There is something peculiarly cinematic about confined spaces. Be it a submarine, spaceship or the haunted house on the hill, there is something about the idea of being trapped that appeals to moviegoers' imaginations.
Hence the sustained popularity of the prison movie.
With a prison pix, anything is possible. There is danger, comedy and, on occasion, romance. Hard time is an easy answer for filmmakers. Below is a selection of particularly fine films in which the wardrobe is prison pinstripes and set pieces feature bars, barbed wire and a captive cast.
I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (1932): A scathing indictment of the penal system, this movie, based loosely on a true story, is less about crime and punishment than courage and injustice. Part of the social cinema movement that emerged during the Depression, Chain Gang is a precursor to classic fight-the-power movies such as The Grapes of Wrath. This striking film earned Oscar nominations for best actor (Paul Muni) and best picture.
PAPILLON (1973): The one thing most prison movies have in common is escape. They are almost always about trying to curtail incarceration without having to go through the parole officer middle man. In most cases, that means jumping a wall or digging a tunnel. The obstacles in Papillon are a bit more extreme. Steve McQueen stars as the man they call Papillon, and Dustin Hoffman steals every scene as the mouselike Degas. The true stars of the movie however, are the Spanish and Jamaican locations, stand-ins for the rigorous conditions of the French Guiana penal system.
STIR CRAZY (1980): Leave it to Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder to prove that doing hard time in a brutal Southwestern prison can easily be milked for laughs. Mr. Pryor and Mr. Wilder play innocent men railroaded on a bank-robbery charge who use the prison rodeo to plan their escape. Again with the escapes. The highlight may be the pair's failed attempt at Big House bravado upon arriving on the cell block.
MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978): Think American prisons are a drag? Try a little time Turkish style. Based on a true story (again with the true stories), Midnight Express chronicles the fight of a young American (Brad Davis) for survival after he is caught smuggling hashish and sentenced to four years in a Turkish prison. Eventually he escapes (what a surprise), taking a ride on the film's titular train. The film features standout performances by Randy Quaid and William Hurt as Americans forgotten in a foreign land.
COOL HAND LUKE (1967): One of the great films of the 1960s, Cool Hand Luke features an appealing blend of comedy and drama, landmark cinematography and career performances by Paul Newman and George Kennedy as inmates making the best of a bad situation. The now-famous egg-eating dare has become one of the most recognized sequences in cinema history, though I still believe there ain't no man who can eat 50 eggs.
Some other notable prison movies are Le Trou (1960), Brubaker (1980) and Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985). To be avoided are Murder in the First (1995), Brokedown Palace (1999) and Penitentiary (1979).
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