The final collaboration between director Don Siegel and his superstar protégé, Clint Eastwood, Escape from Alcatraz is a smart thriller about exactly what the title suggests—the only known successful escape from the titular prison, a fortress-like structure built on a small island in the San Francisco Bay. For three decades, from 1933 to 1963, “The Rock” was considered one of the most secure federal prisons in the U.S., and the real-life jailbreak that inspired this movie occurred in 1962, just one year prior to the prison’s closure. (J. Campbell Bruce wrote a nonfiction book about the incident shortly afterward, and screenwriter Richard Tuggle adapted the book.) Although Eastwood and Siegel reportedly had a tense relationship on the project—it’s rumored that Eastwood directed much of the picture because his aging friend was losing his touch—the film is as smooth as anything either man made during this era.
Siegel’s storied efficiency is visible in the minimalistic storytelling, while Eastwood’s penchant for gloomy lighting and leisurely pacing adds a meditative quality. It helps, tremendously, that the material plays to the strengths of both men. Portraying a career criminal obsessed with breaking out of an “escape-proof” prison, Eastwood seethes as only he can, forming a community of like-minded inmates while enduring the cruel machinations of a nameless warden (Patrick McGoohan). Siegel meticulously depicts every step along the would-be escapees’ dangerous path, from carving a secret tunnel to preparing for a brazen leap into the choppy waters surrounding the prison. Some of the story mechanics feel like standard prison-picture stuff, like the development of a sympathetic geezer (Roberts Blossom) whom we can sense from his first appearance will not breathe free air, but the use of stock characters suits the milieu. Similarly, loading the cast with workaday character actors—Eastwood and McGoohan notwithstanding—helps accentuate the idea of prison as an equalizing environment.
More than anything, however, Escape from Alcatraz works as a mood piece, building ambience and tension as we, the viewers, become more and more invested in seeing the “heroes” succeed. (Regular Eastwood collaborators including composer Jerry Fielding and cinematographer Bruce Surtees contribute immeasurably to the film’s menacing quality.) Escape from Alcatraz may not be about much, beyond the usual pap about man’s inhumanity to man and the sweet nectar of freedom, but it’s an offbeat action picture in that many of the thrills stem from characters scheming in private; rather than building toward confrontations, it’s a movie about characters avoiding confrontations.
Escape from Alcatraz: GROOVY