Escape from Alcatraz (film)
|Escape from Alcatraz|
Movie poster by Bill Gold
|Directed by||Don Siegel|
|Produced by||Don Siegel
|Written by||Richard Tuggle|
|Based on||Escape from Alcatraz
by J. Campbell Bruce
|Music by||Jerry Fielding|
|Edited by||Ferris Webster|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Box office||$43 million|
Escape from Alcatraz is a 1979 American docudrama prison thriller film directed by Don Siegel. It is an adaptation of the 1963 non-fiction book of the same name by J. Campbell Bruce and dramatizes the 1962 prisoner escape from the maximum security prison on Alcatraz Island. The film stars Clint Eastwood, Jack Thibeau and Fred Ward as prisoners Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin and John Anglin. Allen West was played by Larry Hankin; his character's name was changed to Charley Butts. Patrick McGoohan portrays the suspicious, vindictive warden and Danny Glover appears in his film debut. Escape from Alcatraz marks the fifth and final collaboration between Siegel and Eastwood, following Coogan's Bluff (1968), Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), The Beguiled (1971) and Dirty Harry (1971).
On January 18, 1960, Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) arrives at the maximum security prison Alcatraz, having been sent there after escaping from several other prisons. He is sent in to meet the warden (Patrick McGoohan), who curtly informs him that no one has ever escaped from Alcatraz and no one ever will. Eventually he meets his old friends, bank robber brothers John and Clarence Anglin (Fred Ward and Jack Thibeau), and he makes the acquaintance of the prisoner in the cell next to his, car thief Charley Butts (Larry Hankin). Morris befriends numerous other inmates, including English (Paul Benjamin), a black inmate serving two life sentences for killing two white men in self-defense; the eccentric Litmus, who refers to himself as Al Capone (Frank Ronzio) who keeps a pet mouse and is fond of desserts, and the elderly artist and chrysanthemum grower Doc (Roberts Blossom).
Morris also makes an enemy of the rapist Wolf (Bruce M. Fischer), whom Morris beats in the shower room after Wolf attempts to come onto him. Still seething from this encounter, Wolf attacks Morris in the yard and both men spend time in the hole. When the warden discovers that Doc has painted an ungainly caricature of him, as well as other policemen on the island itself, 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. Later, the warden finds one of Doc's chrysanthemums and crushes it in front of the inmates; an angry Litmus leaps at the warden and suffers a fatal heart attack. The warden coldly reminds Morris that "some men are destined never to leave Alcatraz—alive."
Morris notices that the concrete around the grille in his cell is weak and can be chipped way, which evolves into an escape plan. Over the next few months Morris, Butts, and the Anglins dig through the walls of their cells with spoons (which have been soldered into makeshift shovels), make papier-mâché dummies to act as decoys, and construct a raft out of raincoats. On the night of June 11, 1962, their escape happens; Butts loses his nerve and does not go with the others. He later changes his mind, but is too late and forced to remain in prison where he sulks over his missed opportunity. Morris and the Anglin brothers make it to shore and paddle their raft into the night. When their escape is discovered the following morning, a massive manhunt ensues. The warden is adamant that the men drowned, despite no bodies being found. He finds a chrysanthemum on the shore of Angel Island and throws it into the bay after being told that they do not grow there.
- Clint Eastwood as Frank Morris
- Jack Thibeau as Clarence Anglin
- Fred Ward as John Anglin
- Larry Hankin as Charley Butts
- Patrick McGoohan as the Warden
- Paul Benjamin as English
- Madison Arnold as Zimmerman
- Frank Ronzio as Litmus
- Roberts Blossom as Chester "Doc" Dalton
- Bruce M. Fischer as Wolf Grace
- Danny Glover as Inmate
- Don Michaelian as Beck
Screenplay and filming
Alcatraz was closed shortly after the true events on which the film was based. Screenwriter Richard Tuggle spent six months researching and writing a screenplay based on the 1963 non-fiction account by J. Campbell Bruce. He went to the Writers Guild and received a list of literary agents who would accept unsolicited manuscripts. He submitted a copy to each, and also to anybody else in the business that he could cajole into reading it. Everyone rejected it, saying it had poor dialogue and characters, lacked a love interest, and that the public was not interested in prison stories. Tuggle decided to bypass producers and executives and deal directly with filmmakers. He called the agent for director Don Siegel and lied, saying he had met Siegel at a party and the director had expressed interest in reading his script. The agent forwarded the script to Siegel, who read it, liked it, and passed it on to Clint Eastwood.
Eastwood was drawn to the role as ringleader Frank Morris and agreed to star, providing Siegel direct under the Malpaso banner. However, Siegel insisted that it be a Don Siegel film and outmaneuvered Eastwood by purchasing the rights to the film for $100,000. This created a rift between the two friends. Although Siegel eventually agreed for it to be a Malpaso-Siegel production, Siegel went to Paramount Pictures, a rival studio, and never directed an Eastwood picture again.
Although Alcatraz had its own power plant, it was no longer functional, and 15 miles of cable were required to connect the island to San Francisco's electricity. As Siegel and Tuggle worked on the script, the producers paid $500,000 to restore the decaying prison and recreate the cold atmosphere; some interiors had to be recreated in the studio. Many of the improvements were kept intact after the film was made.
The dangerous escape down the prison wall and into the water was performed without stunt doubles by Eastwood, Fred Ward, and Jack Thibeau, who had both been cast partly for their athleticism. Director Siegel twice thought they had been lost to the treacherous currents.
Background and historical accuracy
The film implied that the escape had been successful. While it is not known whether the three escapees survived, supposed sightings of them over the years provide possible evidence that they may have.
The character Charlie Butts is fictional. A fourth inmate, Allen West, did participate in the real escape but was left behind when he couldn't remove his ventilator grille on the night of the escape. He aided the FBI's official investigation of the escape.
The warden is a nameless, fictional character. The film is set between the arrival of Morris at Alcatraz in January 1960 and his escape in June 1962. Shortly after arriving Morris meets the warden, who remains in office over the course of the entire movie. In reality, however, warden Madigan had been replaced by Blackwell in 1961. The warden character mentions his predecessors Johnston (1934–48) and (incorrectly) Blackwell (1961–63).
Escape from Alcatraz was well received by critics and is considered by many as one of the best films of 1979. Frank Rich of Time described the film as "cool, cinematic grace", while Stanley Kauffmann of The New Republic called it "crystalline cinema". As of March 2015, it held a 95% "Fresh" rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. The film grossed $5,306,354 in the U.S. during its opening weekend from June 24, 1979, shown on 815 screens. In total, the film earned $43,000,000 in U.S. theaters, making it the 15th highest-grossing picture of 1979.
- Alcatraz Island in popular culture
- Clint Eastwood in the 1970s
- Alcatraz Dining Hall
- Survival film, about the film genre, with a list of related films
- Hughes, p.175
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- Variety film review; June 20, 1979, page 18.
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- McFadden, Robert D. (June 9, 2012), "Tale of 3 Inmates Who Vanished From Alcatraz Maintains Intrigue 50 Years Later", The New York Times, New York, NY, retrieved June 9, 2012
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