Italian movie poster: Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
Prison movies, one might say, play to a captive audience. Many of them can be brutally entertaining, effectively capturing the harsh realities of prison life as viewed by both inmates and guards.
Here are ten outstanding prison films that no fan of the genre should ever miss. Watch these films or risk a life sentence on Hollywood’s own Alcatraz, reserved exclusively for recalcitrant motion picture buffs with absolutely no hope for parole.
Birdman of Alcatraz (United Artists, 1962)
Burt Lancaster portrays real-life murderer Robert Stroud, who became one of the world’s foremost ornithologists while behind bars. Although producers took certain liberties – Stroud, for example, tended to his birds at Leavenworth and not on Alcatraz – the movie presents an intriguing, claustrophobic look at the infamous island prison in San Francisco Bay. Briefly touched on in the film is the 1946 Battle of Alcatraz, one of the bloodiest prison uprisings in American history. Burt Lancaster is outstanding as Stroud, with Karl Malden and Telly Savalas also turning in grand performances as Warden Harvey Shoemaker and inmate Feto Gomez, respectively.
Academy Award nominations: Best Actor (Lancaster), Best Supporting Actor (Savalas), Best Supporting Actress (Thelma Ritter), Best Cinematography
Director: John Frankenheimer
Review: “The finest ‘prison’ picture ever made…” – Variety (6/20/62)
On DVD: Birdman of Alcatraz (MGM, 2001)
The Shawshank Redemption (Columbia, 1994)
Tim Robbins plays wrongly convicted banker Andy Dufresne, who’s doing a life sentence at Maine’s Shawshank State Prison for the murder of his wife and her country club lover. As Andy tries to tunnel his way out, he has to contend with the brutality of life behind bars, battling a vicious band of cons called “The Sisters” and locking horns with a corrupt, temperamental warden who uses him as the keeper of his secret financial ledgers. Morgan Freeman is excellent as Red, Andy’s prison buddy, with Bob Gunton delivering a fine performance as Warden Norton.
Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Freeman), Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Writing, Best Original Music Score, Best Film Editing
Director: Frank Darabont
Review: “The director, Frank Darabont, paints the prison in drab grays and shadows, so that when key events occur, they seem to have a life of their own.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (9/23/94)
On DVD: The Shawshank Redemption Two-Disc Special Edition (Warner, 2004)
Cool Hand Luke (Warner Bros./Seven Arts, 1967)
Paul Newman has the title role, playing a loner convict who’s doing a two-year stretch on a southern road gang. It’s hardly easy time, as Newman as Luke Jackson must contend with a sadistic commandant (Strother Martin), a bruiser of a con named Dragline (George Kennedy) and various punishments meted out by prison authorities, including isolation in the infamous sweat box. Yes, boss!
Academy Award nominations: Best Actor (Newman), Best Supporting Actor (Kennedy, won), Best Writing, Best Original Music Score
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Review: “The traditional object of sorrow and compassion in American folk song and lore, the chain-gang prisoner, is given as strong a presentation as ever he has had on the screen in Cool Hand Luke…” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (11/2/67)
On DVD: Cool Hand Luke Deluxe Edition (Warner, 2008)
Three sheet movie poster: Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke (1967)
The Green Mile (Warner Bros., 1999)
Tom Hanks stars as Paul Edgecomb, the head screw of Cold Mountain Penitentiary’s death row in 1935. Edgecomb and his fellow guards carry out executions using Old Sparky, the prison’s foreboding, oft-used electric chair. One death row inmate, John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), possesses supernatural healing powers, magically sucking out disease from the afflicted. The Green Mile’s three execution scenes are not for the faint of heart, especially the botched job involving Eduard Delacroix (Michael Jeter), who literally fries in the chair after sadistic Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison) refuses to follow proper procedure.
Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Duncan), Best Writing, Best Sound
Director: Frank Darabont
Review: “…An intermittently powerful and meticulously crafted drama that falls short of its full potential due to considerable over-length and some shopworn, simplistic notions at the center.” – Todd McCarthy, Variety (11/29/99)
On DVD: The Green Mile Two-Disc Special Edition (Warner, 2006)
Riot in Cell Block 11 (Allied Artists, 1954)
This gritty, low-budget melodrama was actually filmed on location at Folsom State Prison in Represa, California. Emile Meyer plays Warden Reynolds, with Neville Brand, Leo Gordon, Alvy Moore, et al. as convicts who stage a riot in order to publicize the inhuman living conditions they are forced to endure. Told in a semi-documentary fashion, Riot in Cell Block 11 was produced by Walter Wanger, who had served a four-month prison term for shooting the suspected lover of his wife, actress Joan Bennett. It was old home week of sorts for actor Leo Gordon, who had actually served a stretch in prison for armed robbery.
Director: Don Siegel
Review: “In its own small way, Riot in Cell Block 11 is a realistic and effective combination of brawn, brains and heart.” – A.H. Weiler, The New York Times (2/19/54)
On DVD: Not commercially available
Lobby card: Neville Brand, left, in Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954)
Papillon (Allied Artists, 1973)
Steve McQueen plots his escape from the infamous penal colony of French Guiana, with a reluctant Dustin Hoffman along for the perilous journey. The hellish prison conditions in Papillon are second to none, complete with crocodile-infested swamps, knife-wielding cons, sadistic guards, a quack doctor, silence-enforced solitary confinement and of course the guillotine, the latter of which is used to deal with more serious infractions on Devil’s Island. The movie is based on the best-selling memoir by former inmate Henri Charriere a.k.a. Papillon, who no doubt combined a lot of fiction with fact.
Academy Award nomination: Best Original Music Score
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Review: “As played by Steve McQueen, Papillon is as all-American as a Rover Boy. He is manly, alert, self-reliant, deeply imbued with a sense of fair play. His love of freedom is so great that he must attempt the impossible, that is, to escape from Devil’s Island.” – Vincent Canby, The New York Times (12/17/73)
On DVD: Papillon (Warner, 2005)
The Last Mile (United Artists, 1959)
Mickey Rooney stars as John “Killer” Mears, a convict sitting on death row who decides not to go gentle into that good night. The Mick leads a prison break at the big house, only to be crushed in his quest for freedom. Rooney is absolutely riveting as the desperate con with nothing to lose, mouthing a whole lot of prison trash talk while he blasts away at his antagonists. The Last Mile was first filmed in 1932, with Preston Foster as Killer Mears.
Director: Howard W. Koch
Review: “…Killer Mears – now played by Mickey Rooney – the toughest, meanest inmate ever to create havoc along Death Row.” – Howard Thompson, The New York Times (2/19/59)
On DVD: Not commercially available
Half sheet movie poster style B: Mickey Rooney in The Last Mile (1959)
Midnight Express (Columbia, 1978)
Brad Davis plays young American Billy Hayes, who draws a long sentence in a Turkish prison after being convicted of smuggling hashish. Rat-infested Sagmalcilar prison proves to be a nightmare, populated by homicidal inmates, brutal guards and thieving children. Finally, a desperate Hayes can take no more, making his escape by simply donning the uniform of a bludgeoned guard and walking out the door to eventual freedom.
Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (John Hurt), Best Writing (Oliver Stone, won), Best Film Editing, Best Original Music Score (won)
Director: Alan Parker
Review: “Midnight Express is a sordid and ostensibly true story about a young American busted [in 1970]for smuggling hash in Turkey and his subsequent harsh imprisonment and later escape.” – Variety
On DVD: Midnight Express (Sony, 2008)
Escape from Alcatraz (Paramount, 1979)
The real-life 1962 escape from Alacatraz Island gets the Hollywood treatment, with Clint Eastwood in the starring role of ringleader Frank Morris. Alcatraz, in operation as a maximum security federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963, continues to fascinate, with Escape from Alcatraz effectively dramatizing conditions inside the notorious prison. Patrick McGoohan makes for a fine, nameless warden who obviously enjoys his work.
Director: Don Siegel
Review: “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.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (6/27/79)
On DVD: Escape from Alcatraz (Paramount, 1999)
Lobby card: Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
The Longest Yard (Paramount, 1975)
Burt Reynolds plays ex-NFL quarterback Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, who ends up behind bars following a drunken tiff with his wealthy gal pal (Anitra Ford). The prison is run by Warden Rudolph Hazen (Eddie Albert), who wants the defiant Crewe to help coach his semi-pro football team comprised of prison guards. Crewe eventually forms his own team inside the walls, recruiting other convicts for the big game against Hazen’s bruisers. The Longest Yard, remade in 2005 starring Adam Sandler and Chris Rock, is both brutal and funny. One of the more humorous scenes involves Reynolds’ Paul Crewe, who is forced to perform a “personal service” for Miss Toot (Bernadette Peters), a big-haired secretary at the prison.
Academy Award nomination: Best Film Editing
Director: Robert Aldrich
Review: “…The Longest Yard is a cynical, often brutal, crudely stated movie that blends two seemingly unmixable genres – the slice of sadistic prison life and the equally ancient tale of an underdog football team conquering impossible odds to win the Big Game.” – Richard Schickel, Time (9/23/74)
On DVD: The Longest Yard Lockdown Edition (Paramount, 2005)
Ten More Prison Movie Gems
- I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
- Reform School Girls (1986)
- Brubaker (1980)
- The Big House (1930)
- 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)
- Devil’s Island (1939)
- Bad Boys (1983)
- The Hurricane (1999)
- Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)
- Stir Crazy (1980)
One sheet movie poster: Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
- All images courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas, Texas