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The Top 20 Prison Films



Written by Robert Segedy

What is it about prison films that holds our attention so heartily? Is it the environment of cruelty, the enclosed spaces filled with a criminal population? Is it the feelings of despair and hopelessness that is often part of the subject matter? Is it the instantaneous acts of violence and revenge as they happen behind the walls? Or is it the fact that there are a lot of stories to be told of men and women behind bars?

It hardly matters the reason why, nonetheless Hollywood loves these tragedies and their mythic scope with their troublemakers and long score cons, their schemers and dreamers, here then for your approval are stories of the hardened con, of the great escape, of the life behind bars.  Here are my top twenty prison films.

Mesrine, Part 1, Killer Instinct, Jean-François Richet, 2008.

Jacques Mesrine was a cruel and brutal killer and bank robber; he killed 39 victims during his 20 year crime spree as a robber and kidnapper.  He became the most famous criminal in French history, authored a best-selling biography “L’Instinct de Mort” a.k.a. “Killer Instinct“, repeatedly escaped from various prisons, and was an alleged master of disguise.  Vincent Cassell portrays Mesrine in both films that sets out to explore not only the myth, but the man behind all the action.

Cassell is fascinating to watch as he displays all of the complexity of a mythic individual; here is a man that obeyed a fierce moral code that only he understood, here is a man that is both a lover and a loyal friend, watch as he breaks into Saint-Vincent-de-Paul prison in order to spring a former running buddy.  Mesrine was nominated for ten César Awards, of which it won three (Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Sound).  The first part deals with the beginnings of Mesrine’s career as a soldier, a killer, a father, and mostly a man on the run.

Mesrine, Part 2, Public Enemy #1, Jean-François Richet, 2008.

Mesrine, Part 2, Public Enemy #1 picks up where the first part left off to continue the tale of France’s most notorious bad guy.  Both of these films are high voltage rides on the third rail of cinema, and Vincent Casell is riveting as the lead character.

Richet directs the films with a sure hand, and Mesrine’s story is filled with daring feats of escape, but is Mesrine deserving of the cult popularity that he enjoys? That decision is left to the viewer as Richet simply tells the story, moving right along from situation to situation, all in a day’s work for a bank robbing escape artist. What really motivates Cassell’s character is the desire to be untethered by all authority and society’s mores; the desire for freedom, no matter what the cost, is of utmost importance and Cassell brings that message to life with his stirring performance.

Mesrine, Part 2, Public Enemy #1 also features some excellent co-stars including  Samuel Le Bihan as one of Mesrine’s cohorts, Mathieu Amalric as his accomplice in crime, and Olivier Gourmet as his long standing rival on the  French police force, Broussard.  I highly recommend this as a two film set! Viva La France!

Animal Factory, Steve Buscemi, 2000.

Based on real life convict Edward Bunker’s novel of the same name, Animal Factory is an interesting take on an overused cliché; the new fish in the big house.

Ron Decker (Edward Furlong) is sentenced to Eastern State Penitentiary for a minor bit of drug possession with intention to sell; since it is an election year, the dice are loaded and he comes up with a ten year sentence for this petty crime. Once inside the sharks are on the loose and with Decker as the chum of the day, things get pretty hairy fast. Enter long timer Earl Copen (William Dafoe) he of the skinhead haircut and menacing grin; he takes Ron under his wing because let’s face it, it’s very difficult to have an intelligent conversation in the joint, and Ron is young, attractive and rich, and Copen rules the yard.

Speaking of sharks, Tom Arnold appears here as Psycho Mike, a predator that makes it all too clear what he is after, but thanks to Copen’s influence, Mike is put in his place.  But it is Mickey Rourke that takes the cake with his portrayal of a transvestite drag performer named Jan the Actress.  Rourke went to his dentist and had his front bridge removed, so he could play the role of Jan without any front teeth.  That is the kind of film that this is. Dafoe is excellent, Furlong is somewhat interested, and Mickey Rourke steals the whole film with just three scenes!

Bad Boys, Rick Rosenthal, 1983.

This is the orginal film starring Sean Penn. Do not bother getting any other film that sports a similar title because you will be very sorry. Penn stars as Mick O’Brien, a Chicago petty crime purse snatcher; his girlfriend is J.C. (Ally Sheedy) and his home life is pretty dismal. His mom is taking baths with long distance truckers and Mick sits in his room angrily listening to a lot of Billy Squire. All in all things look pretty bleak, but they are going to get worse. O’Brien gets pulled into a hare brained scheme to rob a rival teen criminal Paco (Esai Morales), but things quickly go wrong and O’Brien is sentenced to the monkey house for the murder of Paco’s brother.

Once inside things start to cook: he encounters two black and white teen goons that apparently rule the roost: Lofgren (Clancy Brown) and Tweety (Robert Lee Rush). They make the mistake of tangling with Mick and he settles the score with the infamous pillow case full of canned sodas, banging their heads up something big time.  Meanwhile out in the real world, Paco rapes and beats J.C. up which causes O’Brien to escape, but in the delightfully twisted act of fate, Paco gets sent up to the same old Dept. of Corrections that O’Brien rules and justice is dealt out accordingly.

Sean Penn makes this movie seem believable because of his haunted looking eyes and hang dog expressions; this film was after his Fast Times at Ridgemont High stoner performance and you can see Penn coming into a credible leading man.

Offender, Ron Scalrello, 2012.

They say that revenge is a dish best served cold. This film goes to show that some people prefer to have it served hot and fresh. Using the riots of 2011 as a backdrop, Tommy (Joe Cole) lost his pregnant girlfriend to gang violence so he gets himself sentenced to jail so that he can get revenge on the lowlifes that did the deed, but doing time turns out not to be so easy and neither is getting revenge upon the wrongdoers.

Shrugged off by some critics, this prison film is nonetheless interesting because of Joe Cole’s angst ridden performance. He is a man that is on a mission, and nothing or no one will deter him from getting his just rewards. This film inevitably invites comparisons to Alan Clarke’s 1979 fun film, Scum, which features the usual stereotypical sadistic guards and equally as sadistic fellow inmates, but this film steams along on an authentic cloud of rage and we can understand why Tommy is compelled to get revenge. The underdog most certainly has his day here.

Cool Hand Luke, Stuart Rosenberg, 1967.

“What we have here is… failure to communicate.” That Strother Martin quote is just one of a hundred great lines from this prison film classic. It is the Deep South, just after World War II and Luke (Paul Newman) gets drunk one night and takes the heads off of several parking meters, for this he gets two years on a chain gang; not a sentence to be taken lightly.

Rebellious but incredibly charismatic, Luke is a determined man; he escapes several times, and the guards try to break his spirit, but we soon learn that Luke is merely acting submissively, and that he still has that cool hand Luke smile. The atmosphere of Rosenberg’s film is hot and sweaty, plenty of close ups of the actors faces as they labor under the burning sun; we can almost feel the exhaustion as the men work on the line.

There is plenty of supporting talent here as well as fellow inmates include a guitar playing Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper, Wayne Rogers and Ralph Waite.  This is a film that defined a rebellious generation.

The Shawshank Redemption, Frank Darabont, 1994.

Time in prison is measured differently than time spent outside the walls and in Frank Darabont’s film, time is definitely slowed down, and the film takes its time, using the voice of “Red” (Morgan Freeman) as its narrator to tell the story of Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), an ex-banker sentenced for killing his wife and her lover.

The time frame for the film is 1947 through 1966, and the film takes a different path than other prison films, focusing on the cost of adapting to life in jail, and how a man makes time while behind bars. The relationship between these two men is the main focus of the film, and one could say that at the center is a love story.  This film, unlike other prison films, focuses on redemption instead of violence or revenge.

Bronson, Nicolas Winding Refn, 2008.

Born Michael Peterson in Luton, England in 1952, the inmate that would adopt the fighting name of Charles Bronson, would spend 34 years behind bars, mostly in solitary confinement. A violent reprobate, Bronson is a masochist, and he loves nothing more than stripping nude, greasing up, and having a go at the guards that beat him senseless. Tom Hardy is completely believable in his role of this unstoppable force of nature, but as a viewer I found myself wanting more information as to why all this rage?

In August 2014, Bronson announced that he was changing his name to Charles Salvador, in tribute to the late Salvador Dali. The real Bronson is still behind bars I suspect, but that still does not give us the information that we want or need to understand God’s angry man.

A Man Escaped, Robert Bresson, 1956.

I have read that Robert Bresson is the greatest of all French filmmakers. I agree that he is a master of his craft, and with a film like A Man Escaped, he shows us why he is a remarkable talent. In occupied France, Fontaine is captured for trying to sabotage a train and he is jailed in a Nazi war camp.

The film takes as its source the memoirs of Andre Devigny, a prisoner of war who managed to escape from Fort Montluc prison in Lyon during World War II.  This is an incredible story told with a masterful touch; there are no dizzying special effects, no close-ups of the star’s face, in fact there is no star here, just a mere man, facing a sure death, but determined to make an escape or die trying. An incredible film that would have been a sure bore in the hands of a lesser director; Bresson is a director’s director.  A must see!

Brute Force, Jules Dassin, 1947.

Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) is one of six inmates jammed into a cell at Westgate Penitentiary.  All of the convicts have been placed there due to crimes caused by desire or bad breaks, but any hope is regularly crushed by the power mad Captain of the guard, Munsey (Hume Cronyn). Collins has a plan for escape, but he needs a few good men that can take orders, and so he turns to his cellmates to enlist them in his plans.

We are definitely in film noir country here as this film is dark and moody, the plot is a story about soulful men that are turned bitter under inhumane conditions, and the tension remains high throughout. Brute Force was criticized for its explicit depiction of violence when it premiered, but that doesn’t subtract from its gritty beauty; it was beautifully filmed by William H. Daniels with a rousing score supplied by Miklós Rózsa.  A landmark film of great intensity.

Fast Walking, James B. Harris, 1982.

Frank ‘Fast-Walking’ Miniver (James Woods) is a scheming, self-indulgent, goldbricking prison guard; he regards his superiors and his duties as being below him. He also indulges in some pimping in his spare time at his cousin’s general store; in general, he is the type of sleaze bag that James Woods excels in portraying. A black activist named Galliot (Kevin Hooks) is brought to the prison and soon Miniver gets caught in the middle of a plot to either kill the 1960’s radical or to help him escape.

Miniver’s cousin, Wasco (Tim Miller) is also imprisoned, but that is no bother for him; this is the perfect stage for him to perform on, and soon all illicit activity that happens behind bars is controlled by him.  All this time a pressure cooker of racial tensions is brewing in the background; what is Miniver going to do? Is he going to cash in the reward on Galliot’s head or help spring him? Why is M. Emmett Walsh doing a nude scene? How can I ever recover from writing that last sentence? This film is worth tracking down and seeing just for Miller’s performance.

Papillion, Franklin J. Schaffner, 1973.

This movie is based on a best seller by Henri Charriere who claimed that it was based on a true story. This is a tough film; the plot is about two prisoners that plan to be the first men to escape from the famed Devil’s Island, a penal colony located in Cayenne.  Henri “Papillion” Charriere (Steve McQueen) is unfairly convicted of murdering a pimp in Paris and sentenced to a life sentence; en route he meets Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), a counterfeiter and embezzler; soon the two develop a friendship. McQueen gives an incredible performance of a man that is slowly losing his mind as he is locked up in solitary confinement.

Hoffman, with his coke bottle glasses, is an interesting selection for the role of Dega, but he too is believable, and has some great moments.  Jerry Goldsmith supplies the subtle score and DP Fred Koenekamp supplies the film with some interesting angles. A long film but entertaining.

Birdman of Alcatraz, John Frankenheimer, 1962.

Burt Lancaster, he of the iron jaw, stars once again in this behind the bars classic. Robert Franklin Stroud (Burt Lancaster) is the proverbial birdman of the title, locked up as a murderer, sentenced to prison in 1909, and then responsible for another homicide while in the big house, he is sentenced to death but is saved because of his mother’s interventions (Thelma Ritter).

Stroud has his sentence reduced by President Wilson, but is given a life of solitary confinement instead. While in lockdown Stroud finds his true calling in life, and when he nurses a sparrow back to health, he finally discovers the thing that gives his life meaning.  No longer a violent reprobate, Stroud turns to a life of study and research, eventually authoring a book on raising birds.

Lancaster was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance here. Look also for great supporting performances from cinematic regulars Telly Savalas (Feto Gomez), Warden Karl Malden, and prison guard Neville Brand.  Look to the birds for hope!

A Prophet, Jacques Audiard, 2009.

Malik (Tahar Rahim), a young Frenchman of Arab descent, is sent to prison as a naive innocent but while there he is transformed into an evil adult criminal. Malik claims that he is innocent (hey, who isn’t in prison?), but that doesn’t matter, as soon he is corrupted by the system and goes on to become the top dog while still behind bars.

Alone in the world and without friends or relatives, Malik is approached by the leader of a Corsican gang Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup); he has the choice of either killing a fellow prisoner, Reyeb (Hichem Yacoubi) and having the Coriscan’s be eternally grateful, or he can find himself on the business end of a shiv. There really isn’t a choice.

A Prophet was the winner of the Cannes 2009 Grand Jury Prize.  Warning, this is another long film and clocked in at almost two and a half hours long.

White Heat, Raoul Walsh, 1949.

Reunited with Warner Brothers after a brief respite, James Cagney comes roaring back to life and the big screen with this film in which he portrayed a psychopathic criminal, Cody Jarrett, with some serious mother issues.

Starting the film with a daring daylight robbery, director Raoul Walsh brings the heat quickly, having Jarrett execute any and all onlookers, and when one of his own men is injured from a blast of hot steam, Jarrett coolly gives the orders to have him executed as well.  The middle part of the film is where we see him in prison, and Jarrett really blows his top when the word is passed that kindly old Ma Jarrett is dead; one of those bothersome headaches hits him and down he goes like a ton of bricks.

The film’s final sequence, in and around an oil refinery, is a noir tribute; dark and shadowy, the men scale the many ladders and shoot at each other, until Jarrett, makes it to the top, and as the world goes up in flames, he proclaims, “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”  White Heat is easily one of the most influential gangster films in this celluloid universe.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Nagisa Ôshima, 1983.

The time is 1942, in a Japanese prison camp on Java, and the director focuses on the clash of two different sides and cultures: Japanese and the British. On the Brit side we have two officers: Col. John Lawrence (Tom Conti) and Maj. Jack ‘Strafer’ Celliers (David Bowie) and on the opposing side two stern Japanese disciplinarians bound by the samurai code, Capt. Yoni (Ryûichi Sakamoto) and Sgt. Gengo Hara (Takeshi Kitano). Lawrence speaks Japanese and understands some Japanese customs, and so he is the liaison between the captives and their prisoners.

Ôshima is a complicated film maker and there is a lot going on here, some understandable and some not so clearly.  Producer Jeremy Thomas once said that the film was about “about the love of one man for another man’s perfection,” but with the casting of two musical stars, I am not sure what that has to do with this prison film.  An odd choice perhaps, but nonetheless fascinating to watch.  This film was nominated for Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1983.

Caged Heat, Jonathan Demme, 1974.

Ladies, it is your turn. The women in prison film is an entirely separate column that I will hopefully cover at another time, but we will make an exception for this one, because of its director, Jonathan Demme. Jackie Wilson (Erica Gavin) is in over her comely head, and she finds herself in deep trouble when she finds herself sentenced to the hoosegow. The prison is under the reign of a wheelchair-bound, repressive warden named McQueen (Barbara Steele) and if you don’t know what that means, then you are really in trouble. Seems that McQueen gets her jollies by administering punishments to the ladies in her charge, and that means plenty of shower scenes.

After the ladies put on a Blue Angel type skit in the recreation room, Warden McQueen is none too pleased, so she comes up with a plan for some illegal electro shock therapy from the prison doctor.  The ladies have had enough and decide to revolt; what follows is grade A drive in fare.  Yes, this is purely an exploitation vehicle, and it was part of Deeme’s prequalified degree from the Roger Corman School of Hard Knocks, so turn off your brain and just enjoy the skin and trashiness.

Short Eyes, Robert M. Young, 1977.

It’s important to have a moral code, and while in prison, it may be even more important to have a set of rules to live and die by. Short Eyes is prison slang for a child molester and for those unfortunate to be labelled as such, you are on the bottom rung of a very large ladder. Above you are all the other criminals; below you, there is nothing, that is it.

Written by playwright Miguel Pinero, this is a film of an explicit, detailed portrayal of the Tombs, an infamous Manhattan jail that is a holding station for the damned. The rank and file is broken down by race: the whites eye the blacks and they eyeball the Latinos.  Weapons are readily available and can be purchased for the price of a few cigarettes; violence is always present and lurking just outside of all activities.  However there is a sense of order present at least for some the various classes, if not for the overall good of the cellblock.

What makes Young’s film interesting is the sense of mundaneness and routine while behind bars: prisoners come and go, men live and die, life no matter how slowly, goes on.  When Clark Davis (Bruce Davison) shows up, things immediately become galvanized.  He is the pedophile rapist thrown in with the sharks and only one fellow con, Juan (José Pérez) is interested in what Davis has to say.  Pretty hot stuff in its day, this is nothing compared to HBO’s OZ, but featuring small roles for Curtis Mayfield and Freddy Fender, how much better does it get?

I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Mervyn LeRoy, 1932.

This film is based on the autobiography of Robert Elliott Burns, who twice escaped from a brutal Georgia chain gang, so there is a truthful sourness to the depiction of the inmates and their conditions. Paul Muni is James Allen, an ex-sergeant who is in inevitable noir fashion, tripped up by the hand of fate; he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and was sentenced to six to ten years of hard labor on a chain gang.

Allen is sent down South to Georgia and experiences all types of hellish treatment, from whippings to beatings, and of course he starts to plot his escape. Allen breaks away from the chain gang twice; in between he achieves some success as an engineer, but fear always keeps him looking over his shoulder. Eventually he returns to finish his sentence because of some emotional blackmailing, but the parole board reneges on its promise of a 90 day sentence, and so he is forced to make a second escape.

The bleak ending of the film was a first for Hollywood. This film is renowned for being instrumental in producing a change in prison labor practices, and now the practice is to focus on redemption and rehabilitation rather than hard labor.  This film was nominated for three Academy awards but didn’t win any.

Midnight Express, Alan Parker, 1978.

It’s tough to feel sorry for Billy Hays (Brad Davis); he is a spoiled American student that foolishly agrees to smuggle two kilos of hashish out of Turkey, and instead is sentenced to four long years in a rat infested prison. While there he befriends some other jailbirds including perpetually angry Jimmy (Randy Quaid) and Max (John Hurt); a fellow drug addict that is serving a very long stretch, but then just 53 days before his scheduled release, the Turks pull a fast one and he is given a new 30 year sentence. Bummer, man!

This film is excellent in its presentation of prison as a very bad place, and creates an environment of fear and desperation thanks to Oliver Stone’s excellent script.  John Hurt was Oscar nominated for his role but didn’t win which was unfortunate, and who could forget that Giorgio Moroder synth score!  Not a runner up in the feel good films category.

Oscar and film awards expert. American Beauty, Grease and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are prominent DVDs on my shelf.

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