Five Unsung Prison Movies It's Worth Enduring Solitary To See

There have been some absolute stinkers set in prison, but these are but essential movies about life inside...
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There have been some absolute stinkers set in prison, but these are but essential movies about life inside...
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The Hill (1965) 

Sidney Lumet made two utterly compelling films with Sean Connery. The second, dark police procedural The Offence, is profiled elsewhere on this site by Yorkshireman du jour Dave Lee. While the territory it explores mightn't be so troubling, their original collaboration The Hill is every bit as challenging and rewarding. Set in a North African British Army prison, Lumet’s movie sees Connery, Roy Kinnear and the great African-American actor Ossie Davis play the convicts while the screws include such luminaries as Michael Redgrave and Harry Andrews, owner of the finest set of ears in English film. At the very heart of the picture is the titular hill, a pyramid-style structure that the inmates spend their days running up and down. Before you summon the symbolism police, you can rest assured The Hill isn't a crass exercise in exposing army sadism. 

A brilliantly written, superbly performed picture, the only peculiarity about The Hill - as Alex Cox pointed out when the film aired on Moviedrome - is that it isn't better known. As a BAFTA-winning picture directed by a true Hollywood great, The Hill belongs in the pantheon of great British war movies. Perhaps someone could find a spot for it in between Ice-Cold In Alex and The Dam Busters... 

Escape From Alcatraz (1979) 

The fifth Don Siegel picture to feature Clint Eastwood in a starring role (if you have a moment, the others were Coogan's Bluff, Two Mules For Sister Sara, The Beguiled and Dirty Harry), Escape From Alcatraz is less an action movie as a documentary-style examination of a particularly audacious prison break. Clint plays Frank Morris, a real-life long-timer who dared to prove The Rock wasn't inescapable. Frank’s aided in his efforts by Clarence and John William Anglin, here essayed by the Scottish actor Jack Thibeau and Tremors' star Fred Ward. 

Featuring a sparse score and only as much dialogue as is entirely necessary, Escape From Alcatraz isn't your average 1970s Eastwood movie and it's much the better for it. And in a move guaranteed to delight cult TV fans the world over, when Siegel needed someone to play Alcatraz's sadistic (and nameless) Warden, he put a call through to Prisoner star Patrick McGoohan. "Interesting," as Alex Cox remarked on Moviedrome: "Number Six has become Number Two. Clint Eastwood is now Number Six." Be seeing you... 

Brubaker (1980) 

What do you do if you've made perhaps the greatest of all prison films, Cool Hand Luke? If you're director Stuart Rosenberg, you venture back inside to make another captivating drama. A film that began life with Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces) in the director's chair, Brubaker benefitted greatly from the execs' decision to hire the king of the American prison movie. And as Luke starred a never-better Paul Newman, Brubaker features great work from his Butch Cassidy co-star Robert Redford. As a prison governor who goes undercover to find out how tough his the inmates have it, Redford’s playing a fictionalised version of Thomas O. Murton, an administrator who took equally unorthodox measures to research the lot of his lags. 

Nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar, Brubaker is a fine blend of issue movie and crime thriller. And while no one does decency better than Bob Redford, most of the film's colour comes courtesy of a supporting cast that features a young-ish Morgan Freeman, a pre-Twin Peaks Everett McGill, David Keith of White Of The Eye fame and the indomitable Yaphet Kotto (aka Live And Let Die’s corrupt Caribbean dictator Dr Kananga).

Animal Factory (2000) 

Eddie Bunker accomplished a lot in the 71 years he was on this earth. A star of Reservoir Dogs (he played old skool Madonna fan Mr Blue) and The Long Riders, his screenplay for action thriller Runaway Train was Oscar-nominated and he won awards for his revealing autobiography Memoirs Of A Renegade. That Bunker achieved so much is all the more remarkable given that he spent upwards of 25 years behind bards. Having been a fixture on the FBI's Most Wanted list, Bunker spent his jail time in such notorious places as San Quentin. With nothing but time of his hands, the man who'd been on the wrong side of the law since he was 14 discovered a gift for writing. Mailing his work to publishers with money he made from selling his blood, Bunker's semi-autobiographical novel No Beast So Fierce would provide the basis for the Dustin Hoffman vehicle Straight Time. 

Animal Factory is an adaptation of our man's second book and it also draws heavily upon his inmate experiences. Willem Dafoe plays the Eddie-esque Earl Copen, a lifer who takes it upon himself to make things easier for ‘fresh fish’ Ron Decker (Edward Furlong, who's cornered the market for essaying troubled young men now Brad Renfro's gone to the great reform school in the sky). Also starring Tom Arnold as a sinister 'sister', Mickey Rourke as a muscle-bound transvestite and Bunker's best buddy and fellow San Quentin long-stayer Danny Trejo, Animal Factory - like Escape From Alcatraz before it - fascinates because it combines its thriller elements with the mundane details of prison life. And to round out the film's association with a certain Quentin Tarantino crime picture, the Mr Blue-scripted Animal Factory was directed by none other than Mr Pink himself, Steve Buscemi. 

The Escapist (2008) 

If it didn't star Joseph Fiennes, Rupert Wyatt's The Escapist would be one of the best British movies of the new millennium. Even with Rafe's useless brother on board, Wyatt's movie grips from beginning to - satisfyingly unconventional - end. Having been the best thing about any number of movies, you could be forgiven for thinking Brian Cox has lost the ability to surprise. In The Escapist, however, Dundee's second greatest export (the first's The Beano, obviously) hits another career peak playing Frank Perry, an ageing recidivist whose final bid for freedom results in unlikely alliances with Fiennes' unconvincing tough nut, Dominic Cooper's new kid, Seu 'The Life Aquatic' Jorge's chemical wiz and the always excellent Liam Cunningham (Dog Soldiers, Hunger). 

Shot in Dublin but set beneath the streets of London, The Escapist leaves you in no doubt that, while prisoners might have it easier today, the claustrophobia of life behind bars couldn’t be more crippling – the extreme lengths Perry and Co go to further underlining the inhumanity of their circumstances. As for that remarkable ending, it all hinges on a short story by Ambrose Bierce, a true American original who deserves a Sabotage Times article of his very own.