Escape from Alcatraz (film)
|Escape from Alcatraz|
Theatrical release poster by Bill Gold
|Directed by||Don Siegel|
|Produced by||Don Siegel|
|Screenplay 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 prison action 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, and features Patrick McGoohan, Fred Ward, Jack Thibeau, and Larry Hankin. 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).
In early 1960, Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood), a criminal with an exceptional I.Q. who has absconded from other facilities, arrives at the maximum security prison on Alcatraz Island. Soon after arriving, he is summoned to the office of the warden (Patrick McGoohan), who curtly informs him that Alcatraz is unique within the U.S. prison system for its exceedingly high level of security and that no inmate has ever successfully escaped. During the conversation, the warden fails to notice Morris steal one of the nail clippers on the desk.
Over the next several days, Morris makes acquaintances with a few inmates, including the eccentric Litmus (Frank Ronzio), who is fond of desserts, English (Paul Benjamin), a black inmate serving two life sentences for killing two white men in self-defense, and the elderly Doc (Roberts Blossom), who paints portraits and once grew chrysanthemums at Alcatraz. Morris also makes an enemy of a rapist nicknamed Wolf (Bruce M. Fischer), who tries to harass him in the showers and later attacks him in the prison yard with a knife. Both men are imprisoned in isolation in the hole.
Morris is released while Wolf stays. 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, Morris encounters bank robber brothers John and Clarence Anglin (Fred Ward and Jack Thibeau), who are his old friends from another prison sentence, and he makes the acquaintance of prisoner Charley Butts (Larry Hankin). Morris notices that the concrete around the grille in his cell is weak and can be chipped away, which evolves into an escape plan. Over the next few months, Morris, the Anglins, and Butts 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.
Later, during mealtime, Morris places a chrysanthemum at the table in honor of Doc, but the warden stops by and crushes it, causing a provoked and angry Litmus to suffer a heart attack. Later, the warden requests a shakedown of Morris's cell and finds nothing unusual. However, he issues orders for Morris to be relocated to a different cell as soon as possible. Wolf has been released from solitary confinement and prepares to attack Morris again, but English is able to intercept him, with English implying that his gang will beat up Wolf.
That night, the inmates decide to leave. Morris, the Anglins and Butts plan to meet in the passageway and escape. Butts loses his nerve and fails to rendezvous with them. He later changes his mind but is too late and returns to his cell where he sulks over his missed opportunity.
Carrying the flotation gear, Morris and the Anglins access the roof and avoid the searchlights. From there, they scramble down the side of the building into the prison yard, climb over a barbed-wire fence, and make their way to the shoreline of the island, where they inflate the raft. The three men depart from Alcatraz, partially submerged in the water, clinging to the raft and using their legs as the primary propelling force.
The following morning, the escape is discovered and a massive manhunt ensues. Shreds of raincoat material, including personal effects of the men are found floating in the bay. While searching on Angel Island, the warden stubbornly insists that the men's personal effects were important, and the men would have drowned before leaving them behind. However, another guard has his doubts, suggesting that the convicts got rid of them on the pretense that they drowned. The warden is informed by his aide that he has been summoned to go to Washington to face his superiors, with the prospect of being forced to accept early retirement for having failed to prevent the breakout. On a rock, the warden finds a chrysanthemum and is told by his aide that none grow on Angel Island. The film closes with an inserted text narrative telling that the fugitives were never found, and that Alcatraz was closed less than a year later.
- Clint Eastwood as Frank Morris
- Patrick McGoohan as the Warden
- Fred Ward as John Anglin
- Jack Thibeau as Clarence Anglin
- Larry Hankin as Charley Butts
- Frank Ronzio as Litmus
- Roberts Blossom as Chester "Doc" Dalton
- Paul Benjamin as English
- Bruce M. Fischer as Wolf Grace
- Madison Arnold as Zimmerman
- 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. 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.
Siegel's original ending closed with the guards’ discovery of the dummy in Morris's bed, leaving it ambiguous on whether the escape attempt succeeded or failed. Eastwood disliked this and extended the ending, by having the Warden searching Angel Island and discovering a chrysanthemum on the rocks, a genus not native to the island, but grown on Alcatraz by Doc, and later used by Morris, though it is left unclear if the chrysanthemum was placed there by Morris having survived, or simply washed up when Morris drowned. The Warden is then informed by his aide that he has been summoned to catch the next plane to Washington to face his superiors: it is left up to the audience as to whether the escapees succeeded or not.
The film's final scene implied some hint that the escape was successful, but in fact it remains a mystery as to whether the escapees succeeded or not. Circumstantial evidence uncovered in the early 2010s seemed to suggest that the men had survived, and that contrary to the official FBI report of the escapees' raft never being recovered and no car thefts being reported, a raft was discovered on nearby Angel Island with footprints leading away (similar to the fictional scene in the movie where the Warden finds a chrysanthemum that was possibly left by the escapees)
The character Charlie Butts was based on a fourth inmate, Allen West, who did participate in the real escape, but was left behind when he could not 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 he arrives, Morris meets the warden, who remains in office over the course of the entire movie. In reality, warden Madigan had been replaced by Blackwell in 1961. The warden character mentions his predecessors Johnston (1934–48) and (incorrectly) Blackwell (1961–63). Blackwell served as warden of Alcatraz at its most difficult time from 1961 to 1963 when it was facing closure as a decaying prison and financing problems and at the time of the June 1962 escape. At that time, he was on vacation in Lake Berryessa in Napa County, California.
The incident in which Doc chops off several fingers with a hatchet was based on an actual incident that took place in 1937. Inmate Rufe Persful, maddened by what was then a policy of strict silence at all times, cut off four fingers with a hatchet to try to get transferred off Alcatraz.
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". Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it "a first-rate action movie," noting that "Mr. Eastwood fulfills the demands of the role and of the film as probably no other actor could. Is it acting? I don't know, but he's the towering figure in its landscape." Variety called it "one of the finest prison films ever made."
Roger Ebert gave the film 3.5 stars out of 4, writing, "For almost all of its length, 'Escape from Alcatraz' is a taut and toughly wrought portrait of life in a prison. It is also a masterful piece of storytelling, in which the characters say little and the camera explains the action." Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune awarded 3 stars out of 4, calling it "very entertaining and well made. The principal problem is a too-quick ending that catches us by surprise." Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "A delight for cineastes, 'Escape From Alcatraz' could serve as a textbook example in breathtakingly economical, swift and stylish screen storytelling."
Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes retrospectively collected reviews from 27 critics, and gave the film a 96% rating, with an average rating of 6.97/10. The consensus reads, "Escape from Alcatraz makes brilliant use of the tense claustrophobia of its infamous setting -- as well as its leading man's legendarily flinty resolve."
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 million in U.S. theaters, making it the 15th highest-grossing picture of 1979.
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What Mr. Siegel has made is fiction, a first-rate action movie that is about the need and the decision to take action, as well as the action itself. In this particular case, the action is the escape from "the rock," a maneuver masterminded by a tough con named Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) with two cronies, Clarence Anglin (Jack Thibeau) and John Anglin (Fred Ward).
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