What we’re watching: Escape tonight with ‘Escape from Alcatraz’

We all need a little escapism right now, which is what makes today’s film pretty much perfect for another night shut inside and socially distancing. “Escape from Alcatraz” is a fictionalized telling of the infamous escape of three prisoners from The Rock, possibly the only successful escape in the prison’s history. Director Don Siegel crafts a magnificent, minimalist slow-burning thriller, helped along by a great cast including an in-his-prime Clint Eastwood. Even though it was released more than 30 years ago, there is still something captivating about this bare-bones movie about a prison break.

Set in 1962, the film starts on a cold, rainy night as a single prisoner is transferred across the San Francisco Bay to the formidable fortress-like prison of Alcatraz. This is Frank Morris (Eastwood), a prisoner known for his superior IQ and propensity for escape attempts. He is brought before the condescending warden (played by Patrick McGoohan of “The Prisoner” fame) who informs him that there has never been a successful breakout from Alcatraz. The guards are all well-trained, the island is solid rock and the water too cold to swim across.

As you might expect, Morris takes this as an invitation to try. As he navigates life in the Rock, he begins to formulate what plans he can to make it to the outside world.

I won’t say more than that because part of the fun of the prison breakout genre is watching how a smart person can formulate plans with very few resources. The whole build-up to the escape attempt is an exercise in problem solving, coupled with the thrill of Morris and his co-conspirators nearly being caught by the guards and the occasional reminders that the warden is watching closely. This is a masterful example of the breakout movie, helped along by the fact that most of what you are seeing actually happened. The ending is left ambiguous enough because, as I said, this is only possibly a successful breakout. If you don’t know the story of Morris and the Anglin brothers, it’s worth reading up on.

Siegel manages to build tension by being as stark as possible. This is a movie from another era and it clearly shows. Background music is kept to a bare minimum. The whole 10-minute opening sequence of Morris being transferred to the prison has maybe five lines of dialogue. Even throughout the movie, much of the script is very utilitarian, with just a few lines parceled out here and there. The warden, for being the main antagonist, doesn’t show up that often. But when he does, the tension on the screen increases exponentially.

This is a slow-burning movie and you have to pay attention to what’s happening. It doesn’t beg for your attention with pyrotechnics, action scenes or screaming music. But that cold simplicity also makes you feel that you are in prison alongside Morris and his associates.

Speaking of, the cast of eclectic characters in here is great. Eastwood is what you expect from what we are told of Morris — steely-eyed, unflappable and shrewd. Whether that is true to how the real Frank Morris was is beside the point. Inside he meets inmates who give the Rock some depth. The painter named Doc, the odd little man named Litmus who keeps a pet mouse and the aloof African-American library keeper English. They fit certain stereotypes for any prison movie, but you won’t mind.

If you want to watch something different, “Escape from Alcatraz” perfectly fits the bill. It’s suspenseful without being high-strung, a thrilling story without all the frills, and based on true events to boot. Siegel has done exceptional work here, and it’s still an engaging story all these years later. So if you’ve never seen it, or it’s been some time, this is tale of a breakout is just the escape we can all use right now.

David Rookhuyzen is a freelance movie reviewer for the Sahuarita Sun.