Don Siegel’s Escape From Alcatraz (1979), which screens tomorrow at Film Forum as half of a double feature with Siegel’s rare Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), is a marvel of lyrically abstract but immediately accessible visual images — when it wants to be. Siegel’s story of the real-life mythic escape of inmate Frank Morris, played by Clint Eastwood, infrequently shorts out thanks to melodramatic overload.
Up until the breakout portion of Escape From Alcatraz, the more evocative, functional scenes are sandwiched between flabby, talky ones. In the best scenes, Siegel’s mute, buckled-down visual know-how speaks volumes, making the most out of Eastwood’s snarled mug and the haunting prison’s interiors.
During the worst, prisoners suffer from what The Onion, in a fake news article on Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera, called “post melodramatic stress syndrome,” where inmates have their privileges taken away under the glowering eyes of Patrick McGoohan’s warden.
The warden instigates many of the film’s worse scenes. He’s a cartoon villain that could and probably should have been rewritten with no lines of dialogue; it’d be no less effective, considering that all he does is rattle off rules. In a film where human interaction is an act of defiance, all he really needs to do to represent an inhuman presence is to squint, glower and repeat, simple tasks that became the meat and potatoes of McGoohan’s career.
These gripes matter because the film eventually matches the flintiness of Eastwood’s signature macho pantomime. His winningly stoic body language spoils us, but he — and the film, by proxy — only really do well with dialogue when he’s exchanging playfully barbed racist rhetoric with English (Paul Benjamin). In these scenes, he gives nothing away, making him human without being so sentimental as to become a sap-happy martyr.