I forget the man but his mouth said something to the effect that movie-going isn’t to escape reality but to find it, to remind ourselves who we are or need to be. I’ll buy that, and might I say that the experience is greatly enhanced with a 2L cup of Coke. On the subject of escapism then are two films with an unusual goal, to provoke you into wanting to flee the world on-screen while keeping you planted firmly in your seat.
Tom Hanks brought some needed humanity to the corrections system in ”The Green Mile”, but based on precedent (films like ”Papillion” and ”Midnight Express”) we more often expect something uglier from the prison film, where guards are mechanically callous and wardens fanatic about keeping their barbed-wire hotels in order. Look for the scene where the bookish warden lectures our protagonist-convict on the hazards of messin’ with the rules. It’s not conducive to health. ”Lock Up”’s Warden Drumgoole (Donald Sutherland) goes a step further. In the only way I can interpret the scene, he has an inmate abducted from a minimum security prison to his own, and all to settle a personal grudge. Suspension of disbelief is a wonderful thing. “This is hell, and I’m going to give you the guided tour,” Drumgoole tells a buff and cuffed Frank Leone (Sylvester Stallone). Frank escaped Drumgoole’s walls years earlier to visit an old friend, and now, only months away from a happily-ever-after with girlfriend Melissa (Darlanne Fluegel), he’s violently taken to Drumgoole’s Gateway, “the worst (bleephole) in the system.”
There’s no reason to doubt it. The prison is crowded, quarrels are settled with metal shives, and the guards routinely ridicule the inmates. Even “mother” jokes aren’t exempt (that can’t be in the manual). To enforce his plan of pain, Drumgoole recruits king convict-meathead Chink (Predator’s Sonny Landham) to push Frank’s buttons, bleed him or taunt him into a criminal act that will extend his sentence. Incredibly, Leone….smiles. Not during the sanctioned waves of slurs and billyclubs laid out by Drumgoole’s coldest guards mind you, or during the mud-soaked football game that earns Frank a good beating (and some needed respect), but during the in-between times. “Nothing’s dead until it’s buried,” Leone tells a group of inmates he’s befriended. One’s so big he’s nicknamed Eclipse. Another, Dallas (Tom Sizemore), is that prisoner who can get whatever you need. He’s so yappy you’d swear his back had a string. Together they hang out in the prison garage and try to resurrect a vintage roadster, their way of ensuring that the “body has to be in here but your brain doesn’t.” Frank says that too. He has a lot of encouraging advice actually. It doesn’t stop Drumgoole from ordering the car broken apart with baseball bats, however. Any way he can get Leone’s goat, he will.
“Alcatraz was built to keep all the rotten eggs in one basket. I was specially chosen to make sure the stink from the basket does not escape.” Actor Patrick McGoohan’s warden, suitably named Warden, is a different kind of animal. We can smell his disdain for the prisoners but can’t peg it to a source. Is it the job itself, his loathing of all things criminal, or something more personal? We’re not meant to know. Unlike Lock Up, where hearts and motives are worn on the sleeve, collar and near everywhere else, Don Siegel’s ”Escape from Alcatraz” is more elusive. We never learn much about any one character and, in this environment, it feels right. It makes for a more realistic experience.
The film opens in the winter of 1960 in one of cinematographer Bruce Surtee’s (”Firefox”, ”High Plains Drifter”) dense, no-frills night scenes. Career criminal Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) is boated across San Francisco Bay to the Rock, stripped, examined and taken to his cell. Much of the movie was filmed on location at the former federal penitentiary and gives the impression that life there was cold, lonely and hopelessly routine (as an aside, 15 miles of cable had to be laid to bring power from the mainland for filming). In his first meeting with the warden we’re only allowed a thin profile of Morris. He has no family and is no stranger to prison breaks. His past crimes include burglary, grand larceny and armed robbery. Warden is unsympathetic and puts the challenge down early. “No one has ever escaped from Alcatraz. And no one ever will.” A peak at Morris’ personal file reads “I.Q. Superior.” This is the beginning of a tightly focused adventure.
When Morris discovers that the concrete walls of the prison are worn with moisture, the clock starts. He relays the news to a small group of trusted inmates, including true-to-life brothers John and Clarence Anglin (Fred Ward, Jack Thibeau) and duties are assigned. Improvised digging tools are made and dummies crafted to fool the guards while they work. These even have hair. But what about the Bay? A life raft has to be constructed, and life jackets too. By who? How? We can imagine that the logistics were more complicated in reality, but screenwriter Richard Tuggle and director Siegel (”Dirty Harry”) reveal just enough to intrigue, not confuse. The process is fascinating to watch, partly because the resources available to the prisoners are limited, partly due to the tight security. Failure in any one part of the plan will bring the entire operation down. Eastwood was great casting as the quiet but intense Morris, the ringleader of what is widely considered America’s best-known (and still unsolved) prison escape story. Like Stallone, Eastwood comes with an iconic rootability built in. We need little more than a basic familiarity with his past films to give Morris our support, convicted criminal or not.
As far as prison dramas go, both movies cover what we consider to be the basics – the night patrols, the stabblings, mess-hall slop on mess-hall trays, even that character who feeds the animals makes an appearance. But while Alcatraz more than succeeds in creating a lean, consistent, escape thriller, ”Lock Up” (or Rocky Goes to Prison) is subject to mood swings. For all Drumgoole’s promises of getting medieval on Leone, director John Flynn too often lets our hero breathe, even so far as to live a “pleasant” prison existence. The garage becomes a home base of sorts for Leone, a place where he can do what he loves, horse around with his mates and even get snapped on contraband moonshine. I wonder what this sadist Drumgoole is doing during all of this. Running his prison I guess. But alas, this isn’t Brubaker, it’s ”Lock Up” and it’s Stallone, a man we don’t often indulge in for realism. Leone is an underdog fighting prison corruption as only Stallone can, with passion and mettle and a training montage somewhere near the 50 minute mark. Loved it in its day. Less so now, but the Coke helps.
And the “winner” is: Escape from Alcatraz