40 Years Ago: ‘Escape From Alcatraz’ Revitalizes Clint Eastwood’s Career
In 1978, Clint Eastwood was riding a commercial high. His foray into offbeat blue-collar comedy, Every Which Way but Loose, had defied industry expectations to become the second highest grossing film of the year. Even The Gauntlet, his directorial effort from 1977 which garnered lukewarm-to-hostile critical reception, had grossed a respectable $35,400,000 in America. Eastwood was clearly willing to experiment and subvert his Man with No Name and Dirty Harry personas, but there were signs that his recent projects were creative dead ends. The Gauntlet presaged comic book adventures like Arnold Schwarzenegger's output throughout the '80s, but many fans and critics expected more depth from director Eastwood, particularly after viewing his 1976 rumination on Western mythology, The Outlaw Josey Wales. Although Every Which Way but Loose spawned a lucrative sequel in 1980, it was a derivative riff on popular '70s redneck adventure comedies like Smokey and the Bandit. Not only was Eastwood aping Burt Reynolds, he was playing second banana to an orangutan named Clyde.
Escape From Alcatraz, based on J. Campbell Bruce’s nonfiction account of a prison break from the maximum security penitentiary in 1962, reunited Eastwood with Don Siegel, the director who exerted the most influence on the star’s onscreen persona and who had served as a valuable mentor for Eastwood's tenure in the director’s chair. Given the respect and simpatico outlook shared between the two men, the project offered the director and star a chance to hit the reset button and restore needed gravitas to Eastwood's image. In fact, the film did all that and more. Not only did the Escape From Alcatraz, shot on location at the shuttered island prison, earn $43,000,000 in U.S. theaters, it also received critical accolades, being named one of the best films of 1979 and Eastwood’s finest film to date. Even more important, the project served as a capstone to Eastwood’s directorial apprenticeship under Siegel. Eastwood’s subsequent career can be seen as a distillation of techniques and themes he internalized under Siegel’s tutelage, before developing them further on his own.
Escape From Alcatraz was Eastwood and Siegel's fifth and final collaboration, after the star-making vehicle Coogan's Bluff, the rambunctious action comedy Two Mules for Sister Sara, the southern gothic melodrama The Beguiled, and the iconic crime drama Dirty Harry, which spawned the incorruptible-cop-against-the-system subgenre. For much of its running time, Escape From Alcatraz plays like a docudrama, based on an actual escape from the island prison that may have succeeded. Circumstantial evidence uncovered after 2010 suggests the escapees survived the dangerous currents and frigid waters of San Francisco Bay to land on nearby Angel Island, and that they may have subsequently stolen a getaway car. Alcatraz was shut down in 1963, less than a year after the escape.
"It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked," Al Capone reportedly said after he was transferred to the prison in 1934. Escape From Alcatraz dramatizes the institution's crushing dehumanization of inmates in the film's opening minutes when Eastwood, as escape leader Frank Morris, is stripped, searched and marched naked to his cell in front of other inmates. Set during a nighttime thunderstorm, the sequence introduces a tautness and tension that never lets up. Siegel stages this and other sequences with economy and efficiency that never sacrifices the underlying emotion in each scene. We learn the back stories of Morris and the other convicts through actions, and dialog is used sparingly.
"What kind of childhood did you have?" newbie convict Charlie Butts, played by Larry Hankin, asks Morris in the exercise yard. "Short," is Morris’ curt reply. Scenes of violence and brutality are spaced strategically in the narrative, choreographed with a restraint that accentuates their toughness. Siegel and Eastwood both know that silence frequently equates strength, and that you don't have to rely on braggadocio and bluster to prove you're a hard ass. A brutal fight between Morris and psychotic convict Wolf, played by Bruce M. Fischer, ends abruptly when a guard’s warning shot rips into the concrete at Wolf and Morris’ feet and stops the fracas dead in its tracks.
Escape From Alcatraz’s most harrowing scene doesn't even feature Eastwood. It belongs to character actor Roberts Blossom, portraying a sympathetic older con named Doc, who has turned to painting to survive the soul-crushing hopelessness of life on the rock. When his painting privileges are revoked, Doc hacks off his fingers with a hatchet. Siegel sets the scene in the prison workshop, building tension to a breaking point with only the sound of hammers and a buzzsaw on the soundtrack. It’s a technique that Eastwood uses to good effect in later directorial efforts as diverse as Mystic River, Unforgiven and Firefox, building unease though natural sound and stoic performances prior to bloody outbursts that happen so quickly and economically that viewers may be unsure of what they’ve just witnessed. Eastwood and Siegel seem to be adherents of the Howard Hawks school of swift sharp action. On seeing Sam Peckinpah’s protracted death scenes in The Wild Bunch, veteran producer/director Hawks reportedly said, “I can kill 10 men and get them buried in the time it takes him to shoot one.”
Doc’s suicidal impulses are triggered by the actions of the prison warden, who takes offense at a portrait painted by the prisoner. While the film adheres closely to historical accuracy, the unnamed warden is fictitious. As played by Patrick McGoohan, ironically known for producing and starring as an indomitable inmate in the cult British TV show The Prisoner, Morris’ foil is not a melodramatic monster. Instead, he’s a petty and officious man, a mid-level martinet whose sadism stems from an unearned sense of his importance. With the conflict between Morris and the Warden, Siegel reaches back to one of his earlier directing jobs, the prison expose Riot in Cell Block 11. In that 1954 crime drama, a sympathetic warden strives to meet prisoners' justified demands, but he is stymied by corrupt politicians. In its introductory first half, Escape From Alcatraz trades on the realistic social commentary that informs Riot in Cell Block 11, before switching gears to become a prison break procedural following Morris’ intricate escape plan. A naturalistic, morally uncertain middle ground would also find its way into the best of Eastwood’s subsequent directorial efforts, particularly Unforgiven where inaccurate tales of a cowboy’s confrontation with a prostitute spread like a prairie fire, painting a distorted picture that leads to a chain reaction of senseless violence.
The tightrope tension maintained throughout the film’s lean 112 minutes was unfortunately mirrored behind the camera. Eastwood and Siegel jockeyed for production credits, with Eastwood agreeing to star provided the picture was released by his production company Malpaso. Siegel balked and purchased the rights to the property for $100,000, intending to bring the film out as a Don Siegel production. A compromise was reached with Escape From Alcatraz released as a Malpaso-Siegel production, but the damage was done. Siegel and Eastwood never worked together again. Perhaps it was simply time for the friends to go their own ways, but Siegel’s lasting influence on Eastwood’s directing style can be seen in the latter’s subsequent films. The restraint and humanity that permeates Escape From Alcatraz was here to stay. When Eastwood returned to comedy in his next picture as director, Bronco Billy, he shunned the broad humor of Every Which Way but Loose for a sympathetic character study of a down on his heels wild west show proprietor. The moody atmosphere of Escape From Alcatraz also carried over to Eastwood’s next action film, Firefox, a high-tech espionage thriller, far more plausible that The Gauntlet.
The rift between Eastwood and Siegel never healed, and Siegel died at age 78 in 1991. In 1992, Eastwood helmed his Academy Award-winning elegy to the Old West, Unforgiven, dedicating it “to Sergio and Don,” an acknowledgement of the influence Sergio Leone and Siegel had on his career. Though Unforgiven bears a surface resemblance to Leone’s Dollars trilogy - A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly - that put Eastwood on the map as a box office draw, Unforgiven plays more like a Siegel picture, particularly in the spare, uncluttered and brutal staging of the climactic gunfight, where Eastwood’s reformed killer William Munny reverts to his base instincts, noting that he’s “always been lucky in the order” of the slaughter.
In 1979, Eastwood’s acclaimed capstone to the westerns that made his name was still more than a decade away, but the course that led him there had been set by his final collaboration with Siegel. Much like Escape From Alcatraz, Eastwood’s career pivot wasn’t a breakout of epic proportions. Rather it was a thoughtful course correction carried out with cool craftsmanship and quiet determination.