I tend to avoid or at least suffer through prison movies as a rule. To varying degrees they’re all about yearning for freedom, of course, but they always feel more confining than liberating (i.e., why does the caged bird sing?) and because life itself, for me, has always been about the defiance of suppression, confinement and regimentation so I already knew that tune backward and forward.
I don’t need and in fact have been forbidding the idea of a movie reminding me about these basic terms, and I’ve felt this way since my early teens, which is when I started to understand the degree of dull underlying horror that permeated normal middle–class life. This is how it seemed, at least, in suburban New Jersey (Westfield) and exurban Connecticut (Wilton).
As much as I admire Morgan Freeman’s performance in The Shawshank Redemption, I’ve never been able to derive any real pleasure or payoff from that film. Ditto Papillon, Birdman of Alcatraz, Bronson, Hunger, The Green Mile, Starred Up, Each Dawn I Die, 20,000 Years at Sing Sing, et. al.
Don’t even mention Oz or Orange Is The New Black.
The only prison flicks I’ve enjoyed, unsurprisingly, are about breakouts. Don Siegel’s Escape From Alcatraz (‘79) is the champ. Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke (‘67) is more about the spirit of freedom than escape, but it still qualifies. Ben Stiller’s Escape at Dannemora** (‘18) is an excellent bust-out film. I love the comical breakout sequence in Peter Yates’ The Hot Rock (‘71).
There’s one exception to my rule — a prison flick that isn’t about escape and just says “fuck it — life on the block is what it is” while staking claim to being a serious meditation on morality and jailhouse ethics: Robert M. Young and Miguel Pinero’s Short Eyes (77).
A couple of months ago I visited a friend who lives near the village of Ossining, which is about 40 miles north of Manhattan and is the home of Sing Sing prison. Peter Falk grew up there, and during an interview he recalled that all the lights in the town would flicker and grow dim whenever a guy was getting fried in the chair.** Escape at Dannemore is actually a limited series so that makes it a whole different bowl of rice!