How does Clint Eastwood escape from Alcatraz?
Taking place in the 60s, Escape From Alcatraz (1979) is one of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies. It doesn’t have any other stars, but Don Siegel directs this one like an expert. He worked closely with Eastwood many times before, and the picture looks good, very authentic and true to real life. However, I would say the stand-out thing that makes this movie great is the screenplay, which has plenty of tension and quiet moments too.
The music by Jerry Fielding complements everything in this movie. The score builds the tension, with clinking and clanking of metal echoing throughout the scenes, and the sounds evoke a prison, somehow. Maybe it was the metal percussion that reminded me of a cell’s bars, or steel stairs or something. The score supports the atmosphere more than anything else, especially at the end, where the ringing tones create a moody vibe.
Clint Eastwood finds his way out of The Rock almost entirely by accident. He sees a grill at the base of his cell and discovers the concrete is brittle, able to be chipped away very easily. This is true to real life, as the concrete was moisture damaged in some cells of Alcatraz.
The first phase of his escape is the actual digging, which Eastwood accomplishes easily by picking away at the rock with his nail clippers. He fits the end of the file to a handle from a kitchen spoon, to allow him better grip.
He then creates a paper mache head using magazine pages and wet concrete. Presumably using some more concrete and paper, Eastwood creates a dummy grill, which he paints to look realistic. Of course, it fits perfectly into the space where the grill used to be and is exactly the same color. His pals do the same thing. Afterward, they climb up to the top of the cell block.
During these moments where Eastwood is climbing the pipes or digging out his grill, the movie has no dialogue and probably would be boring without the moody score. Siegel also knows how to shoot action and builds the tension with shadow and interesting angles.
Eastwood and his pals make it to the top of the cell, where they begin drilling out the bars over the ventilator shaft. In this way, the movie is pretty much just a slow caper flick, with a few tricks here and there. We get to know a few of the characters, but not in any meaningful way, as this movie really isn’t about that. It’s about the escape, and what the men did to accomplish it. Over 45 minutes is spent just showing digging, climbing, painting cardboard, and planning the whole thing. Whether this is a good thing is debatable, but it works for me as a tense piece of drama, simplified to the core, where every action feels like it is on the edge of something dramatic, as if they might be caught at the first slip-up.
All in all, this is a good movie, and the ending works especially well. It ends simply with a question, and we wonder whether Eastwood and his friends survived their daring escape, but this question is never answered. The warden believes the men drowned, but since he’s the biggest egotist in the movie, this doesn’t help his argument. He is proud that his prison has had no escapes, but the prison’s aura and reputation quickly disappears, like the escapees.