There are some filmmakers I admire and there are some filmmakers that made me passionate about film in the first place. Each month I will be looking at a selection of movies by one of those figures. This month’s Retrospective is all about the Chicago-born director/producer Don Siegel, who as well as directing one of the greatest sci-fi/horror films of all-time (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), also put together a formidable filmography of brooding film noir, robust crime dramas and haunting westerns. He was the man who had the honour of directing John Wayne in his last cinema outing (The Shootist), and was the filmmaker who had the biggest impact on the aesthetic development of one of America’s greatest living actor/directors – Clint Eastwood. Aside from Invasion, it is perhaps his work with Eastwood that will be most fondly remembered. From Coogan’s Bluff in 1968 through to the movie reviewed below, Siegel and Eastwood made five films together, each of which could now be considered classics. My own personal favourite was their civil-war horror/western The Beguiled, which will be reviewed later in the series. For me, Don Siegel was one of the masters of cinematic economy, and it was rare for a Siegel movie to out-stay its welcome. Not only were his films expertly paced, but they also exhibited a terse and concise visual language, that frequently looked for ways to show, rather than tell. Lacking pretension, the best of Siegel’s work was bold, daring and exciting, without ever feeling the need to force a narrative. Hopefully during this season I can remind you of his genius and acquaint you with some of his forgotten masterpieces, such as the Ida Lupino film-noir Private Hell 36, the Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster hitman movie The Killers, and the superb Michael Caine spy thriller The Black Windmill.
Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
Starr:- Clint Eastwood, Patrick McGoohan, Fred Ward, Larry Hankin, Paul Benjamin
It seems hard to imagine nowadays, but before this Eastwood/Siegel effort the concept of a ‘prison-break movie’ was a bit rare and exotic. The film that almost brought down a beautiful friendship and working relationship (Siegel and Eastwood went to court over production rights to the movie) also spawned the divers likes of Down by Law, Con Air, The Rock, The Escapist and the stately, over-hyped, masterpiece The Shawshank Redemption. Prior to this dramatisation of, allegedly, the only successful prison-break from Alcatraz, the prison-break movie was primarily set in war-time conditions like that of Stalag 17, Papillion, or The Great Escape. Only a year prior to Escape from Alcatraz, Alan Parker and Oliver Stone had delivered a hard-hitting prison drama, also based on real events, which featured a prison-break, but Midnight Express was much more concerned with the injustice of its protagonist’s situation. In Siegel’s movie, much of his trademark leanness is incorporated into two hours of slow, but unrelenting, progress toward that moment of escape. It’s one of the most characteristic aspects of the sub-genre, as everything in the ‘prison-break’ movie, ultimately, is sacrificed to the tightly knit contrivances and tension of the escape.
Siegel maps out his intentions most clearly in his casting. Eastwood, as Frank Morris, is obviously the star of the show, but intriguingly Patrick McGoohan (The Prisoner) finds himself in the sadist’s hotseat, as the prison warden who takes such merciless satisfaction in the ways in which Alcatraz and, by extension, he himself can break a man. Furthermore he casts Bruce M. Fischer as the man most likely to try to make Eastwood his bitch, thus playing up to Fischer’s filmography of rapists, thugs and hoodlums. The fact that Eastwood isn’t, and never has been, anybody’s bitch on screen, is what Clint brings to the party, the granite certainty that somehow he will prevail, or die trying. Many people have expressed frustration at this larger-than-life projection of himself that Eastwood has selectively crafted through his various screen personas, but I find something fascinating in the tenacity with which Eastwood ekes out foible’s and failings in an otherwise rigidly composed and unbending individual. Frank Morris is another such projection, refusing to be bullied by Fischer’s Wolf and daring to cosy up to Benjamin’s English, despite the latter’s obvious disdain and mistrust of white men. In Morris and English’s sketchily worked out relationship you have the seeds for Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins cross-racial convict cosiness in The Shawshank Redemption.
What I love about Siegel, another of my cinematic heroes, is his unfussiness and utter lack of pretension, which makes his directorial work almost surgical in its precision. We are introduced to characters on a need-to-know basis, given just long enough with them to make them human (the convict who is desperate to know the baseball news), then they are folded into the machinations of the plot, or discarded. Robert Blossoms brief appearance as a long-term con who has turned to painting, only to have that snatched away from him by the petty spitefulness of the warden, provides Siegel with his simple, yet poetic motif of the flowering chrysanthemum, later used to plant a seed of doubt in the warden’s assertions that the escapees must have drowned.
The authenticity of using the long-abandoned Alcatraz to actually film in provides the movie with an atmosphere of claustrophobia and mindnumbing boredom, that helps to further amplify those moments when the prisoners do in fact get their breakout plan up and running. Some of the physical stuntwork that Eastwood engages in during the breakout, further enhance the impregnable mythos that surrounds his screen persona, although an over reliance on Eastwood’s cold charms can occasionally leave Siegel blind to things such as Eastwood’s lack of stubble on coming out of ‘the hole’, or the plot McGuffins, such as the case search, which, although contextualised by an earlier instance of guard stupidity and hubris, still seems almost absurdly implausible. What does sing off the screen is the utter isolation and social deprivation that these cons endure in their Alcatraz hell. This isn’t the prison-life of repeat rapings and fearsome physical confrontation, but rather a lonely existence observing time unremittingly passing away from the prisoners.
The final escape is really nothing compared to the many days, weeks and months these men pour away on their faint chance of freedom. The fact that Eastwood’s cellmate, the absurdly named Butts (animatedly realised by Larry Hankin, of Mr. Heckles infamy in Friends), ends up being thwarted in his escape bid, highlights just how painful the endurance of Alcatraz-time truly is. The movie strikes a tone of dread and horror, akin to the eerie supernatural aspects of Siegel and Eastwood’s work on The Beguiled, in its final closing credits image, in which the papier-mache head of Morris lies upon the hard, grey, remorseless cell floor, as the score hits a suspenseful note. Like a china doll’s head, or a ventriloquist’s dummy, this mock-up cranium has the basic physical likeness of a person, but somehow this only emphasises the absence of any living thing, leaving a thoroughly ambiguous ending on the film, that fits the lack of factual information about the aftermath of the escape.