ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ (1979)
dir – Don Siegel
Escape from Alcatraz, a film I didn’t like when it came out — I’m sure it was just too dry for the seventeen year old me, proved both fascinating and exhilarating on a re-view a few years ago. Cinematically speaking, its Siegel’s most expressive film. During his days in New Hollywood, while no Corbucci or Peckinpah , Siegel shot some terrific action scenes. The final fatal shootout for Richard Widmark’s Madigan. The pool hall fight (a real showstopper) in Coogan’s Bluff. The entire school bus sequence in Dirty Harry, as well as that film’s action introduction of hot dog Harry vs. The Black Panthers (the scene suffers a little now due to its obvious backlot quality. Are they in San Francisco or Hazzard County?).
The machine gun shootout in The Black Windmill (explosions of muzzle flash, bullet casings, and splintered wood). The actual action part of the bank robbery in Charley Varrick. The attack of Henry Bascomb of Bascomb Auto Repair (Siegel regular John Mitchum), the first of the sleeper agents that Donald Plesance wakes up in Telefon. Yet unlike Leone, Peckinpah, Hyams, and De Palma, Siegel never engaged in cinematic set pieces, until the beautiful, practically wordless opening sequence of Escape from Alcatraz. The sequence not only takes its time, it seems to go back in time. On one hand, it feels like the no-nonsense fifties Siegel of Baby Face Nelson & Crime in the Streets – though tellingly, not like the docu-style of Riot in Cell Block 11.
But on the other hand, never before and never again would Siegel engage in this type of cinematic bravura. From Eastwood’s first appearance as Frank Morris, being led off the ferry in the pouring rain onto the isolated island in his raincoat. To the older but still virile Eastwood (who looks as if he’s been chipped from granite rock as much as the penitentiary) being walked into processing in his old school grey suit (back in the day when people went to prison in suits and it wasn’t a statement), being made to strip while the prison doctor examines his mouth like livestock. To being marched naked through the cell block (brilliant), the sound of his bare feet slapping out a rhythm against the cold concrete floor that echoes against the stone walls of The Rock. To the final moment when Morris is placed in his cage, the cell door is slammed shut, and the guard says the first real line in the film; “Welcome to Alcatraz” , punctuated by a Mario Bava-like thunder clap and lightning bolt. “Bravo!”
His next film after the critical and financial success of Escape from Alcatraz would be his Burt Reynolds caper comedy Rough Cut (if only Siegel had retired then, like Phil Karlson did with Framed, he would have ended his career on an iconic high point). On that film Siegel would end up getting fired by the producers, and writer Larry (tv’s M*A*S*H) Gelbart would have his name removed from the credits. In Burt Reynolds’ autobiography he mentions the elderly Siegel spent half the movie asleep in his chair. And when you see Rough Cut, you can believe it (that may be the reason he was fired). But as the opening sequence in the Eastwood picture proved, not only was the old man wide awake, but fully engaged, and inspired to test his craftsmanship and technique. I suspect the reason for Siegel’s full engagement on the Alcatraz picture, as opposed to Telefon before it, and Rough Cut after, was on the Eastwood picture Siegel had something to lose.
What do I mean by that? We’ll get into that in a minute, but first, leaving Escape from Alcatraz for a moment, let’s discuss his Charles Bronson espionage picture prior to the Eastwood prison drama. Why would Siegel waste his time on the three-quarters-boring, one-quarter-silly (the best part) Telefon? As Willie Sutton might say; the money, stupid.
This was bore out when I recently met the films producer, Kubrick’s former partner James B. Harris. When I asked him why he and Siegel did Telefon, he said they didn’t like the script but felt one gains opportunity by working, not by not working.
For most of the seventies the two action stars that ruled the globe were Eastwood and Bronson. In America, the third was Burt Reynolds, who, for a time (at home) eclipsed both Clint and Charlie. So much so, they both tried to do their own version of a comedic Burt Reynolds-like action flick.
Breakout for Bronson (good), and Every Which Way But Loose for Clint (abysmal but successful). But Burt’s films, while they did great in the states, and killed in the south, never traveled well in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa as the Eastwood and Bronson pictures did. In Europe that third spot would go to either Franco Nero or Alain Delon, depending on the year. In Japan it would be Takakura Ken. The only real serious threat to Bronson and Eastwood’s dominance would come from Hong Kong’s Bruce Lee. But his untimely death stopped the competition before it ever really got started. Believe it or not, even Christopher Mitchum was a big noise in Spain, due to his pretty decent Spanish revenge picture Summertime Killer, directed by Spaniard action maestro Antonio Isasi. But by the end of the seventies, Bronson was looking a little long in the tooth – little did we know then that Bronson still had more than a decade of action films in front of him. So by the time he did his best picture during his tenure at Cannon Pictures, J. Lee Thompson’s delightfully lurid Kinjite (the movie where Charlie shoves a dildo up a guy’s ass in the first scene), it looks like an action picture starring The Terror-era Boris Karloff. But during the time that Burt Reynolds was kicking ass with Gator, Smokey and the Bandit, and Hooper. While Eastwood was laying waste with The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Enforcer, and The Gauntlet, Bronson was getting passé with mediocre efforts like St. Ives, Breakheart Pass, and The White Buffalo (Breakheart Pass is much better than The White Buffalo). In an effort on the studio’s part to keep Bronson from getting marginalized, they wisely deduced that it wasn’t Bronson’s age that was sapping his energy – considering how old he was, he looked remarkably good back then – it was his habit of working with tired old hacks like J. Lee Thompson (I love Thompson and Bronson’s Cannon Pictures of the eighties but their seventies movies are lackluster), and Tom Gries (how did Ted Post miss the call?).
The last Bronson film to make any real noise as a movie was his excellent turn in future action auteur Walter Hill’s first film Hard Times. At some point Bronson being comfortable on the set became more important than the movie, hence working time and time again with his wife Jill Ireland, and helmers like J. Lee & Gries. So in an effort to resuscitate Bronson’s waning career in the mainstream of commercial Hollywood filmmaking, action master and Eastwood mentor Don Siegel was brought in to pump some life into “the ugly one” (one of Charlie’s nicknames in Italy).
Unfortunately it sorta worked the other way around. In his autobiography Siegel recounts his Telefon experience with Bronson was prickly and the script was stupid. Which reveals all you need to know about the take-the-money-and-run aspect of the endeavor. The wacky Manchurian Candidate-like story tells the tale that in the Cold War fifties, Russia planted a bunch of deep cover sleeper agents in America near important military installations. The sleeper agents don’t know who they are, they’ve been brainwashed into believing they’re Americans. But when a certain Robert Frost poem is recited to them, it triggers their assignment, and they suicidally sabotage military targets. The plan is abandoned by the Russians and the sleeper agents are left where they are to live out the rest of their lives as Americans.
Until thirty years later, an evil rouge Russian mastermind named Dalchimsky (played by Donald Pleasence), with a hard on for the world, has a list of names and is calling them on the telephone (hence the title) setting them off. Bronson plays KGB agent Grigori Borzov and Lee Remick plays a CIA agent who join forces to stop and kill Dalchimsky (the only reason that Pleasence doesn’t just call all the agents in one hour, is that if he did, there’d be no movie).
As I said, the idea is wacky. In fact the Zucker Brother’s did a takeoff on it in one of the Leslie Nielsen Naked Gun movies and didn’t bother to add any jokes. But just because the premise is nutty doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact, it’s far out enough that in the right hands, it could have been a stone gas. But those right hands definitely didn’t belong to old fart Siegel, who blew the picture’s chance for success by de-emphasizing the kooky elements and emphasizing the dull ones. Siegel not only wasted his time, he wasted the Stirling Silliphant and Peter Hyams (who should have directed) script. The scenes where the sleeper agents are activated are a blast (almost all Siegel regulars: Mitchum, Sheree North, and Roy Jenson). And as stated before, Donald Pleasence, as he is in all of his Siegel pictures, is terrific. Not to mention his reading of the Robert Frost trigger poem, once heard, is never forgotten.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Remember Nikolai, miles to go before you sleep.
But in his book, Siegel admits to finding the plot dumb, so naturally tried to not feature it. I’ve always wondered why the film starts out such fun, only to turn into a snooze once Bronson and Remick enter the picture. So MGM’s idea of bringing in a big director gun to keep Bronson vital was a bust. After this film Bronson would forever be banished to 2nd tier status.
So while Siegel took the money and ran on Telefon, and took the money and slept on Rough Cut, Escape from Alcatraz gave him one last artistic erection. And, as I said before, on this prison film Siegel had something to lose…. his reputation.
With Richard Tuggle’s taut minimalist script, he had the best material for a cracking good picture in awhile. Siegel was also returning to the playing fields of two of his biggest past triumphs, the prison picture, and a Clint Eastwood picture. The old lion always made it very clear he considered his docu-styled prison fifties muckraker Riot in Cell Block 11 as his first real movie. I, happen to be, a huge fan of Siegel’s first film, the Sydney Greenstreet-starring vehicle The Verdict (not to be confused with the Sidney Lumet courtroom drama). Not only is it an entertaining programmer in its own right, it predates the misdirection that lies at the heart of Siegel’s storytelling strategy, as well as the law officer who takes the law into his own hands to see justice served ala Dirty Harry (as well as other Siegel law enforcement protagonists). From the perspective of an auteurist critic, it’s a wonderful first work.
But in regards to a picture that’s technique and intensity rises to the top of its field – be it prison pictures, fifties crime films, or old movies playing late at night on local television – Riot in Cell Block 11 is hard to beat. With this film, not only did the Siegel reputation begin, so did his penchant for violence and brutality, and his talent for (when left to his own devices) excellent casting.
Scary Neville Brand (the second highest decorated solider in World War II after Audie Murphy), and even scarier Leo Gordon (who, while continuing to act into the seventies, made quite a successful second career for himself as a go-to script writer for B-Movie maestros – Roger Corman: The Wasp Woman, Tower of London, The Terror, Gene Corman: Tobruk, You Can’t Win ‘Em All, & William Witney: The Cat Burglar, Valley of The Redwoods) have as much to do with Riot in Cell Block 11 success as Eastwood does with “Escape From Alcatraz”.
But, finally, the reason for Riot in Cell Block 11‘s reputation is simple, it was the best prison movie ever made. In his autobiography, Siegel speaks of Escape From Alcatraz scribe Richard Tuggle telling him that Riot in Cell Block 11 was his favorite prison film.
But Escape from Alcatraz was also his first collaboration with Eastwood since their phenomenal success with Dirty Harry (it would also be their last). Magnum Force was written for Siegel (Ted Post did it), and Eastwood offered Don Every Which Way But Loose, which he said he turned down because he didn’t think Clint could pull it off (it turned out to be Eastwood’s biggest hit up to that time…. ugh).
But after a few films with other stars, Matthau, Michael Caine, Bronson, and John Wayne, this was a return to the kind of picture the old man did best, with the actor he did it best with. There would be no sleeping in the chair on this movie. A bad movie from this script would not only signal the old dog was washed up, it would tarnish both the memory of Riot in Cell Block 11 and Dirty Harry, and Siegel’s privileged place as the man who understands Eastwood – not to mention by this time, as much as Clint respected Don, if Siegel fell asleep in his chair on the Alcatraz set, he’d probably wake up to find Eastwood directing the picture.
Eastwood, from the very beginning, always had a clear understanding of his own iconic persona, and so did Siegel. No other director, including Leone – judging by the harsh, insulting remarks Sergio made at Clint’s expense during the publicity for Once Upon A Time in America – understood Eastwood better, nor did Eastwood trust anybody with his carefully crafted persona the way he trusted Don Siegel.
Siegel and Eastwood were always in clever cahoots with how they exploited Clint’s iconic image. First as a handsome young stud in Coogan’s Bluff and The Beguiled, then away from westerns into urban crime dramas with Dirty Harry. With Harry Callahan, Eastwood was brought up to date, and the only true western heir to John Wayne was turned into the quintessential cop of the seventies, the decade where cops replaced cowboys as the action film heroes of choice. And in Escape From Alcatraz, yet again, Siegel and Eastwood had a new plateau to break through to. An older, middle-aged Eastwood. And as was their way, they exploited the hell out of it. Eastwood’s naked walk through the corridors of Alcatraz is simply a thing of cinematic beauty. But it’s highly doubtful Eastwood would have trusted this type of imagery with the other directors he was working with at the time, James Fargo and Buddy Van Horn.
And while I don’t know this for a fact, my guess is Eastwood might have been too self-conscious (i.e. embarrassed) to direct himself in a scene like that. By this time in their collaboration, many of the creative decisions are the joint decisions of two simpatico minds. I can imagine Eastwood and Siegel in a script meeting discussing how long can they go in the picture before Frank Morris says his first line. Then how few lines can he speak after that. How few lines can all the characters speak, except for Patrick McGoohan’s loquacious and sadistic warden. And speaking of iconic persona manipulation, McGoohan tweaks his own. The former Prisoner (Number Six) trapped on an island prison, is now in control of the most famous island prison since Devils Island. Only this time McGoohan gets to play “Number Two”.
And his opening speech to Eastwood’s prisoner; “We don’t make citizens in Alcatraz, but we do make good prisoners,” echoes the speech Patrick Cargill’s Number Two gives McGoohan in episode 23, “Hammer Into Anvil.” What’s so intriguing about the way Siegel opens the picture is that as bravura as it is, it also has a starkness – I’d describe it as a cool boil – that seems appropriate for the film’s period setting.
A genuine stylistic prison film precursor to Escape From Alcatraz is the first film of the fourteen film Japanese action film series Abashiri Bangaichi (1965) starring Japan’s answer to Eastwood, Takakura Ken, and directed by Ken’s Siegel, Teruo Ishii. This stark stylistic black and white snow-set prison escape adventure is a perfect companion piece to the Siegel and Eastwood endeavor (it’s highly unlikely Siegel would have ever seen Abashiri Bangaich but not unthinkable that Eastwood may have viewed it for its possible remake potential).
Since all these World War II era directors have moved on to that great honey wagon in the sky, period films would never be the same. When George Roy Hill shoots The Sting, or Brian De Palma shoots The Untouchables, or Martin Scorsese shoots The Aviator, the period recreation is half the point (in The Age of Innocence, it’s the whole point). An exception to this rule was Jonathan Demme’s wartime recreation of Los Angeles in the film Swing Shift. It managed to look right, I’d even say spot on, without being either a production or costume designer showcase.
The von Sternbergian exception of my peers was Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, maybe the most bravura costume-designed film since her father’s Dracula (by no less then Milena Canonero, who’s practically an auteur herself). But since the subtextual implications of the story underneath the historical record spoke so personally to the princess director, it had the effect of both modernizing the emotions, illustrating an inner truth, and revealing every other attempt at capturing the French Revolution on screen as either a history lesson or wax museum tableaux (Anthony Mann’s film noir-ish Reign of Terror aside). Now this truth may or may not have been Antoinette’s (who cares?). Like a Norman Mailer novelistic examination of a historical figure, be it Jesus Christ, Gary Gilmore, or Marilyn Monroe, what’s important isn’t the subject, it’s the author.
I bring this up in relation to Siegel’s Alcatraz picture because, like young Coppola, it’s his sensibilities inside of the material that makes the difference. And since Siegel shot at the real Alcatraz, they have one of the most impressive sets ever built (again, like Coppola with Versailles). Also the costume design seems wildly original. I’ve seen a few movies set in Alcatraz but I’ve never seen those blue pea coats the prisoners wear in the yard before. Is it true, who cares? It makes sense (same with the fresh fish naked walk) and it looks cool.
The story concerns the, supposedly, true story of armed robber and prison escape artist Frank Morris’ arrival to Alcatraz in the early sixties. Almost everything about the movie seems a throwback to another time (it was the film’s old school quality that made me reject it at the time). The dry fifties-like staccato pull of the picture. The way Eastwood seemed not like his normal self but like a fifties tough guy actor (this is who he should have been when he played Thunderbolt. The Cimino movie is wonderful but it’s attempt to hip up Eastwood always rubbed me the wrong way). Yet in trying to think of an appropriate fifties equivalent, I couldn’t. The most hard-boiled badasses of that Eisenhower era, like Ralph Meeker and Charles Bronson, and laconic tough guys like Robert Mitchum, Brian Keith, and John Garfield all talked a blue streak. Among those fifties tough guys, only Alan Ladd knew how to keep his mouth shut.
But the diminutive Ladd could never compare as a camera subject with the massive Rodin-chiseled Eastwood (few actors wore forties and fifties suit fashions as well as Ladd. But the minute you took him out of the suit coats he’d so stylishly swim in, and put him in either regular clothes or western garb, he’d disappear). But where the throwback quality is most profoundly felt is on the very genre of prison films itself. Starting with Harvey Hart’s (underrated director) very filmic adaptation of John Hubert’s play Fortune and Men’s Eyes, starring Wendell (The Sterile Cuckoo) Burton and Zooey (I Dismember Mama) Hall in 1971, the subject of male domination by homosexual rape was introduced into the genre. The subject was timidly touched on again in the TV movie Truman Capote’s The Glass House. But the true reality of the racial implications of prison rage rape against the machine wasn’t dealt with forthrightly until ex-convict Miguel Pinero’s play and later movie adaptation Short Eyes changed the prison film genre forever – the Robert Young-directed film was also re-released as an exploitation film, retitled Slammer (which I saw at my favorite black cinema at the time, the Carson Twin Cinema, on a double bill with Richard Pryor’s Which Way is Up?). And this reality at the time was compounded by the landmark television docu-special Scared Straight. From that day forward, not only any story about prison had to deal with it, any thoughts you might think about prison had to deal with it. The only reason Jamaa Fanaka’s shoddy prison pic Penitentiary, made the same year as the Siegel film, was a surprise hit was the bustin’ the new bronc cell fight, an exciting and compelling new addition to the genre. Escape From Alcatraz represents – at the height of this awareness – the last time a convincing prison story could be told that didn’t dwell on those aspects. And even this film couldn’t completely ignore it. The film’s most unconvincing scene is a ludicrous attempt by some barrel-built prick to bust Morris in the shower. In my day I’ve read a few books about The Rock. And while homosexual relationships did exist, they were looked on with disgust by the old-school hard timers (Machine Gun Kelly and his ilk). So instead of the sexually violent and racially motivated survival of the fittest warped society of subjugated felons, Siegel’s picture, maybe for the last time (without being a thirties period piece), could dwell on old school prison genre concerns. In the first half, the brutal isolation, monotonous regimented routines, numbered privileges, and that character that had all but disappeared, the cruel sadistic warden (except for women in prison films).
In the second half, the film deals with something that has been all but ignored by the genre, a masterly crafted, minutiae filled escape plan. It’s the minutiae aspect of the breakout that’s so compelling. Most movie prison breaks are exciting high flying affairs, milked for every second of nail-biting suspense. Oliver Reed’s and Ian McShane’s prison escape at the beginning of British action maestro’s Douglas Hickox’s crime film Sitting Target is a perfect example.
But Morris’ constant chipping away at The Rock with a pair of nail clippers at first seems futile, then impressive, then finally heroic. Almost everything about the escape strikes you as unique. Morris’ first revelation that maybe he’s found a way off The Rock isn’t presented the way we’ve become accustomed to. We don’t see Morris moseying along the corridor, suddenly spotting a flaw in the stone fortress that only he can recognize. Morris doesn’t have one big eureka idea. One small tiny reveal reveals another minutia of opportunity. All the step-by-step details of the escape become intriguing, and by the time you’ve put together a clear picture of the plan, you’re fascinated. The constant chipping away of The Rock, the collecting of the clothes for their moonlight swim (the faultiest part of the plan, and what surely killed them in real life), the paper mache heads they painstakingly paint and sculpt (the image Siegel uses for the closing credits), the jury-rigged welding gun they build to cut the cell bars. The plan takes such talent and intelligence that if they hadn’t died, you can’t help but think it could have won them parole. On the same token, all the same qualities involved in the escape attempt, discipline, skill, intelligence, talent, daring, could equally apply to Siegel’s technique in depicting the escape. In the same way that Morris chips away at The Rock, Siegel chips away at Tuggle’s senerio. As simpatico as Siegel and Eastwood were as artists, were as simpatico as Siegel and Morris are in methodology. Morris uses lifelong learned methods of ingenuity, practicality, and experience to dig through that rock wall. Siegel takes lifelong learned lessons of ingenuity, practicality, experience, and skill and applies them to his use of montage. Siegel is almost as silent as Morris, preferring to illustrate via montage than explain through expositional dialogue. After beginning his career in the film business creating montages for other director’s movies (Casablanca & The Roaring Twenties, among many others), the first really significant montage he ever used in his own work belongs to this late-in-life masterwork. The attention deficit disorder and rapid eye movement stimulation of most of today’s AVID editing is a world away from the steady-handed storytelling of this MOVIOLA master.
Did they escape? I’m sure they were dead ducks nineteen minutes after they hit the water. But the real true life escape is that Siegel escaped letting his pal Eastwood down. By 1982, the fifteen year long era of New Hollywood would be over. And in this new era, with two misguided comedic star vehicles (Rough Cut with Burt Reynolds & Jinxed with Bette Midler), came the end of Don Siegel’s five decades long career. These whimpers of a once proud lion have been almost completely forgotten. What’s remembered, and can never be forgotten, is the artistic collaboration of two men who owed each other more then that could ever repay. With Siegel, Eastwood escaped flash in the pan status. With Eastwood, Siegel escaped anonymity, becoming a major A-list Hollywood director fairly late in life. And when these two old compadres, with a friendship based on mutual respect, admiration, masculinity, and love did the impossible, escaped from Alcatraz, they slammed the iron door behind them.
Don Siegel is no longer with us.
Eastwood flies solo now.
And Hollywood will never see their like again.