Top 10 Best Prison Movies
Prison Movies - An International Genre
Prison movies are a mainstay of cinema drama, with a prison movie being released almost every year in one country or another.
Whether your tastes run to the older ones or more recent prison films, this list should provide you with some great choices should you decide to hold a Prison Movie marathon - for which you might make inmate hooch and eat your snacks from little prison trays.
This top 10 list could have easily run to 20 movies but in the name of brevity, some of the best are collected here as a Top 10,
What is it in the human psyche which draws us to prison movies?
Seeing people in captivity is like looking at human nature through a lens - everything is there in close up and the protagonists act out their drama for us in tiny cells, in prison corridors, on clanking metal stairways and in the brooding atmosphere of the prison dining hall. Boys those guys are grumpy when they're hungry.
And prison drama often gives us the unexpected - usually a good dose of conflict (absolutely necessary for a decent storyline) and hopefully a storyline involving escape, revenge or protecting birds.
If we get a backstory told in flashbacks then even better. There is nothing better than finding out about prisoners before they were incarcerated.
So here is my own list of the Top 10 Prison Movies, I hope you like it.
10. Birdman of Alcatraz
John Frankenheimer's 1962 biopic of the life of tough guy prisoner, Robert Stroud gave Burt Lancaster yet another real acting opportunity after his Oscar-winning turn in Elmer Gantry.
Lancaster really took the role seriously, completely immersing himself in Stroud's life; learning about Stroud's toughness - he was a real hard man, somewhat downplayed in the movie and about his turn around in prison thanks to an injured bird flying into his cell.
Stroud nursed the little bird back to health and discovered in himself a kindness and real desire to save these small creatures. Stroud kept his birds a secret and his fighting with the prison warden played by Karl Malden is the central point of conflict in the movie.
As a viewer we are brought around to Burt Lancaster's sympathetic portrayal of Stroud and of course, we love the story; a man who looks after birds.
In real life, Stroud became a world famous ornothologist. Frankenheimer had three other really good performances from Thelma Ritter, Karl Malden and Telly Savales and the move was nominated for Oscars but won none. Frankenheimer did not make many movies but this prison movie was one of his best.
Stephen Dorff is a revelation in this movie and is ably assisted by the never average Val Kilmer in role as Dorff's protector.
Dorff turns from the rather nice businessman at the start of the movie with a loving girlfriend and young child into the beaten down con he becomes in the prison under the influence of malevolent forces. Kilmer as John Smith is the odd bod in this prison, a shapeshifter who has learnt to change himself to suit the background.
The ethnic tensions erupt frequently as the gladiatorial contests between the gangs take violence to new levels. Dorff gives an amazing performance - at first restrained but then his acting goes to another level as he realises that he will not survive without change in this terrible place.
Filmed in a real penitenciary in New Mexico and also with a host of real prisoners as extras, Felon uses the juxtaposition of perfect life and horrendous imprisonment (for baseball batting the life out of an unarmed burgler) to unsettle the viewer, Dorff's character, Wade Porter has to come to terms with what his life has become in this awful place - the real prison setting is a huge part of the movie's success - the authenticity, the sounds and sights all make Dorff's performance all the more special.
8. Escape from Alcatraz
'Escape from Alcatraz' was a prison movie starring one of Hollywood's tough guys , Clint Eastwood in the lead role. Eastwood is never someone who overacts - he always seems to hold back, perhaps to improve that brooding intensity?
Eastwood was a favourite actor of the movie's director, Don Siegel who had used him in his other blockbuster, Dirty Harry. Siegel was well known for gritty realism in his movies and 'Escape to Alcatraz', his last movie with Eastwood is directed in the same vein with many critics praising, in particular, his use of rather claustrophobic cutting to ensure the viewer gets the sense of captivity in small spaces.
It was not Siegel's only prison movie; he made 'Riot on Cell Block 11' in 1954, a 'B' movie which was nonetheless well received by movie critics and also said to be influential as an early example of 1950s social commentary style filming (a British example being 'Brighton Rock').
'Escape from Alcatraz' is shot in an almost staccato fashion with very few long scenes, no scene is wasted in the telling of the story. Clint Eastwood's character, Frank Morris arrives on Alcatraz, a rock out in the San Francisco bay being lashed by heavy rain in the opening scene - "fresh fish" and Patrick McGoohan, the warder stared down on him and the rest from his high spot in the prison, a plush office. Sparing no expense on his own comfort, it is in stark relief to the prisoner's cells, all grey concrete and colourless backgrounds.
Eastwood remains a stranger for much of the movie (still almost the man with no name?) and begins the chipping away at the concrete in his cell in a methodical and systematic way as we are introduced to the other prisoners with whom he shares this space.
Siegel's directorial obession with 'the outsider' continues in this prison movie where's he's moved the outsider 'inside' and directing is like voyeurism.
Alcatraz is the ultimate panopticon - a prison fortress from whom none can escape? Siegel's pacing is near perfect - he keeps us wondering right up to the final scene.
7. The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
This movie is the only British one featured in this list but deserves its place because it was one of the first British New Wave dramas to hit screen in the early sixties; Britain got really good at doing what are now called 'kitchen sink' dramas but they were well written, directed and acted.
In the lead role of teenager gone wrong is Tom Courtney in his first movie as Colin Smith, the angst-ridden young man battling against working in a factory like his dad and finding ways to screw the system with a life of petty crime.
When he is caught after the money he stole slips from its hiding place in a drainpipe, he is sent to borstal (British version of reform school) where the warder takes special notice of him - not to try to reform him but because he is a gifted runner.
Courtney of course has other ideas - he strings along the warden, training harder and harder, sees off his competition in the build up to the big race, the prestige event. I won't spoil it for you, you need to see it to find out what happens.
Courtney won a BAFTA for Best Newcomer and went onto bigger and better as an actor on both stage and screen.
The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner was also a picture of post-war Britain going through enormous social change; the working class after the Second World War were finding their voice and also finding their political strength in a country rebuilding itself after so much destruction. It was one of the best movies of this genre. The book on which it was based by Alan Sillitoe was also a bestseller.
The film was directed by Tony Richardson ans also starred Michael Redgrave and James Bolam. James Bolam went on to further success as a comedy actor on British TV, Redgrave was mainly a stage actor though did enjoy success in films, the most notable being The Browning Version.
If Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner was Britain's socially driver prison movie then Brubaker did a similar job for the USA with Robert Redford playing the new warden who goes into his prison undercover as a prisoner first to really get into the nuts and bolts of what makes his new prisoners tick.
Redford's understated performance in a tour de force and Stuart Rosenberg's direction is deft, in spite of him replacing Bob Rafelson before the shoot. Rosenberg had also made 'Cool Hand Luke' so perhaps was hand-picked for this type of movie; in any event Brubaker begins with a clever idea and then sees Redford flexing his muscles and using his influence once he takes over as warden - the corruption in his world is rife and the powers that be decide Brubaker has to go. There are excellent supporting roles from Morgan Freeman and Jane Alexander and Henry Brubaker has you cheering him on all of the way.
5. Cool Hand Luke
Cool Hand Luke is maybe one of Paul Newman's best movies - this was a character part made in Heaven and Newman did not disappoint - he was robbed in not winning the Oscar for this movie.
It has a central character to whom everyone can relate - Luke Jackson got put on the chain gang from knocking the heads of parking meters when he was drunk - and who wouldn't want to knock the tops off parking meters? So immediately, Luke seems like a slightly eccentric, off the wall guy who likes a beer but hates parking meters.
When he is imprisoned he takes on hard man, Dragline (George Kennedy), in the boxing ring and in spite of being absolutely hammered, he gets up again and again and in doing so gains Dragline's respect and also the respect of all the guys in their gang.
Luke is a clever guy but he hides it well behind his humour and soon he has the guys doing the work in half the time.
The famous hard boiled egg eating scene is a movie legend - if you haven't seen it, where have you been?
When Luke's mother dies, he decides he needs to go home to see his family and decides to escape. The rest of the movie is about his many escape attempts. To tell you more would spoil the story and I won't do that to this faultless movie.
Stuart Rosenberg directed this movie and makes everyone seem larger than life, Newman included. Get it on DVD, you won't be sorry, you will happily watch it again and again.
'Papillon' meaning 'butterfly' in French and that is the nickname given to Steve McQueen's character, Henri Charriere, the only man to have escaped from the French prison colony, Devil's Island in French Guyana.
'Papillon' takes the viewer places they might not want to see to real despair and the harsh truth of what imprisonment on Devil's Island meant - a life of captivity until death in the harshest conditions. If you survived the diseases and heat then the violence of the prison regime would get you anyway.
Steve McQueen's movie it may have been but Dustin Hoffman occasionally steals the show (again?) as Louis Dega. Dega's life is saved early in the movie by Papillon and then makes it his life's worth to help Papillon escape the prison island.
Papillon is obsessed with escaping and Dega never shirks a challenge, even when his own life is on the line.
The great thing about Papillon is in its build up of suspense with each successive escape attempt. Will Papillon ever make it? You'll have to watch it to find out.
Steve McQueen seems to have excelled at escape movies - The Great Escape is his crowning glory and is a better (and quite different) prison movie to Papillon.
Papillon suffers slightly for being a tad too lengthy and perhaps the number of escape attempts could have been edited? It's a small criticism of a very good movie.
3. The Green Mile
The Green Mile is a long movie, over 3 hours long and yet not a minute is wasted. It is a story of such depth that to edit it might have spoilt Stephen King's story.
The novel on which it was based was originally written as a serial novel in 6 parts but was finally sold as one book. Stephen King, mostly famed for horrors and supernatural thrillers gives us a story laden with magic realism - a great setting (death row), a list of wonderful characters (the inmates and prison guards) and the introduction of supernatural forces which affects each and every one of them.
The Green Mile's greatest asset is Frank Darabont's fantastic scene setting and some clever trickery with special affects.
Michael Clarke-Duncan is like a gentle giant of a man, sent to death row for the rape and murder of two small girls. He is a simple man, seemingly innocent but he seems to know about the crime. In the cell next door a man training a small mouse to do tricks to amuse himself and the guards. Then one more cell along, Sam Rockwell as a deranged rapist. All of them waiting to go to the electric chair.
Tom Hanks' Head Guard, Paul Edgcombe is a decent man trying to give these men some trace of dignity at the end but not all of his own guards can be trusted to follow the rules when it comes to executions.
The supernatural element of Clarke-Duncan's character, John Coffey is what makes the movie so great but it is a many layered storyline which Darabont treats with care and respect.
Hanks' character, Paul Edgcomn is struggling with a urinary tract infection and is in a world of pain. The movie is set in 1935 so modern medicine is failing him. When Coffey sees Edgcomb's pain, he knows he can hep him and his supernatural powers cure the inflection but at what price to his own health.
The Green Mile is an emotional rollercoaster and in parts, on a par with Darabont's other prison movie, Shawshank Redemption. As a cinematic experience, it is only slightly less enthralling than Shawshank - Darabont is a director of some skill.
2. The Great Escape
A movie, like Shawshank Redemption which perhaps deserves an article all of its own, this movie remains a favourite all these years after it was made because of its amazing ensemble cast which includes some of THE biggest Hollywood stars ever, a fantastic setting, a World War Two German prisoner of war camp and human ingenuity - the ability to create things seemingly from what seems to be nothing.
The casting is impeccable with Richard Attenbrough, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Garner, James Coburn and David McCallum all playing their part to get bottoms on cinema seats.
Each character had a special skill, Garner is 'the scrounger', you need something, he can usually get it. James Coburn is 'the manufacturer' and makes things. Every guy gets to do his bit. Donald Pleasence plays the almost blind forge. This movie has men with no 'special powers' in supernatural terms but they have human skills which make them ideal for the plan to tunnel free under the camp, under the fences to freedom.
Suspense is an imprtant part of the movie and there is a great sense of timing for things moving forward then being thwarted. Battles are overcome with nothing more than human wiles and that is why everybody loves The Great Escape.
Steve McQueen's 'Cooler King' is the best wing-man, getting captured deliberately and throwing the Germans off the scent of those tunnelling.
The tension near the end of the movie is palpable; you are sitting on the edge of your seat and that's even when you've seen it six or seven times!
It is usually a traditional UK Christmas movie, shown almost every year in the holiday season but I don't groan when I see it in the listings - I look forward to seeing it again.
1. Shawshank Redemption
Stephen King wrote a short story called 'Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption' and Frank Darabont made a movie based on the short story.
Stephen King is a prince of storytelling - he is able to appeal to something in all of us which makes us want to read his books and our enjoyment of 'Shawshank Redemption' is down to his ability to let his characters get inside our heads.
Shawshank Redemption's main character Andy Dufresne is sent to prison for the murder of his wife and from the outset pleads his innocence.Morgan Freeman's character, Red tells him that's what everybody says.
The setting is once again a prison and this one is a tough place, inhabited by long-time prisoners - lifers with very little hope of parole. And it has various elements at play too with gangs of hard men pimping for male sexual company for their leader and everybody accepts that the main guard, Captain Hadley is the law! What he says goes and he is a man who rules with a rod of iron.
Dufresne's only real talent is for numbers and he understands tax and he explains that he can hep others with numbers. Word spreads and soon Hadley wants Dufresne's help in avoiding a huge tax bill. Dufresne helps him and gets all of the boys a beer when they're laying pitch on a roof in the prison.
Tim Robbins plays Dufresne as a quiet, clever guy who understands that he has to find his way in this awful new world he has entered. Dufresne keeps his head down and stays honest. Soon, Red begins to trust this young man and they form a relationship where Red can get Andy his little stone pick for collecting colourful stones in the exercise yard to file into shapes for his cell.
A poster of Rita Hayworth is acquired for Andy and takes priude of place on his cell wall.
Once the warder hears about Andy's financial skills, he decides to get him to work corrupting the prison funding for his won gain.
But you can't keep an honest man down!
Shawshank Redemption will make you laugh,cry and yell out at the TV or cinema screen - you will want this poor, innocent young man to succeed and get out of this hell hole.
Will he succeed? You will have to watch to find out :o)
Was one of your favourites not on the list? 'Scum' ? American History X? The Rock? Count of Monte Cristo? They are all prison movies, or in the case of 'Scum', a borstal movie and they are certainly all good movies in their own right but I just prefer the other 10 more than any of these.
Prison Movies - A Favourite Genre?
I admit to having a soft spot for prison movies. There is something about the human condition and particularly the duress of imprisonment which really appeals to me.
I love my freedom and the idea of losing it under any circumstances scares me.
Prison Movies are all about a journey for the main character - about taking them out of their normal comfort zone and placing them in a setting against their will.
That is the moment when human beings have to take things into their own hands and make sense of their new surroundings - and maybe join the system or work against it. That's always a story worth following.
Thank you so much for reading this article - maybe you can tell me about your own favourite prison movie by leaving a comment below. Thanks again!