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Film / Escape from Alcatraz

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"No one has ever escaped from Alcatraz... and no one ever will."
The Warden to Frank Morris

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. The film stars Clint Eastwood, and features Patrick McGoohan, Fred Ward, Jack Thibeau, Larry Hankin, and Roberts Blossom in supporting roles. Danny Glover also appears in his film debut.

In early 1960, Frank Morris (Eastwood), a prisoner 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 (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. Over the next several days, Morris encounters bank robber brothers John and Clarence Anglin (Ward and Thibeau), who are his old friends from another prison sentence, and he makes the acquaintance of prisoner Charley Butts (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.

How much of the Clint Eastwood film can you trust? Well, Alcatraz really was a harsh prison off the coast of San Francisco. Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin really did cut the vents out of the walls in their cells using spoons and really did trick the guards using the old dummy-head-in-the-bed trick. They really did escape, leaving behind a fourth prisoner (named Alan West, not Charley Butts), and really did disappear without a trace.

Tropes that apply to the movie include:

  • Absence of Evidence: The guard becomes suspicious when he accidentally drops his nightstick and the noise doesn't wake up Morris who is supposedly asleep in a nearby bed (Morris is feigning sleep, having luckily returned in time to replace the dummy with himself).
  • Affably Evil: Frank Morris is a career criminal and his goal isn't altruistic. Nevertheless, he's friendly to and sticks out for his fellow inmates, except for Wolf, that doesn't deserve any. He's even respectable to most of the staff as well, but that could be Pragmatic Villainy.
  • Air-Vent Passageway: Morris, Charley, and the Anglin brothers mount an escape by digging out the back of their cells to get into the ventilator shafts and escape Alcatraz prison through the roof.
  • The Alcatraz: The one and only.
  • Arch-Enemy: It's made clear from his actions that the Warden considers Frank Morris to be this to him. The plot also makes clear that this is a pretty irrational vendetta.
  • Based on a True Story: As noted above, the portion of the film dealing with the actual escape is quite accurate.
  • Blatant Lies: In one scene, Litmus claims to be Al Capone. The character he's speaking to lampshades it by saying he thought Capone was dead (which he was, as Capone died in 1947 in Real Life).
  • Building of Adventure: The legendary Alcatraz Island.
  • Casting Gag: Patrick McGoohan runs the prison for a change.
  • Chromosome Casting: All the characters are male. Justified as it's set in a prison.
  • Creator Cameo: Don Siegel makes an unbilled cameo as the prison doctor.
  • Crime-Concealing Hobby: As part of their escape plan to dig out the back of their cell, the four prisoners register to obtain recreational tools such as an accordion so they can hide what they're doing from the guards. However, at least one of these hobbies (painting) is instrumental in itself since they need flesh-colored paint to create convincing dummy heads.
  • Crime of Self-Defense:
    • English is a veteran inmate in Alcatraz prison in 1961. He tells Frank Morris his story of how he wound up in there. He was harassed by two men, who tried to attack him with knives. English killed them both. The reason why he got two life sentences, back-to-back? The two men were white, and he was black.
    • Morris is punished for fighting off Wolf when the latter attacks him with a shiv. "He came at me!" Morris rightly protests. It's possible the guard didn't see who began the fight, but he doesn't bother to find out. However, Morris is released after about a week. Wolf spends six months in solitary for attacking a guard.
  • Cutlery Escape Aid: Palmed spoons from the prison cafeteria, among other make-shift devices, were used by Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers to dig their way out of their cells and get out of Alcatraz.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Frank Morris. Being played by Clint Eastwood, this is practically a given.
  • Death Glare: Wolf does this to Morris during the lunch scene, which foreshadows his attempt to rape him.
  • Depraved Homosexual: Wolf is the only character in the cast who shows an interest in men. He also is a violent thug who demands Morris to just accept Prison Rape and when Morris fights back, tries to kill him.
  • Determinator: You'd have to be to pull this off.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The Warden orders Doc's painting privileges permanently suspended because he didn't like the prisoner's painting of him.
  • The End... Or Is It?: The film has the warden finding a flower on a nearby island where the gear is found, hinting that Morris and the Anglin brothers might have gotten that far. He crushes the evidence in his hands and insists "They drowned."
  • Evil is Petty: The Warden removes Doc's painting privileges permanently simply because he didn't like a painting Doc made of him (and it's not a painting that mocks the Warden or anything similar — from what the scene portrays, it may be because Doc didn't got his good side).
  • Faux Affably Evil: The Warden comes off as stern but reasonable and sounds saddened that Morris doesn't have relatives to visit him in his first scene. After that, he's consistently portrayed as a Jerkass going out of his way of making life as miserable as possible for the inmates.
  • Fingore: Doc protests the revocation of his painting privileges by lopping off three of his fingers with a hatchet. On-Camera.note 
  • Friendly Enemy: Some of the guards are jerks, but some are friendly with the prisoners, especially the one who has to take away Doc's paintings, who makes it clear he's Just Following Orders from the Warden.
  • Great Escape: What did you expect? A romantic-comedy?
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy: They're more complacent than anything. And it's not their fault no one did an architectural analysis of the decades-old prison to determine how being in the middle of a seawater bay is rusting out the walls...
  • Hated by All: Absolutely no one in Alcatraz likes Wolf. The prisoners notably do not attempt to help Wolf when Frank slugs him repeatedly in the shower.
  • Hate Sink:
    • Wolf is the only prisoner who is impossible to sympathize with, given he tried to kill Frank Morris twice. He is a rapist, after all.
    • The real-life warden at the time wasn't this tyrant we see in the film. It's clear they portrayed the Warden as vile and unlikable as possible to ensure that we'll root for our Villain Protagonist, who comes off as a hero in comparison.
  • Hellhole Prison: Somewhat Downplayed, but being locked in a completely dark cell for a long time is not a nice experience. The jerkassery of the warden is also a source of ill-being.
  • Hero Antagonist: The guards in Alcatraz, who are simply trying to contain a prison full of dangerous criminals. The only completely unsympathetic "good" character in the film is the Warden.
  • Infraction Distraction: Morris carries a wooden wedge coated with metal out of the carpentry workshop openly in his hand. He is naturally caught right away by the guard; his claims that it is meant to make it easier to take his hung clothes off the hook — otherwise, why would he be carrying it openly — are not believed and the guard calls him an idiot. After it is confiscated, we see him return to his cell and take an identically equipped wedge from his shoe heel, to be used to carve out the concrete in the wall behind his bunk.note 
  • Ironic Echo: Not so much a spoken line as the crushing of the flower.
  • Jerkass: The Control Freak Warden of Alcatraz. While it is his job to ensure that the prisoners are on their best behavior and learn from what they have done, he goes way overboard to the point where the prisoners are "confined alone." He's even reluctant to fund good conduct programs or counseling, leaving the prisoners to have to deal with their problems themselves, and the results are disastrous. He even has no problem crushing flowers in front of prisoners (and then remaining stone calm when one of the prisoners has a heart attack right then and there from the anger, deciding to make use of a Bond One-Liner to remind the other prisoners of the risk of trying to escape). In a modern-day context, he would represent everything wrong with prisons today.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • The Warden removes Doc's painting privileges simply because he didn't liked a painting Doc made of him.
    • He crushes a flower that Litmus brought to the mess hall because he says they are illegal. This little act of petty cruelty becomes flat-out inhumane when Litmus gets so angry from that that he has an instantly fatal heart attack and the Warden decides to say (to everybody, but especially aimed at Morris) that this is proof that not all prisoners make it out of Alcatraz alive.
  • Lifesaving Misfortune: Charley Butts (the Real Life counterpart was Allan West) can't get out and gets left behind by the others. As it's entirely possible that the trio drowned, this may ultimately have been for the best.
  • Locking MacGyver in the Store Cupboard: Morris is a well-known escape artist locked inside of a well-equipped prison. Even with the warden being paranoid about him, it turns out that he wasn't paranoid enough.
  • MacGyvering: Morris and his accomplices make the tools they need to escape with the very limited equipment that they can get inside the prison, like spoons, nail clippers, raincoats...
  • N-Word Privileges: Morris has 'em, but only because he and English quickly figure each other out.
    English: "Now I figure there's two reasons why you didn't sit down on my step. Either you're too scared, or you just hate niggers. Now which is it, boy? You too scared?"
    Morris (sitting next to English): "Nah. I just hate niggers."
  • Never Bring a Knife to a Fist Fight: Morris asks how English wound up in "The Rock":
    English: I was in a bar in Tennessee. Then these two dudes start hassling me. That was their first mistake. They pulled knives. That was their second mistake. They didn't know how to use them. That was the last mistake they ever made.
  • Never Found the Body: Stated in the footnotes of the film. Whether because the men drowned and were swept out to sea or survived and there were no bodies to be found in the first place will probably never be known.
  • No Name Given: The Warden, who is never named during the film, at one point refers to his "predecessors, Wardens Johnston and Blackwell." Warden Blackwell was the actual warden at the time of Frank Lee Morris' escape, and this script reference was clearly done to avoid legal trouble.
  • Odd Friendship: Morris and English. A white convict and escape artist and the jaded leader of the black gang in the 1960s Alcatraz prison quickly see eye to eye, becoming unlikely friends.
  • The Old Convict:
    • English claims to have only been in Alcatraz for 10 years by that point, but it's Alcatraz. Those years have turned him into a rather jaded sort, especially since his disproportionate punishment (for killing two men in self-defense) was racially motivated. He does form an Odd Friendship with Frank Morris.
    • Litmus and Doc have both been in Alcatraz for at least 15 years, and are both rather friendly towards Frank. Doc tries to keep a low profile, while Litmus sells contraband and keeps a pet mouse.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: The Warden suddenly develops a pronounced drawl in the final scene on Angel Island.
  • Police Brutality:
    • Downplayed for the most part. Most of the guards are just doing their jobs. If violence is shown, it's to stop a fight in the yard or to discourage a con from starting a fight again.
    • Subverted with the warden. He's depicted as a sadist, especially when he revokes the painting privileges of a sweet old prisoner whom he finds out painted an unflattering portrait of him.
  • Prison Rape:
  • Prisoner's Work: Getting a job in one of the workshops is a privilege that the prisoners have to earn, but most want to since it beats just sitting in one's cell. Frank Morris gets a job in the carpentry section, for instance.
  • Race Lift: English was based on Alcatraz prisoner Clarence Carnes. In real life, Carnes was a dark-skinned Choctaw Indian, not an African-American.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: A variant. At the end of the film, as the Warden sits on the beach and contemplates the flower he just crushed, an underling informs him that the Attorney General wants to see him in Washington as soon as possible. Since the end title informs us (correctly) that Alcatraz was closed within a year of the escape, we can assume the Warden, uh, accepted early retirement.
  • Running Gag: English and Morris call each other "boy," which at first is meant as a derogatory, racist sign of dominance. As they become friends, it becomes more of a joke up to the final time they meet before Morris escapes and they shake hands through the cell's bars. "Goodbye... boy."
  • Scary Black Man: Averted with English. He's one of the toughest cons on the Rock, respected and feared enough that he alone sits atop the top step of the yard with a view of the mainland. But he is quiet, soft-spoken, and treats everyone with respect unless they cross him. He also heads up the black gang in the prison, though.
  • Shout-Out: The Warden's line, "Alcatraz was built to keep all the rotten eggs in one basket" resembles a line in The Great Escape. Commander Von Luger similarly states, "We have, in effect, put all our rotten eggs in one basket."
  • Shown Their Work: It's considered one of the most accurate Alcatraz movies ever made. One of the few mistakes: the cots used in the prison are World War II-era cots that don't resemble what was actually used in Alcatraz. Another is Eisenhower's photo in the warden's office in 1961. Another is the lighthouse, installed after the prison closed.
  • Sinister Shiv: After Frank rejects Wolf's advances, he tries to knife Frank in the prison yard with a shiv. Frank manages to hold him off, and Wolf attacks one of the guards who tries to intervene, getting himself almost a year in solitary for it. When he gets out, he attempts to do the same thing, but switches tactics by having another con smuggle in the shiv for him.
  • Sleeping Dummy: Essential part of the escape plan.
  • The Stoic: Morris rarely shows emotion.
  • Tempting Fate: The Warden, telling a genius-level, escape-artist criminal like Morris that "No one has ever escaped from Alcatraz... and no one ever will!"
  • The Unreveal: Did Morris and the Anglins make it to shore alive or did they drown?
  • Villain Protagonist: Frank Morris, who is an armed robber and a multiple prison escapee. Despite that, he doesn't come off as a particularly nasty guy.
  • Wardens Are Evil: The contrast between the unnamed Wardennote  and the rest of his staff is quite obvious. The guards and the Deputy Warden are just people doing their job and don't resort to plain brutality at any point. The Warden, on the other hand, is a cold, vain bully. He drives an old prisoner to madness by taking his painting privileges away just because he didn't like a painting the man made of him, and drives another into a heart attack by crushing a flower that the prisoner had brought into the cafeteria (and then not only remains stone-cold calm as the man dies at his feet, but he immediately follows up with a Bond One-Liner to remind the other onlooking prisoners that Alcatraz is inescapable). His mission to ensure that Frank Morris will remain in prison is also portrayed as more of a personal obsession than just fulfilling his duties as head of the prison.
  • Wham Line:
    Morris: I may have found a way out of here.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: What happened to Doc after he lops off three of his fingers with a hatchet?