Alcatraz was a maximum security prison on an island off the coast of San Francisco; they put all the inmates who had caused trouble in the rest of America's prisons there, because there was no chance they could escape - for one thing, the mainland was a mile away across some particularly inhospitable waters. But the minute habitual armed robber (and escapee) Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) arrived there in early 1960, he had made up his mind he was not going to stick around. There must have been some way out.
Based on a true story, Escape from Alcatraz was the last film of the nineteen-seventies for Eastwood, a period for him which marked a golden age in his creativity, not to mention his popularity. Audiences had flocked to his movies throughout the whole of the decade, and while that celebration of a man who was fast becoming a screen icon would continue, you could argue that these were his best years, and what he owed the rest of his career to. Part of that was down to his good friend Don Siegel, the director who had kickstarted this era for Eastwood.
And appropriately, he ended the seventies with Eastwood, as this sadly was the final time they worked together, though for many fans of both, they went out on a high. It seems that just about every Hollywood tough guy has a prison movie in them, and this was Eastwood's, yet rather than show Morris as the cock of the walk while behind bars, we had to be convinced this was really no picnic for him, so from the first day he is incarcerated there he has to put up with a rapist's unwanted attentions and an arrogant talk from the Warden (Patrick McGoohan) about how he is stuck here and there will be no easy time of it.
That's right, The Prisoner, Number 6 himself, was the Warden here, an in-jokey item of casting that paid off as anyone who had seen the star's Columbo episodes knew how effective he could be as an antagonist. Here is is all too convincing as a complete bastard, and that was essential because we really needed a reason to support Morris and his fellow inmates who join him on his attempt at a prison break, so offering someone who is so cruel he would take away Roberts Blossom's painting rights when it was all the long term jailbird had, for example, was ideal to have us wishing someone would take him down a peg or two.
So here was a curious premise where these hardened criminals were the heroes, and those keeping them from society and law-abiding people were the villains, yet such was Siegel's skill that we absolutely saw things from the prisoners' point of view, even sympathising with them (wisely we do not dwell on what exactly their crimes were). There was an addition of sardonic humour, but in the main this was sober and low key, full of terse lines and suppressed desperation that built up quite some tension as Morris begins to come around to the idea that he has actually worked out a way to leave all this behind. Being based on a true story, they had to adhere to the facts even to the extent that it was filmed at the Alcatraz Prison, renovated for the purposes of the movie, so the ending was necessarily ambiguous as this was one of the biggest mysteries connected to the place, but that was no bad thing, leaving it memorable for the right reasons. It was not cheerful, but did have a grim irony about it that satisfied - plus Frank Darabont was obviously taking notes. Music by Jerry Fielding.