Escape from Alcatraz (Don Siegel / U.S., 1979):

A return to Riot in Cell Block 11, and a belated "you’re welcome" to Bresson. The prison is "a basket of rotten eggs" in the void, first glimpsed as a chunk of rock in the night rain by Clint Eastwood’s "fresh fish" convict. The warden (Patrick McGoohan) gloats godlike over the Alcatraz maquette in his plush office, and lays down the law accordingly: "We don’t make good citizens, but we make good prisoners." The escape is a methodical affair dividing two totemic images, the protagonist chipping away at the wall of his cell with a nail clipper and the papier-maché dummy head filling half the screen at the close. Like Losey or Becker, Don Siegel shoots the penitentiary less for suspense than for terse abstractions of oppression, loneliness, revolt, comradeship -- nothing sums up its view of the human condition like the shot of the fugitives ducking for cover as the searchlight from the guard’s tower pierces through the darkness. Hierarchy is a matter of how high you can sit on the steps of the yard (battered concrete grays and chilly nautical blues anchor the composition), the only women are wives and daughters tearfully mouthing "I love you" from the other side of the visitor’s room window. The black librarian (Paul Benjamin) matches wry sneers with Eastwood while remembering a brush with Alabama racists, the resident portraitist (Roberts Blossom) is a serene soul who quotes Mark Twain but hatchets off his own fingers once his painting rights are revoked. Siegel stages it all like a collection of haikus, all grilled corners and hard camera pans, not a single wasted frame. The summarization is Beckett-worthy: "We count the hours, the bulls count us, and the king-bulls count the counts." Siegel’s most ambitiously metaphysical and most crystalline articulation of his obsessive-outsider motif, an analytical bedrock for some (A Perfect World) and a fountain of schmaltz for others (The Shawshank Redemption). Cinematography by Bruce Surtees. With Fred Ward, Jack Thibeau, Larry Hankin, and Bruce Fischer.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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