When there’s no definitive evidence either way, the romance of the situation is free to blossom. So often viewed with either fear or contempt, criminals gain a very different reputation when they disappear, something of a fairy tale quality — the person who somehow managed to get out of the system entirely. In all likelihood, Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers drowned in San Francisco Bay after successfully springing themselves out of prison. The fact that their bodies were never recovered is not enough of a coincidence on which to hang one’s hopes. But why not imagine the best for these men? It makes a better story. Conversely, that story would not hold as much fascination if indisputable photographic evidence turned up. Just look at John Paul Scott, who is known to have made it to shore six months after the Morris-Anglin escape, only to be quickly recaptured. There have not been any movies made about him.
From beginning to end, Escape from Alcatraz is devoted to the romance of freedom, even while displaying the no-frills, getting-down-to-business predilections of director Don Siegel and star Clint Eastwood. In many ways a spiritual descendant of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, Escape from Alcatraz likewise attains much of its thrust by the detailed depiction of process. Perhaps even more now than when it first came out in 1979, the film reveals the pleasures of analog ingenuity — an effective ruse staged with the use of nothing but the most basic tools. Unlike the heroes of other escape films, Eastwood’s Morris isn’t trying to balance the scales after being framed. His backstory is a complete blank; as Dave Kehr noted in the Chicago Reader, he is “the Man With No Past.” From the outset, he’s nothing more or less than a man determined to do something he’s been told can’t be done. However, as stoic and broad-shouldered as Eastwood is, he knows how to bring subtle emotions into play early and often. Siegel takes a quieter, simpler approach to the political protest of his earlier film Riot in Cell Block 11, but the moral equation is easy to decipher. The warden of Alcatraz (Patrick McGoohan) treats the prisoners inhumanely, so they have every right to try their luck on the water if they can get to it.
As portrayed in Richard Tuggle’s script, Frank Morris does absolutely everything right after arriving on the island, from his opening stroll (in the buff) down the cell block corridor — unbothered and, as usual, silent. Not only does he make all the right friends, he even makes the right enemies. Antagonizing a rapist named Wolf (Bruce M. Fischer) lands him in solitary confinement for a short time, but the threat of Wolf later galvanizes Morris to move up the deadline for escape at a critical moment. Morris attracts the attention of the warden, but he manages to keep a low profile with the guards, slowly gaining the privileges that will make the escape attempt possible. Among the other prisoners, Morris has little difficulty in attaining a rapport.
The biggest emotional impact in the film belongs to those prisoners who don’t escape; namely, “Doc” (Roberts Blossom), “Litmus” (Frank Ronzio), “English” (Paul Benjamin), and Charley Butts (Larry Hankin). By contrast, Morris, John Anglin (Fred Ward), and Clarence Anglin (Jack Thibeau) perform their actions less for themselves, except in an almost abstract sense, and more on behalf of those they leave behind. Doc and Litmus both possess talismans, overt symbols of the small trace of autonomy the two men maintain even in the suffocating microcosm of prison. Doc, a kindly painter, carries a yellow chrysanthemum, while Litmus takes care of a pet mouse that he’s trained to be a tiny mail carrier. Both men seem well past their prime, destined to scrape at best a modicum of happiness out of their situation. English is in a similar position, being resigned to his fate, but he holds more power and authority within the bounds of prison society. He doesn’t need any crutches.
As tight-lipped and muscular as the filmmaking is in Escape from Alcatraz, it’s hard to deny the sentimentality inherent in making a flower the central metaphor. Doc’s painting privileges are capriciously terminated, and before mutilating himself in despair, he passes the chrysanthemum to Morris, as if to say that the one thing in his life still capable of making him happy is now gone. The loss wounds Morris deeply, as well. In a virtuoso shot, cinematographer Bruce Surtees shows Morris holding a mirror through the prison bars to track the movements of the guard. As the camera pans from right to left, the focus shifts slightly, for just a moment, to highlight Doc’s self-portrait on the wall of Morris’s cell. Later, in the mess hall, the warden takes the flower from Morris and crushes it in his hand, quite literally crushing Litmus’s spirits in the process. The old man rises to attack the warden but dies of a heart attack on the spot. Morris is enraged by the warden’s brutal indifference to the welfare of those under his power. Even so, he knows that the only real way to fight back is to escape. During the climactic sequence, he comes across the mouse again and puts it in his pocket. A nice gesture, but sadly the chances of the mouse getting through the experience un-drowned are pretty slim. Eastwood, however, proves his tough-guy bona fides here once and for all, sticking a live mouse in his pocket and then proceeding never to think about it again.
Charley Butts is a fictional version of Allen West, an inmate who took part in the escape plan but was unable to get out of his cell until the other three had left the island. A newcomer, Charley enthusiastically agrees with Morris’s plan but has a lot of trouble with the elaborate preparations. On the big night, he appears to panic. The sight of Charley lying on his cot with tears in his eyes as a guard passes is heartbreaking. The stakes by this point are all too clear. Charley’s failure leaves him just as broken inside as Doc or Litmus. These are men who’ve been hollowed out by cruel punishment. It isn’t necessary to know what Eastwood’s Morris did or did not do before finding himself in Alcatraz. The escape itself is a choice in favor of life and dignity. No wonder, then, that Siegel is so happy to speculate that the men succeeded in their quest.