10 great prison break films

Escapist entertainment par excellence – with the return to cinemas of Jim Jarmusch’s off-kilter jailbird classic Down by Law, here are 10 of the best prison breakout movies.

11 September 2014

By Matthew Thrift

Down by Law (1986)

“We can’t live in a prison forever,” says Zack (Tom Waits) when his girlfriend questions his sense of purpose and direction. But that’s exactly where he finds himself, sharing a cell with pimp Jack (John Lurie) after a stitch-up in Jim Jarmusch’s third feature, Down by Law (1986). The laconic duo don’t have much to say to each other at first, but the space between words and squabbles is quickly filled by the arrival of motormouth whirlwind – and murderer – Roberto (Roberto Benigni).

Their new cellmate’s grasp of English may be ropey at best, quoting cribbed Americanisms from the little notebook he keeps in his pocket, but at least he knows a way out of the prison, even if it means getting lost in the surrounding bayou.

As ever in Jarmusch’s work, these are characters inhabiting the fringes of their world, marching to the beat of their own private drummer. The same could be said of the director’s approach to genre, stripping back to essentials and filtering the usual conventions through his own singular prism and attitude.

Down by Law, one of his best, sees the prison break movie get the Jarmusch treatment, which ultimately means it finally has little in common with its antecedents and genre companions beyond surface similarities. But then who doesn’t love a great escape flick? Jarmusch certainly does. “We have escaped! Just like in the American movies!” shouts Roberto as they make it out. It seems the perfect cue to go on the lam and seek out 10 other great movie prison breaks …

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)

Life imitated art in 1932, as newspaper headlines began to challenge the brutal conditions of the chain gang penal system in much the same way they did in Warner Bros’s hard-hitting drama. As a result of the film’s success, director Mervyn LeRoy and studio head Jack Warner were banned from entering the state of Georgia, while the real-life protagonist on whose memoirs the screenplay was based found himself swiftly recaptured in the wake of its release, serving out a further 13 years of his sentence.

That the film never sinks under the weight of its political statements is testament to both LeRoy’s tight direction and Paul Muni’s sensational performance as the wrongly convicted felon. With two nail-biting escapes for the price of one (and plenty of pre-code tawdriness in-between), the prison scenes don’t shy from piling on the degradation. It’s not hard to see why it struck such a chord with contemporary audiences at the height of the Depression: the ignominy and terror of its compounded injustices are carved into Muni’s face for his climactic retreat into the shadows.

Brute Force (1947)

Director: Jules Dassin

Brute Force (1947)

“Everyone gets what’s coming to them,” says a prison gang leader to Hume Cronyn’s sadistic screw, Munsey. It’s a rule of thumb that could apply to all of director Jules Dassin’s film noirs, even if few possess as bleak a sense of fatalism as Brute Force. “Whatever your plan is, don’t go through with it. Munsey knows. Believe me Joe, he knows you’re going at 12:15 and he’s ready for you … Joe, you haven’t got a chance … Don’t go through with it, Joe. Don’t!”

Escape is the only solution for the men staring at the prison gates as they open (to carry out a coffin, of course); brute force the only means of attaining it. Dassin puts the convicts’ dehumanisation front and centre during the violent breakout attempt – the prison yard is its infernal stage. The guards train their machine guns on them (“Clay pigeons would stand a better chance”), as Burt Lancaster uses an informer as a human shield. “Nothing’s OK. It never was and it never will be. Not ‘til we’re out, get it? Out!” Yet hope proves as sentimental a delusion as Dassin’s flashbacks to the men’s outside lives, the black hole of Westgate Penitentiary chewing up morality and spitting out the essence of noir.

Le Trou (1960)

Director: Jacques Becker

Le Trou (1960)

Speaking of Jules Dassin, it’s impossible to think of Brute Force’s director without bringing to mind the sublime, dialogue-free heist sequence from his 1955 film, Rififi. Well, Jacques Becker appears keen to do one better for his superlative escape flick, applying the acute tension of Dassin’s celebrated set-piece to the best part of his feature’s running time. The breakout attempt in Le Trou – a tunnel dug from cell to prison sewer system – proves almost unbearably tense, Becker paring away the inessential in a manner that pays distinct homage to Robert Bresson.

The evasion of patrolling guards is the stuff the edge of a seat was made for, and here the suspense is built in real time with chisel and hammer. It’s a film of single-minded purpose, all about the business of the escape, with little room beyond the essential for the luxuries of character or digression. Like his jailbirds, Becker’s task is rooted in action, and it’s a rare minute in Le Trou that isn’t imbued with a heart-stopping intensity.

Escape from Alcatraz (1979)

Director: Don Siegel

Escape from Alcatraz (1979)

The question of whether or not three inmates made it successfully to the mainland after an ingenious breakout from Alcatraz prison in June 1962 still holds a firm grip on public imagination. For his star-powered dramatisation of the infamous breakout, Don Siegel follows the lead set by Bresson’s prisoner-of-war film A Man Escaped (1956) and Becker’s Le Trou by crafting a pared down procedural of strategy and incident. Such characteristic leanness and sense of purpose is taken up by Clint Eastwood’s Frank Morris, the patient monotony of the prison grind reflected in the painstaking methodology of the escape itself. Such precision makes the few poetic abstractions stand out all the more: the washed-up flower on the mainland shore, the disembodied papier-mâché head as the credits roll.

Escape from New York (1981)

Director: John Carpenter

Escape from New York (1981) poster

Ah, 1997. ‘Candle in the Wind’ was back in the charts, Hong Kong was returned to China, Tony Blair became prime minister, and Manhattan Island was sealed off to form a free-for-all maximum security prison. When Air Force One is hijacked with president Donald Pleasence on board, crash-landing within the prison walls, there’s only one man the military trust to get him out. Not that they trust special forces lieutenant Snake Plissken at all, it’s just he’s heading that way anyway (having been caught robbing the Federal Reserve), so it seems to be worth a punt.

With just 24 hours until the president’s vital meeting with a Chinese delegation (“You know anything about nuclear fusion?”), and only 22 hours until an injected microchip reaches his neck and blows out his arteries, Plissken doesn’t have a whole lot of options open. Providing an iconic role for the effortlessly charismatic Kurt Russell, the bravura cyberpunk spectacle of Escape from New York proves one thing once again: for all the young pretenders to his throne – a number seeming to grow by the month these days – no one attacks genre with the wit and panache of its maestro, John Carpenter.

Runaway Train (1985)

Director: Andrei Konchalovsky

Runaway Train (1985)

The tag-team of Jon Voight and Eric Roberts in the terrific Runaway Train must be one of the barmiest to have seen both parties nominated for an Oscar. Adapted from a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, the film sees the duo grease up for an escape bid from the Alaskan prison Voight has seen himself welded into for three years. They hitch a ride on a train outta Dodge with faulty brakes and a driver with a heart condition, and what begins as pulpy genre exercise soon morphs into existential nightmare, with the pair engaged in a fight for survival as the train hurtles out of control.

Scoring as both action picture and doomed character study, it sure as hell ain’t subtle, but as Voight surfs the runaway engine into oblivion, restraint is surely the last thing one could wish for. It’s deliriously OTT in both conception and execution, but it’s impossible not to be sucked in by the eccentricities of its central performances and the superior style of Konchalovsky’s direction.

Natural Born Killers (1994)

Director: Oliver Stone

Natural Born Killers (1994)

It’s easy to forget quite how big a fuss Natural Born Killers caused on its release back in 1994. From screenwriter Quentin Tarantino’s public disowning of the film, to the sheer weight of moral outrage at its depiction of violence in certain corners of the press. It remains a bracing viewing experience, a ritalin-fuelled technical marvel that drops your jaw with its formal audacity while simultaneously smashing it back into place with a thematic baseball bat labelled ‘obvious’.

A film of two halves: the first concerning a Bonnie & Clyde rampage for the MTV generation, the second an indictment of the institutions charged with their capture and incarceration – all filtered through the purportedly satirical lens of media consumption. Sure, we expect subtlety from Oliver Stone like we expect fart gags from Carl Dreyer, but his climactic jailbreak proves the film’s strongest sequence. That we’re rooting for the antiheroes is as down to the leads’ charismatic turns as it is the repugnance afforded those in authority, not least Tom Sizemore’s detective, Scagnetti. Still, great sequence or not, any film which gets a pompadoured Tommy Lee Jones to toot as looney a tune as he does here – before he finds his head on a spike, that is – simply demands inclusion.

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Director: Frank Darabont

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

With the contemporaneous Forrest Gump currently undergoing a 20th anniversary critical reassessment, expect The Shawshank Redemption to get a similar commemoration when its birthday comes round in the next few weeks. There’s certainly no disputing its popularity: it’s currently in the number one position on the IMDb’s user-voted list of greatest movies ever made (above both Gump and 1994’s Palme d’Or winner, Pulp Fiction) – though this is worth contrasting with the fact that it received just one vote in Sight & Sound’s most recent poll.

Whichever position is closer to your own feelings for the film, there’s little denying the effectiveness of its twist-in-the-tale story of wrongly-accused Andy Dufresne’s (Tim Robbins) incarceration at Shawshank prison, nor the unprecedented swelling of support for a movie that found its most fervent supporters long after it had left cinema screens. With so many readings of the film out there, from Christ- and Monte Cristo-allegory to its straightforward representation of friendship, there’s evidently something universal in its appeal: a kind of comfort food for the soul.

The Rock (1996)

Director: Michael Bay

The Rock (1996)

With no news from the Hague on whether Michael Bay is likely to face trial for crimes against cinema on the back of the Transformers franchise, any remaining goodwill towards the director rests on either your assumption of self-awareness at play in his recent folie d’auteur, Pain & Gain (2013) or your fondness for his dopey assault on summer 2006 with inverted prison break spectacular, The Rock.

It’s hard not to fall for the latter film’s bombastic, simplistic charms, not least because of the dynamics between its leading men. Ignoring the prison’s infamous real-life escape, The Rock casts Sean Connery as the one man to have successfully made it out of Alcatraz. Recaptured and held without trial for over 30 years, he’s pulled out of deep captivity to break back in when a crazed army general takes over the tourist attraction and points some rockets filled with something nasty at the mainland. Sure, there’s probably more of Bay in Ed Harris’s military jingoist with his finger on a trigger than either of The Rock’s heroes, but he tears up the streets of San Francisco with Bullitt-bettering showmanship and even gets Connery to sing. As dumb as they come, but an undeniable hoot.

Chicken Run (2000)

Directors: Peter Lord and Nick Park

Chicken Run (2000)

The debut feature from those national treasures at Aardman Animation, Chicken Run certainly proves the most infectiously cheerful of the prison break flicks on this list, even given its propensity for dashes of gallows humour.

Feathering its jailbirds for a riff on perennial Christmas Day favourite The Great Escape (1963), the film sees the beaked inhabitants of Mrs Tweedy’s chicken farm long for a free-range existence. With ringleader Ginger finding herself in solitary confinement after innumerable failed escape attempts, hopes are pinned on the arrival of cocksure rooster Rocky (Mel Gibson) to save the day, especially when the Tweedys’ new pie machine is unveiled.

The textures of the plasticine world crafted by its team of artists are indisputable and there’s often a dazzling visual imagination on display, even if the story follows its protagonists’ lead in struggling to get fully airborne. That said, there are poultry puns aplenty and the set-pieces soar, not least in the smashing staging of its finale.

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