Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Five Film Favorites: Jailhouse Flicks


Last month this space was devoted to courthouse dramas, films about trials. What should follow?

Jailhouse flicks, naturally.

Movies about people confined against their will have always appealed to me. Liking such movies goes all the way back to when I was a little kid. In those days I felt like a prisoner a lot of the time, especially in school. In one way, or another, films with detainees as protagonists are usually about escape, real or imagined, which may have been the original lure of jailhouse flicks for me.

This Five Film Favorites list is devoted to movies set in civilian jailhouses/penitentiaries. So if the plot unfolds in a stockade or a brig it’s not included. For my purpose, this time, I’m saying they are military movies. Which means marvelous films like “The Hill” (1965) or “Stalag 17” (1953) must be left for another column’s consideration. The same goes for movies about captives who are hostages. 

The films on this list are all pictures in which most of the action takes place in a penitentiary. They tell us about the pure tedium of life in the big house, as well as the horrors. As all five are about men in confinement, they also tell us about how mean and bleak a world without women can be.
  • “Birdman of Alcatraz” (1962): B&W. 147 minutes. Directed by John Frankenheimer. Cast: Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter, Neville Brand, Telly Savalas, Betty Field. Note: A young recalcitrant prisoner kills a prison guard and winds up in solitary confinement for life. Years later he adopts a sparrow as a pet. Eventually, that leads to the lonely prisoner keeping other birds and he becomes an expert on treating avian diseases. Of course, there’s a cruel warden who tries to put the kibosh on the Birdman’s work and a test of wills ensues.
The Man With No Eyes in "Cool Hand Luke."
  • “Cool Hand Luke” (1967): Color. 126 minutes. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg. Cast: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, J.D. Cannon, Jo Van Fleet, Dennis Hopper. Note: Luke Jackson (Newman) is a decorated WWII veteran who gets drunk, goes on a parking meter sabotaging spree and ends up in a Florida prison camp run by sadistic guards. This is the movie that put the catch phrase, “What we’ve got here is … failure to communicate,” into the lexicon of popular culture.
  • “Dead Man Walking” (1995): Color. 122 minutes. Directed by Tim Robbins. Cast: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Robert Prosky, Raymond J. Barry. Note: A prisoner awaiting his execution for a double murder asks a nun to assist him with an appeal; he claims his accomplice actually did the killing. As the condemned man and the nun get to know one another, and his days dwindle, his need to be honest with the only person who cares about him grows.
  • “Papillon” (1973): Color. 151 minutes. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. Cast: Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Victor Jory, Anthony Zerbe. Note: On his way to a French penal colony in the Caribbean Henri “Papillon” Charierre, a thief wrongly convicted of murder, befriends and protects Louis Degas, a forger. The story is about their grueling exploits to survive and escape. Papillon’s over-the-top will to resist his captors and be free are unforgettable.
  • “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994): Color. 142 minutes. Directed by Frank Darabont. Cast: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, Bob Gunton, James Whitmore. Note: Adapted from a Stephen King short story, this is an inspiring yarn about the power of courage, decency and patience in the face of daunting circumstances. Lots of patience, but all 142 minutes of watching this picture are well spent. Rita Hayworth isn’t actually in this one, but she still plays a pivotal role. It received seven nominations for Academy Awards.  
In each of the five movies on this list, the prisoners strive to gather and hold onto some shred of their dignity, while facing extremely tough odds. Which is a pretty good plot device for any story, behind bars or not. Consequently, the best jailhouse flicks aren’t just about dreams of escape from confinement. They are also about thwarting a timeless villainy that is only too happy to imprison the hapless and the resisters.

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