Escape from Alcatraz is a nifty little thriller, one whose premise is simple but whose effects are lasting and efficient. It is based on a true story, and yet it doesn’t bear the characteristics that come along with a film baiting for biographical cheeriness. Rather than appear as moving fiction with an appetite for afterward discussion, it is as clear and brutish as a slice of life. All aspects are kept understated, dark, and quiet — it doesn’t call for over-exaggerated thrills because its source is engrossing enough to fill the voids of a feature length film.
The movie also works as a seamless Clint Eastwood vehicle, where his emotionless visage speaks volumes and where his anti-heroism fits like a glove within director Don Siegel’s unforced traumas. In Escape from Alcatraz, which begins in 1960, Eastwood is Frank Morris, a hardened criminal arriving on the island bound prison after numerous stays at other penitentiaries around the country. An inmate with a bad habit of ingeniously escaping from lock-up, he is brought to Alcatraz in hopes that the law can finally contain him. This is a prison, the sadistic warden (Patrick McGoohan) reminds him, that is renowned for being inescapable. Get out the door, fine — but what happens once faced with the many miles of surrounding water?
But a life of claustrophobia isn’t one of Frank’s few interests; increased jail time is more preferable than not even trying to execute a nimble escape. Alcatraz presents an immediate challenge. Far-fetched as such a plot is, he enlists the help of brothers John and Clarence Anglin (Fred Ward and Jack Thibeau), finding further support through a sympathetic carjacker (Larry Hankin), a mentally unstable elder (Roberts Blossom), the prison eccentric (Frank Ronzio), and a likable killer (Paul Benjamin) whose two life sentences are the result of self-defense and living in a racially divided world. The odds aren’t in their favor, but gutsiness is — and sometimes, unpretentious enterprise can be the most powerful drug in the world.
What I like best about Escape from Alcatraz is how clipped its scenes of suspense are. A nail-biting escape sequence might act as the film’s climax, but small tastes that build up to the performance of the plan, whether they be the slow but steady digging of the hole in the wall with a spoon or the creation of the dummy heads meant to trick night dwelling guards, keep the film flavorsome and enormously stimulating. We’re never kept off the edge of our toes. The characters, all individuals who appear more as victims of life than they do criminals, are played by actors who know something about portraying commiserative men.
The closing titles inform us that no one really knows what happened to the people that concocted the blueprint of the infamous 1962 escape — no one ever found bodies, and no one ever reported seeing them strutting their stuff on the land they so desperately yearned to see again. But non-fictional bathos holds Siegel’s hand like an affectionate lover, suiting his icy style better than Clint Eastwood ever could. B+