Saturday, January 28, 2012

Film List - favourite prison films

This theme seemed all too apposite at the moment, since poverty and ill health - and dread of the ubiquitous fireworks outside - have kept me a prisoner of my apartment for the whole month.

Also, I have long wanted to do a post on this for two particular reasons: first, to give me an excuse to mention again Cool Hand Luke, which is one of my favourite films in any genre, and did, I fear, have a formative impact on me in my childhood; and second, to exclude The Shawshank Redemption - which is a steaming pile, one of the most overrated films of all time.

Having got that out of the way, let's move to the list. Once I started thinking about this, I was a little surprised to find that there weren't that many obvious contenders. Prison films are not as numerous as one thinks (if one excludes the B-movie lezploitation genre), and most of them aren't all that good.

Looking around for a bit of inspiration on the Net, I found most selections were cheating a bit (or a lot): a few of them even included Alien 3. Look, people, the 'prison movie' is a pretty clearcut genre: it must be largely or wholly set in an institution of correction (One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest might be set in a prison-like environment, but it's not set in a prison), and it must be a serious drama (not a comedy like the Jim Jarmusch classic Down By Law or Peter Sellers' Two-Way Stretch nor a quirky novelty story like Burt Reynolds' footballing yarn The Longest Yard or its Vinnie Jones remake Mean Machine) - and it must be about the struggle to live within the system and/or to escape, not about battling hideous acid-blooded predators. POW films are a distinct - and I suspect, rather more numerous - genre; so, Stalag 17, The Wooden Horse, King Rat, and The McKenzie Break will have to await a post of their own. I also exclude films which merely have a large element of prison story in them: In The Name Of The FatherDead Man Walking, The Hurricane, American History X and the recent Stone (a difficult and deeply flawed but extremely resonant film which might well get a post of its own soon) may focus on a man's imprisonment, but most of the story takes place outside the prison. A prison film - apart from a how-they-came-to-be-here prologue and an escape/release coda - is set almost entirely within the confines of a prison.

As with my other lists of this kind, I'll avoid attempting to rank these selections (except to say that Cool Hand Luke is No. 1, obviously!) and adopt a chronological arrangement instead.

Here we go...

Froog's Favourite Prison Films

I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang
(Dir. Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)
A prototype for Cool Hand Luke, but without the messianic sacrifice motif. For its day, very bold in its portrayal of the inhumanity of the prison system.

Brute Force
(Dir. Jules Dassin, 1947)
But for Cool Hand Luke, this would be the best American film in the list - a savage noir drama about the tough-as-nails Burt Lancaster leading a prison revolt against a sadistic warden.

Le Trou
(Dir. Jacques Becker, 1960)
But the best non-American film - and arguably the best film of the lot - is this French masterpiece of suspense and claustrophobia. Just as Dassin's Rififi was the seminal heist movie, Becker's film is the seminal prison escape movie - and similarly makes great use of real time and largely dialogue-free sequences during the escape.

The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner
(Dir. Tony Richardson, 1962)
A fine adaptation of Alan Sillitoe's famous novel about life in a Borstal - the UK's 'reform schools' for young offenders - with a mesmerising performance by a very young Tom Courtenay as the protagonist.

Birdman of Alcatraz
(Dir. John Frankenheimer, 1962)
A great performance by Burt Lancaster - although it's not as accurate an account of Stroud's life as one might wish (he spent half of his incarceration, and did most of his famous bird work, at Leavenworth Penitentiary).

The Hill
(Dir. Sidney Lumet, 1965)
Not a conventional prison, but a British military stockade for delinquent soldiers in North Africa during the last days of WWII. I saw this as a midnight film on British TV in the 1970s, and it has haunted me ever since. Gorgeous black-and-white photography, a brutal story, and the first proof that Sean Connery was capable of more than just being a suave superspy - something of a forgotten classic.

Cool Hand Luke
(Dir. Stuart Rosenberg, 1967)
The sweatiest film ever made? I have written enough about this before - here and here and here and here...

One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich
(Dir. Caspar Wrede, 1970)
Tom Courtenay again: a decade on, he has graduated to playing Solzhenitsyn's titular gulag inmate in a shamefully overlooked film, one of the bleakest and coldest ever made (shot on location in northern Finland).

(Dir. Franklin J. Schaffner, 1973)
One of the first films I can ever remember seeing in the cinema. A bit ponderous, and not nearly as good as Henri Charrière's enthralling biography about his life in the penal colonies of French Guiana in the 1930s (which I'd already read, at the age of 8 or 9, borrowing it from my brother), but the cinematography is sumptuous, and Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman make an eminently watchable pair of convicts.

(Dir. Alan Clarke, 1977)
Alan Clarke was one of the great assets of British television in the 1970s and 1980s, directing many of BBC1's landmark 'Play For Today' series of TV movies in the early '70s, and graduating on to more experimental and often very violent subject matter which could only get a late-night showing on BBC2. Many of his films, I believe, were only aired once; but they etch themselves permanently into your mind (Road, Contact, Elephant - the latter two being a couple of the best things made about The Troubles in Northern Ireland). He was instrumental in launching the careers of Tim Roth (as a racist juvenile delinquent in Made In Britain) and Gary Oldman (as the charismatic leader of a gang of football hooligans in The Firm). I think Scum - a brutal study of young offenders' institutions (with a first starring role for Londoner Ray Winstone, who has gone on to become Britain's favourite gangster) - was originally made for the BBC as well, but proved a bit too extreme for Auntie, and so was given a cinema release instead.

Midnight Express
(Dir. Alan Parker, 1978)
I don't think Parker - or Oliver Stone, the screenwriter here - have done anything better since. The bad machine doesn't know he's a bad machine.

Escape From Alcatraz
(Dir. Don Siegel, 1979)
I remember this being a workmanlike prison drama rather than anything outstanding; but it's much better than Shawshank.

(Dir. Stuart Rosenberg, 1980)
A dubiously eligible choice, since the main focus of the story is on saintly governor Robert Redford's battles with the Prison Board to improve the treatment of prisoners; but the scenes of life in the prison - particularly when Redford goes undercover as an inmate - are pretty harrowing. My recollection of this film (haven't seen it in well over 20 years) is that it is a worthy misfire: I just didn't buy Redford as the governor, and even less as a pretend-prisoner.

(Dir. Tom Clegg, 1980)
A gritty British prison escape drama that stays rather closer than most to the true facts of the story on which it is based. Casting rock singer Roger Daltrey in the lead, though - although he isn't bad - probably doomed it to not being taken as seriously as it deserved.

Kiss of the Spiderwoman
(Dir. Hector Babenco, 1985)
A prison love story - that's got to be a sub-genre of one, hasn't it?

Murder In The First
(Dir. Marc Rocco, 1995)
This film plays annoyingly fast and loose with the facts of the Henri Young case; but it is a very powerful story, and a superb performance by Kevin Bacon in the lead. Admittedly, this slightly strains my criteria, since much of the film is courtroom based.

(Dir. Hector Babenco, 2003)
An even better film from Brazil's master director, inspired by real events in Sao Paolo's notorious Carandiru mega-prison (more of a vast apartment complex that just happens to be closed off from the outside world) where police SWAT teams responded to a 1992 mass riot by conducting a massacre.

(Dir. Steve McQueen, 2008)
Another slightly outside-the-box choice, in that rather than being a standard prison story it focuses on the special case of the 1980s hunger strikes by IRA prisoners in Belfast's Long Kesh prison, and considers the conflict from the perspective of both the prisoners and the guards. It is a strange, terrible masterpiece, hauntingly beautiful - one of the best films I've seen in the last decade. And Michael Fassbender is absolutely stunning as the leader of the protests, Bobby Sands; he is now deservedly on his way to international stardom, but he'll probably never better this.


John said...

Why do you think Shawshank is a bad film? It's widely regarded as the best film ever made (a good pedestal to fall from.) I've never seen it but it's on right now which reminded me to ask you, although I've missed the start so I'll have to catch it again.

Froog said...

Shawshank is only regarded as "one of the greatest films ever made" by people with infantile critical faculties - i.e., 80% or 90% of IMDB users, which is why it briefly topped their list.

It' crap because it's trite, manipulative, and entirely predictable. Because it's far too long and involves too many sub-plots and side-plots that are not really integrated into the whole. It's crap because it relies far too much on Morgan Freeman's narration - and Morgan Freeman's personal charm - to hold this bloated mess together.

Which is to say that, basically, it's crap because it's a Stephen King novel.

I like King's writing. Unlike most super-bestseller writers, he can actually write very well - at the level of delineating character and situation. But he's terrible at PLOT. Terrible. Yes, it's difficult working in such a formulaic genre as horror/sci-fi; but instead of trying to come up with new twists on old ideas, he just piles more and more ideas up on top of one another. Even in his shortest short stories, he almost always takes things one or two or three steps two far, spoiling them with unnecessary elaborations of a good basic idea (see The Mangler for a classic example!). Most of his novels are long short stories that grew entirely out of control and ended up at 300,000 words or more. I've never read the Shawshank book, but the film version displays all of these trademark vices.