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USA 1979
Directed by
Don Siegel
112 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

Escape From Alcatraz

The fifth and final collaboration between Siegel and Eastwood, plotwise Escape From Alcatraz, never seems very plausible, something which is rather ironic as it is based on an apparently true story of an escape from San Francisco Bay's infamous Alcatraz Prison. I say “allegedly” as the escapees were never seen again so I assume a fair degrees of conjecture was involved in J. Campbell Bruce's book on which the screenplay is based.

Clint Eastwood plays Frank Morris, a con with a knack for escaping from other prisons. Hence he ends up in the supposedly escape-proof Alcatraz where he convinces fellow inmates Charley Butts (Larry Hankin) and the Anglin brothers (Jack Thibeau and Fred Ward) that he knows how to get out. Butts loses his nerve but the other three get away.

The actual mechanics of the break seem far too easy with Morris managing to pull off some remarkable fine craft work with virtually no materials (including welding a small file onto a spoon handle with a box of matches!!) and little of the usual "will they, won't they?" tension is developed. On the other hand attention is spent on Morris's relationship with other misfit inmates - Doc (Roberts Blossom), English (Paul Benjamin) and Litmus (Frank Ronzlo) - all of which go to establishing what a nice guy he is. We never find out what he’s in for but although a tough dude he comes across as one of Nature’s gentleman. As characterisation it is, however, rather two-dimensional (to see this sort of thing done brilliantly see Cool Hand Luke, 1967). 

The film’s strength is its relentless slow-burn pace and Eastwood’s quietly intense performance . Also location filming in the yet-to-be-refurbished Alcatraz (it was closed down a year after the Morris break and eventually turned into a tourist attraction) gives it points for realism, albeit these  forbidding conditions are something which conflicts with the relative ease with which the break is depicted.

Escape From Alcatraz is a solid enough film but for once, less realism and more action seems desirable

FYI: Although the film offers the possibility of the men's escape, the TV show, Mythbusters, did a hypothetical on the break and found that the strength of the currents and the coldness of the waters in the bay meant that, as the prison authorities wanted to believe, the three men in all likelihood would have drowned.




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