Programmed by Anton Yu
Essay by Anton Yu
Due to the sheer number of them, prison escape dramas have almost become a genre unto themselves—and for good reason. At their heart, prison break films are tense, exciting, inspirational, and, often, just plain fun. They appeal to the rebellious part of us all, allowing us to live vicariously through the protagonists and share in their hope for freedom. These ten prison break movies, featuring some of the greatest escapes in film, will keep you on the edge of your seat and cheering for the protagonists' success—even, or especially, when all the odds are stacked against them.
Covering a range of genres (from war and action to even comedy), these films capture many key developments of the past century. At first, the prisoners are soldiers and resistance fighters: La Grande Illusion serves as an anti-war critique and commentary of World War I, while A Man Escaped and Le Trou both dramatize actual prison break attempts from World War II. Fitting in with the wave of film noirs in the 1940s and '50s, Brute Force, with common criminals as inmates, reveals the violence and brutality of prison life. And, starring rebellious protagonists, Cool Hand Luke, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Escape From Alcatraz are emblematic of the counterculture of the 1960s and '70s. The series then rounds out on a lighter note, with the humorous Down By Law and the hope-filled Shawshank Redemption, both starring ordinary, though unfortunate, individuals framed for crimes. Finally, chickens take over the big screen with Chicken Run, a hilarious animated adventure showing us just what chickens (and humans) can aspire to when they set their hearts on it.
So, escape the cold for a few hours each week with us here at Doc, and enjoy!
This series was made possible with the support of the Institut Français.
(Jean Renoir, 1937) · During World War I, two French pilots, the aristocratic de Boeldieu and the proletariat Maréchal, are shot down and taken captive by a German nobleman, von Rauffenstein. Despite their aristocratic ties, de Boeldieu still defies his German captor, who views breaking out as dishonorable, and assists French escape attempts. In the process, Renoir's classic anti-war masterpiece also functions as a meditation on class and the end of the aristocracy.
runtime: 114 min format: DCP
(Jacques Becker, 1960) · Stuck in prison for the forseeable future, four inmates are prepared to enact their escape when a fifth prisoner is added to their cell. Can they trust him with their plan, or will he betray them? Becker, who died just two weeks after the film's completion, was so faithful to authenticity that he cast all non-actors, meticulously reproduced the actual prison for the set, and limited the soundtrack to contain only sounds that occurred on screen.
runtime: 132 min
Print courtesy of the Institut Français.
(Robert Bresson, 1956) · André Devigny, a member of the French Resistance, is imprisoned by the Nazis and must escape before they execute him. With that simple premise, Bresson creates an unbelievably tense and suspenseful film. Bresson's masterpiece is a perfect example of minimalism, featuring spare imagery and technique, and of realism: the film is based on a true story and borrows from Bresson's own experiences as a member of the French Resistance captured by the Nazis.
runtime: 99 min format: 35mm
(Jules Dassin, 1947) · As the title of this noir suggests, brutality pervades the atmosphere at Westgate Penitentiary, where protagonist Joe Collins is incarcerated. The twisted chief guard Captain Munsey perpetuates this atmosphere of fear, breaking the inmates down—until, finally, Collins leads a group of inmates in a last-ditch effort to escape. Director Dassin paints an uncompromisingly dark picture of a penal system focused on punishment and power, not rehabilitation.
runtime: 98 min format: 35mm
(Stuart Rosenberg, 1967) · Epitomizing the anti-establishment attitude of the 1960s, Cool Hand Luke stars Paul Newman as the titular Luke Jackson, arrested for decapitating parking meters while under the influence. Sent to a Florida chain-gang prison, Luke quickly rises in popularity among the inmates for his wit, his resilience, and his ability to eat fifty hard-boiled eggs in one hour. Newman's charismatic and now-iconic performance cemented his status as a box-office star.
runtime: 127 min format: 35mm
(Miloš Forman, 1975) · To escape hard labor, recidivist Randle Patrick "Mac" McMurphy pleads insanity for his most recent crime and ends up at a mental institution. Immediately, he clashes with the authoritarian Nurse Mildred Ratched. Tension mounts as Mac attempts to rally the troops, hoping to break Ratched's grip on the other patients and imbue them with a sense of autonomy. Heart wrenching and heartwarming at the same time, the film also swept that year's Academy Awards.
runtime: 133 min format: DCP
(Don Siegel, 1979) · "No one escapes from Alcatraz," the warden tells Frank Morris upon his arrival at the Rock. But that doesn't dissuade Morris (Clint Eastwood) from trying. As Morris slowly plots his escape, director Don Siegel's craft in filmmaking really shines, as he introduces us to the starkness and tedium of prison life as well as the colorful characters—such as elderly Doc, whose only pleasure is painting, and Litmus, who keeps a pet mouse—who have to endure it.
runtime: 112 min format: 35mm
(Frank Darabont, 1994) · Adapted from a Stephen King novella, this uplifting drama follows banker Andy Dufresne, who is convicted for the murder of his wife despite his professed innocence, and his refusal to give in to the ugliness of prison life. Interestingly enough, though well received by critics and incredibly popular now (it's ranked first on IMDb's "Top 250" list), the film was a box office flop on its initial release, barely recovering its $25 million budget.
runtime: 142 min format: 35mm
(Jim Jarmusch, 1986) · The quintessential anti-prison break movie, Down By Law does away with the mechanics of the escape in favor of depth of character. Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni respectively play a disc jockey, a pimp, and Italian tourist who hatch a plan in their shared jail cell on the Louisiana bayou. This marks Jarmusch's first collaboration with cinematographer Robby Müller creating a gritty monochrome aesthetic to match the deadpan humor.
runtime: 107 min format: 35mm
(Peter Lord & Nick Park, 2000) · On the Tweedy Farm, one plucky hen named Ginger dreams of freedom and leads one unsuccessful escape scheme after another. Her urgency to break out only increases when the Tweedys decide to start selling chicken potpies instead of eggs. Luckily, a circus rooster named Rocky literally falls into the picture, and Ginger, believing he can fly, deems him their saving grace. The result is a zany homage to the classic prison break films of the past century.
runtime: 84 min format: DCP