises and going through the strict rules and routines of prison life. Over the next several days, Morris makes acquaintances with a few inmates, including the eccentric Litmus (Frank Ronzio), who is fond of desserts, English (Paul Benjamin), a black inmate serving two life sentences for killing two white men in self-defense, and the elderly Doc (Roberts Blossom), who paints portraits and once grew chrysanthemums at Alcatraz. In these scenes, it’s not clear whether Frank is actively planning an escape, or he’s just getting through the motions of a dreary prison life. Clint’s insouciant acting style benefits these scenes immensely, and gives them a kind of ambiguity, which helps in building suspense in the audience; we anxiously wait for the exact moment when he’ll get rid of this nonchalance and jump actively into pursuing the escape that was promised in the film’s title.

This takes some time and comes about in a rather indirect way: after Frank makes an enemy of psycho-rapist Wolf (Bruce M. Fischer), who tries to harass him in the showers, and is severely beaten up by Frank. An enraged Wolf attacks Frank with a knife in the prison yard, only to be overpowered by the guards. Wolf is sent to solitary confinement and so is Frank- whose protestations of “He came for me” is ignored. Frank is severely tortured in the hole, and then later released (Though Wolf remains confined). This is the moment when we see Frank change. He wants revenge, and the best way to take revenge on such a ruthless prison system and a sadistic Warden is to escape from there. When the warden discovers that Doc has painted an ungainly caricature of him, he permanently removes Doc’s painting privileges. In response, a depressed Doc hacks off his own fingers with a hatchet from the prison workshop and is led away. Frank is tasked with disposing the hacked fingers and cleaning up the place: a harrowing experience for him. Later, during mealtime, Morris places a chrysanthemum at the table in honor of Doc, but the warden stops by and crushes it, causing a provoked and angry Litmus to suffer a heart attack. Warden’s atrocities against his fellow inmates, resulting in their maiming or death, only makes Frank more determined and ambitious in his escape plans. He had already started working with the Anglin brothers-John and Clarence Anglin (Fred Ward and Jack Thibeau), as well as another prisoner, Charley Butts (Larry Hankin) on a daring escape plan. Frank notices that the concrete around the grille in his cell is weak and can be chipped away. Over the next few months, Frank, the Anglins, and Butts dig through the walls of their cells with spoons, which they stole from the mess-hall. They also make papier-mâché dummies to act as decoys, and construct a raft out of raincoats.

As their escape plan is progressing, Wolf is released from confinement, putting Frank’s life and his plans in danger. Frank cannot afford to be thrown into the hole again, but luckily for him, English, who has become a good comrade to Frank, intercepts Wolf – on his way to once again attack Frank- and leads him away. English warns Wolf that if he ever try to attack Frank again, he and his men will beat him up. But the threat to Frank’s escape does not abate: the Warden is becoming increasingly suspicious of Frank’s activities, and even though a shakedown of Frank’s prison cell, and a personal inspection from the Warden himself fails to turn up anything unusual, the Warden insists that Frank be relocated to another cell. Now Frank has to move quickly, otherwise he would loose the opportunity to escape. He advances the date of their escape, but Butts get nervous and does not go along with the rest. Frank and the Anglin brothers manages to escape the island as they planned. The next day, the guards open the cells, only to discover the papier-mâché dummies. It’s only then they realize that the prisoners have escaped. The film then cuts to a brightly sunlit exterior, which is the only location featured apart from the Alcatraz island in the entire film- on the ‘Angel Island’, the Warden and the guards are seen engaged in a massive manhunt. On a rock, the warden finds a chrysanthemum and is told by his aide that none grow on Angel Island. So, it has to assumed that Frank deliberately placed it on the island as an ‘F U’ to the warden- reminding him that this is revenge for his sadistic treatment to both Doc and Litmus. The film ends with the Warden being summoned to Washington to give explanation for his failure to prevent the escape- an inserted text informs us that the fugitives were never found, and that Alcatraz was closed less than a year later.

For a film that takes place predominantly in a single, claustrophobic location, with a very limited number of characters, and even limited character interactions and dialogue sequences- whatever conversations there is take place only in the mess-hall or the yard- it helps to have a great set of actors. This was a the first major feature film role for Fred Ward, who makes an energetic John Anglin. Robert Blossom is unforgettable as ‘Doc’, and Bruce M. Fischer, who played a rapist in Clint’s Outlaw Josey Wales is sufficiently crazy and menacing here as well. It’s impossible to imagine any other actor pulling off Frank Morris other than Clint Eastwood- at least in the form it exists in this film. Though it’s a real-life character, it looks tailor-made for Clint’s abilities as an actor and his image as a star- a man of few words, who keeps most of his thoughts to himself, and who’s very resourceful physically; someone who could be very easily mistaken for a dumb brute, but reveals his super-intelligence in very subtle ways- the way he looks at an object, or while intensely sizing up another person. Clint is buffed-up more than usual for this role, but he’s slightly deglamorized: he has sheared of his long locks, giving his ‘Mount Rushmore’ face even more of a rough, bare, stone-faced dimension that differentiates it from the ‘Man with no Name’ and ‘Dirty Harry’ characters. The simple prisoner’s outfit he wears throughout is also a far cry from the Ponchos, serapes and designer Jackets & suits that we are used to seeing him in. In short, here he’s more minimalistic and low-key than even his usual minimalist and unshowy self.

And he has got an extraordinary actor as the film’s antagonist to play off against. I have already waxed eloquently about the uber-cool, scene-stealing artistry of Patrick McGoohan in my review of Ice Station Zebra. Only thing i want to add is that perhaps his performance here is even greater, because he’s basically playing a caricature or a stereotype- a nasty, sadistic Warden without even a name. McGoohan fills it out with his presence and performance. It’s not a showy or entertaining performance as in “Zebra”. The nastiness, cunning and sadism of the character is completely underplayed by McGoohan; the more sinister the character gets, the more low-key his performance becomes. Take his first meeting with Clint, where he does all the talking and Clint does the listening: he affects the manners and behavior of a strict, sophisticated school headmaster, casually playing with a caged-bird and clipping his nails, even as he’s saying the most threatening things to the newly-arrived prisoner. Or the sequence when he visits Doc’s cell and find his caricature painted. For a moment there, we feel that he’s genuinely enjoying looking at the grotesque version of himself in the canvas, but then his demeanor changes ever so slightly to reveal his hidden anger. But the most chilling sequence in the whole film is when the Warden visits Frank’s cell, just before Frank and his friends escape. Warden seems to be making polite conversations, but he’s really checking out Frank and the cell for anything unusual. He seems so intimidating, threatening and close to discovering Frank’s secret that Frank has to avert his eyes from the Warden to not give himself away. There’s some irony in McGoohan’s casting as the Warden, because McGoohan became famous by playing “Number Six” in the very popular TV series “The Prisoner”. In the final episode, “Fall Out”, Number Six and several other residents appear to have escaped the Village (the fictional prison where “Number Six” is held captive along with other former spies and operatives). However, his ultimate fate is not revealed. In the context of “Escape from Alcatraz”, Clint’s Frank Morris is “Number Six” and McGoohan is playing “Number Two”- the chief administrator of “The Village”.

But the real star of the film is director, Don Siegel, who creates an extremely thrilling piece of cinema with the most minimal and economical means available. Neither the claustrophobia of the location nor the ‘dryness’ of the subject matter deter him from creating a purely cinematic action-drama. There’s not a hint of the melodramatic or overdramatic in the film; no bombastic musical score, big dialogue scenes or action set-pieces here, which may disappoint a lot of the fans of previous Siegel-Eastwood collaborations. Maybe that’s why the film was only a modest box office success. It does not have the swaggering style and machismo of “Coogan’s Bluff” and “Dirty Harry“, neither the overheated sexuality and gothic terror of “The Beguiled” nor the colorful fun & romanticism of “Two Mules for Sister Sara”. The film remains cold and detached throughout. Though it’s very much a masculine drama, where tough guys bond together to overcome the odds, the film does not have the usual scenes of masculine banter or macho brio. The film has its share of action set-pieces- in fact, the climactic escape sequence is the lengthiest action set-piece that Don Siegel has ever filmed, but like the rest of the film, they’re very low key; all of them set in pitched darkness and silence- Nowhere near Clint Eastwood jumping of the bridge on to a moving bus or Walter Matthau and Don Joe Baker going head to head with planes and cars in “Charley Varrick”. Where Siege’s minimalism serves the film most is in completely avoiding any exposition regarding the characters in the film, and making us connect with them based purely on their actions within the prison . Frank and the Anglin Brothers are ruthless criminals who have indulged in every crime possible, but in the context of this film, they’re the heroes and the Warden is the villain. So, the less we know about these characters, the better it is, and it’s exactly what Siegel does. He makes us root for these prisoners to escape from the island, which in normal course we wouldn’t have if we knew their full criminal history. That’s one of his great achievements in the film.

Clint and Siegel were coming together after 8 long year – their last film was “Dirty Harry” in 1971. Though Siegel was one of Clint’s mentors in the industry- Sergio Leone being the other one- their relationship had undergone a drastic change n the interim; mainly because Clint had gone on to become one of the biggest stars in the world. Also, Clint was now an accomplished director in his own right, having already made more than a handful of films. Hence, the making of this film was fraught with tension, with Siegel and Clint constantly at each others throats to gain control of the film. They were problems even before shooting began, when Siegel nixed Clint’s idea for a coproduction; Siegel wanted to produce the film himself. So they parted ways, and Siegel seriously looked for another star for his film, but he had to later relent and make peace with Clint, after the studio, Paramount Pictures, forced him to. By the end of the shooting, relations between Siegel and Clint had completely broken down, after Clint took over the direction and editing of the film himself. Siegel wanted the film to end where the guard discovers the papier-mâché dummies, but Clint wanted an optimistic ending and hence added that coda set on the ‘Angel Island’. Naturally, the film turned to be the last film Clint and Siegel would make together. Siegel would direct only two more films after this- Rough Cut and Jinxed; both of them were received poorly. He quit filmmaking after he suffered a heart attack while filming Jinxed. He died in 1991 at the age of 78 from cancer. Though, their professional relationship ended in acrimony, Clint never forgot Siegel’s contribution to his career. When he made “Unforgiven” in 1992, he dedicated it to his two mentors, Sergio and Don.

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