A quarter of a century ago, Frank Darabont was putting the finishing touches to an adaptation of a Stephen King novella that would transform a sub-genre. Prison pictures had been around for almost a century, but The Shawshank Redemption (1994) provided a knowing summation of the themes and tropes that had shaped the public's perception of life behind bars. To mark this much-loved film's 25th anniversary, Cinema Paradiso does some time in the cine-slammer.
It's impossible to identify the first moving picture with a prison setting. But, as is often the case, Georges Mélies was among the first on the scene, with The Dreyfus Affair (1899) showing the palisade of the infamous Devil's Island penal colony, where disgraced army officer Alfred Dreyfus is shown being clapped in irons. Another notorious Gallic institution, the Château d'If, featured in five silent adaptations of Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo (1908), and several talkie interpretations are available to rent from Cinema Paradiso. But the great slapstick comics managed to find chokey funny, with Charlie Chaplin donning the trademark hooped uniform in going on the lam in The Adventurer (1917), which can be found on The Mutual Comedies collection. He wound up in stir again in Modern Times (1936), which was inspired by René Clair's early sound masterpiece, A Nous la Liberté (1931).
Buster Keaton faced the hangman's noose before being made assistant warden after quelling a riot in Convict 13 (1920), which he co-directed with Edward F. Cline and is available to rent on Buster Keaton: The Complete Shorts 1917-23. The inimitable Stan Laurel also did time in No Place Like Jail (1918) and Detained (1924) before joining Oliver Hardy in the governor's bad books in The Second Hundred Years (1927), The Hoose-Gow, Liberty (both 1929) and Pardon Us (1931), which are available on Laurel and Hardy: Volumes 12 and 19, Brushes With the Law and More Brushes With the Law. But what transformed the prison movie was sound and the crime wave sparked by the mobsters seeking to profit from Prohibition!
Welcome to the Big House
Prison films invariably reflect the times in which they are made, as attitudes change to the ways in which criminals are charged and detained. In the 1920s, as a new breed of gangsters appeared in such major cities as New York and Chicago, the New Penology movement advocated the grouping of prisoners by categories that reflected their perceived level of threat to society. Consequently, facilities like San Quentin in San Francisco and Sing Sing in New York were reorganised and new prisons like Alcatraz followed suit. But, while the conservative forces that bankrolled the American film industry wanted cinema's depiction of the big house system to act as a deterrent, they were also keen to avoid making it seem as though jails were run by sadistic wardens and brutish guards. They also sought to avoid showing how powerful cliques battled for control of their prison wings and, thus, advocated a focus on inmates struggling to come to terms with their new surroundings.
The majority of the 60+ prison movies made in Hollywood during the 1930s centred on unjustly sentenced individuals striving to retain their identity in the face of official oppression and communal cruelty. Aware that prison films had to entertain, as well as instruct and intimidate, the studios concocted a canny blend of crime and punishment that allowed audiences to root for the protagonist, regardless of their guilt, in such potent disquisitions on claustrophobia and machismo as John Ford's Up the River, George Hill's The Big House (1930) and Howard Higgin's Hell's House (1932) among others. Indeed, the fact that so many frontline film-makers worked in the sub-genre, alongside stars of the calibre of James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart and Pat O'Brien, reflected the importance of the prison picture in a time of national emergency.
As the Great Depression meant that decent types could be impounded for offences like debt and vagrancy, films often reminded viewers that there but for the grace of God went they. However, following the stricter imposition of the Production Code after 1934, the need to stress that crime didn't pay led to a shift of emphasis. Indeed, notwithstanding the presence of thieves, racketeers and killers, the prison pictures of the late 1930s were less crime films than institutional studies whose allegorical approach to self-preservation and redemption was designed to encourage patrons to persevere through the hard times and not stray off the straight and narrow.
To this end, screenwriters devised a rubric that familiarised audiences with the setting. The forbidding gates usually slammed with a resounding clang behind the paddy wagon bringing the new inmates to the penitentiary, whose high walls were frequently topped with barbed wire and surveyed by guards from a watchtower. In the reception area, the rookie prisoners went through the dehumanising process of surrendering their belongings and having their heads shaved before being photographed, body searched and issued with ill-fitting uniforms. The guards were often surly and mocking, but they were pussycats compared to the old lags who peered out at the newcomers, as they shuffled along the iron walkways to their cells. But this walk of shame was the easy part, as the newbies would be on their own when they ventured into the mess hall, the showers and the exercise yard. No wonder spells in the sanatorium or solitary confinement seemed preferable.
In many cases, the prison warden resembled the headmaster in Tom Brown's School Days (Robert Stevenson, 1940 & Gordon Parry, 1951), as he treated those in his charge with humanity and lamented the fact that external forces prevented him from implementing reforms. But the warders were often hardknocks who enjoyed lording it over first-time offenders who were also easy prey for the hoodlums who presided over their fiefdoms in much the same way that they controlled their turf on the outside. Guards and bigwigs alike growled in an argot that derived as much from hard-boiled fiction as real life. But such wisecracking banter was as much a part of the prison film as the jangling of keys, the slamming of doors, the droning of sirens and the cacophonous din of metal mugs and plates being banged against cell bars by convicts who rarely let their guards down like Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney) in the harrowing Death Row finale to Michael Curtiz's Angels With Dirty Faces (1938).
The spectre of capital punishment hovered over many prison movies during this period, but its morality was debated markedly less often than the need to turn penal institutions into places of re-education and rehabilitation rather than colleges of crime. Three-quarters of a century later, the period and its prison picture clichés would be fondly guyed, as George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson hot foot from a Mississippi prison farm and become singing sensations in Joel and Ethan Coen's O Brother Where Are Thou? (2000).
Names That Chill
Such was the notoriety of certain prisons around the world that directors frequently exploited their names to attract thrill-seeking audiences. Located off the coast of French Guiana, Devil's Island became particularly synonymous with barbarity. However, bank robber Ronald Colman only decides to escape after cuckolded governor Dudley Digges sends wife Ann Harding back to France in Wesley Ruggles's Condemned (1929). Following Paul Muni in William K. Howard's The Valiant (1929), Colman and Wallace Beery (The Big House) discovered that the Academy Award electorate had a thing for jailbirds, although over half a century was to pass before the Oscar for Best Actor finally rewarded a prison performance when William Hurt won for Hector Babenco's Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985). And before anyone protests, William Holden in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 (1953) was in a POW camp, not a jail.
Among the other features with a Devil's Island connection are Norman Foster's Mysterious Mr Moto (1938), with Peter Lorre; Michael Curtiz's We're No Angels (1955) which starred Humphrey Bogart; Jesus Franco's Devil's Island Lovers (1973) with Dennis Price; and Franklin J. Schaffner's 1973 and Michael Noer's 2017 adaptations of Henri Charrière's memoir, Papillon, which respectively teamed Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman and Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek, as the safecracker and counterfeiter who forge an unlikely alliance to make an audacious bid for freedom.
Opened in 1852, San Quentin has been the scene of numerous features since Lloyd Bacon took Humphrey Bogart and Pat O'Brien to the north side of San Francisco Bay for San Quentin (1937). Five years after William Beaudine had examined corruption among the staff in the simmering programmer, Men of San Quentin (1942), Bogie returned to flee the prison and romance Lauren Bacall after undergoing plastic surgery in Delmer Daves's gripping noir, Dark Passage (1947). This gritty tough guy compares hilariously with bungling incompetent Virgil Starkwell in Take the Money and Run (1969), which Woody Allen only decided to direct after Jerry Lewis declined his invitation. The majority of the extras in the prison sequences were actually doing time in San Quentin and gave this offbeat caper and unexpected air of authenticity.
Yuji Okumoto and Damian Chapa also got to shoot inside the prison walls for Joseph Ruben's True Believer (1989) and Taylor Hackford's Blood In Blood Out (1993). The former sees world-weary lawyer James Woods and his idealistic assistant Robert Downey, Jr. take on the case of a Korean immigrant charged with a gangland killing, while the latter touches on the activities of three San Quentin gangs, the Black Guerrilla Army, the Aryan Vanguard and La Onda. Learning the hard way is also the theme of Steve Buscemi's Animal Factory (2000), as rookie Edward Furlong seeks the protection of old hand, Willem Dafoe. The pair prepared for their roles by visiting San Quentin, as did Jamie Foxx, who was allowed to spend time with Crips gang leader, Stan Tookie Williams, before making Vondie Curtis-Hall's Redemption (2004). A Toronto water plant stood in for California's oldest penitentiary, which has also since featured in Brad Furman's The Lincoln Lawyer (2011), Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station (2013), Etan Cohen's Get Hard (2015) and Ruben Fleischer's Marvel adventure, Venom (2018).
Although it was only operational for 29 years, the maximum security facility situated on an island 1.25 miles off the Frisco coast proved just as iconic as its neighbour. Alcatraz was first seen on screen just three years after it opened in William C. McGann's Alcatraz Island (1937), but its most famous screen incarnation, John Frankenheimer's Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), boasted something of a misnomeric title, as Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster) developed his avian expertise while serving life at Leavenworth Prison in Kansas. Moreover, after he was transferred to the Rock, he was barred from keeping birds by governor Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden) and spent his final years at the jail in Springfield, Missouri.
Dying in November 1963, Stroud outlived Alcatraz by eight months and three years were to pass before the authorities gave John Boorman permission to film scenes for Point Blank (1967) on the Rock. George C. Scott takes his sons on a tour of the island in Richard Lester's Petulia (1968), while Clint Eastwood paid the island two visits, in the guise of 'Dirty' Harry Callahan in James Fargo's The Enforcer (1976) and as Frank Morris in Don Siegel's fact-based thriller, Escape From Alcatraz (1979). The second sojourn proved more challenging, however, as Eastwood and fellow escapees Fred Ward and Jack Thibeau performed their own stunts in scaling down the walls and into waters that were notorious for their unpredictable currents. Fewer risks were taken with Sean Connery while making Michael Bay's The Rock (1996), in which he plays a former SAS operative who is teamed with FBI chemical warfare specialist Nicolas Cage to use his knowledge of the island (from which he is the only man to have escaped) to stop rogue Marine Ed Harris from launching a biological attack on San Francisco.
The 1930s provides the setting for Marc Rocco's Murder in the First (1995), which sees 17 year-old Kevin Bacon arrive in Alcatraz after transferring from Leavenworth and lose his sanity after spending three years 'in the hole' for participating in an escape attempt. Since Lenny Van Dohlen and Virginia Madsen took a tour of the jail in Steve Barron's Electric Dreams (1984), a number of other movies have staged scenes there, including Dimitri Logothetis's Slaughterhouse Rock (1988), Thomas Schlamme's So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993), Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Albert Hughes's The Book of Eli (2010), Nick Lyon's Rise of the Zombies (2012) and Andrew Jones's Alcatraz (2018). Perhaps the most innovative was Don Michael Paul's Half Past Dead (2002), which sees Russian car thief Steven Segal wind up in the re-opened Alcatraz and lock horns with warden Tony Plana, as he readies his state-of-the-art death chamber for its first victim, gold bullion thief, Bruce Weitz.
Noir in the Nick
There was no call for prison movies during the Second World War and few studio executives in the mid-1940s were convinced that film noir suited the setting. Indeed, they had more to worry about after the Hollywood Ten wound up behind bars for refusing to co-operate with the House UnAmerican Activities Committee's investigation into Communist infiltration of the film industry.
In Henry Hathaway's Kiss of Death (1947), ex-con Victor Mature is sentenced to 20 years for his part in a jewel robbery. Three years into his stay in Sing Sing, however, he learns that his wife has committed suicide and cuts a deal with lawyer Brian Donlevy to exact his revenge on the confederate who had raped her. The debuting Richard Widmark steals the show as a giggling psychopath and Hume Cronyn pulled off the same feat later that year in Jules Dassin's Brute Force, as the sadistic chief of security at Westgate Prison who makes life hell for Burt Lancaster, who is worried because wife Ann Blyth won't have a life-saving operation without him by her side.
The concluding riot sequence must have been an eye-opener for American audiences of the time and James Cagney's psychotic mobster causes similar ructions in the mess hall at Illinois State Penitentiary after learning of the death of his beloved mother in Raoul Walsh's White Heat (1949). But no film painted a starker or better informed insight into prison conditions than Don Siegel's Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), whose depiction of overcrowding, inhuman treatment and political indifference owed much to the fact that producer Walter Wanger had just done four months for shooting agent Jennings Lang for having an affair with his actress wife, Joan Bennett.
Such uncompromising pictures scuffed the gloss of the Eisenhower era, but they were rare, as the studios focused on luring audiences away from their new television sets by churning out spectacles in Technicolor and CinemaScope that did little to convey the claustrophobic grimness of prison life. As a consequence, film-makers sought novel ways of examining incarceration. Charles Marquis Warren set Hellgate (1952) in the frontier period following the Civil War, while Stanley Kramer also ventured into the great outdoors, while keeping chain gang fugitives Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier handcuffed together in the provocative race drama, The Defiant Ones (1958). Moreover, after Todd Duncan had crooned Alex North's 'Unchained Melody' in Hal Bartlett's Unchained (1955), rock sensation Elvis Presley gave the performance of his career as the construction worker jailed for manslaughter after a barroom brawl who discovers his musical talent through the mentoring of cellmate Mickey Shaughnessy in Richard Thorpe's Jailhouse Rock (1957), which followed the trend of the time by having its own mess hall punch-up.
Juvie Halls and Doll Houses
Delinquency was a by-product of the switch to urban living and, between 1937-58, countless B movies were made about the Dead End Kids and their New York successors the Little Tough Guys, the East Side Kids and the Bowery Boys. These cheap-and-cheerful capers followed Norman Taurog's Boys Town (1938) and Men of Boys Town (1941) in averring that the street tykes primarily went astray because of their circumstances and their environment and the notion of the 'good kid gone bad' remained current until exploitation reinvented the teenager in the 1950s.
Curiously, few pictures were spun off from the likes of Laslo Benedek's The Wild One (1953) and Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955), which included extended sequences set in juvenile hall. Indeed, with the exception of Rick Rosenthal's Bad Boys (1983), Barry Levinson's Sleepers (1996) and Matthew Ryan Hoge's The United States of Leland (2003), the best examples of the reformatory movie have been made in Europe. Borstal heavy Dirk Bogarde plays on first-timer Richard Attenborough's naiveté in Montgomery Tully's Boys in Brown (1949), while Tom Courtenay is offered a shot at redemption by governor Michael Redgrave in Tony Richardson's take on Alan Sillitoe's social realist tome, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Irish teenager Shawn Hatosy forges a bond with wide boy Danny Dyer in a remand home in wartime East Anglia in Peter Sheridan's adaptation of Brendan Behan's Borstal Boy (2000).
Frenchman Kim Chapiron's Dog Pound and Romanian Florian Serban's If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (both 2010) both contain scenes of sobering intensity. But nothing compares to the two versions of Alan Clarke's alarming borstal study, Scum. Made in 1977, but withdrawn from the BBC schedules because its content was considered too violent for Play For Today, the original version can be found on Alan Clarke at the BBC, Volume 1: Dissent 1969-77. Two years later, however, Clarke opted to remake the inflammatory drama for the big screen and recast Ray Winstone, Phil Daniels, John Judd, Ray Burdis and Patrick Murra among the teenage inmates in upping the savagery of the unflinching violence. Clarke would coax another seething performance out of Tim Roth, as the teenage skinhead sent for assessment in Made in Britain (1982).
Starring Gloria Castillo as a teen framed by her car thief boyfriend, Edward Bernds's Reform School Girl (1957) established the female remand home format that was emulated by Robert Hartford-Davis's School For Unclaimed Girls (1969), which saw troubled Madeleine Hinde sentenced for stabbing mother Renée Asherson's gold-digging boyfriend, and Tom DeSimone's saucily satirical Reform School Girls (1986), which subjected Linda Carol to the cruel regime at Pridemore Juvenile Facility and the vagaries of warden Sybil Danning and head matron Pat Ast.
The women's prison picture came of age with Cecil B. DeMille's The Godless Girl (1929) and followed the example of its male counterpart in overlooked titles which all invited the audience to empathise with the maligned heroine. Indeed, the postwar templates also aligned across the genders, as John Cromwell's Caged (1950), among others, sought to expose the harshness of the regimes and the ferocity of some of the heroine's cellmates, as did the British twosome, Jack Lee's Turn the Key Softly (1953) and J. Lee Thompson's The Weak and the Wicked (1954), which respectively provided early roles for Joan Collins and Diana Dors.
The pick of the decade's offerings, however, was Robert Wise's I Want to Live! (1958), which again benefited from the input of producer Walter Wanger in helping Susan Hayward win the Oscar for Best Actress as San Quentin Death Row resident, Barbara Graham. This tradition survives in pictures like Mike Newell's Dance With a Stranger (1985), Bille August's Convicted (2004) and Marcelo Martinessi's The Heiresses (2018). The first starred Miranda Richardson as Ruth Ellis, who was the last woman to be executed in Britain and her final moments are recreated by Mary Stockley and Timothy Spall in Adrian Shergold's Pierrepoint (2005), which profiles the UK's last hangman.
With the collapse of the Production Code in 1968, cinema acquired a new freedom of expression, although it didn't always use it responsibly. Exploitation merchants sought to entice audiences with copious female nudity, as Spaniard Jesús Franco reinvented the prison saga with 99 Women (1969), which starred Maria Schell as the new broom hoping to persuade tyrannical governor Mercedes McCambridge to improve the lots of prisoners like Maria Rohm, Elisa Montes and Luciana Paluzzi. Franco would rework his fleshly formula with muse Lina Romay in Women Behind Bars (1975) and Barbed Wire Dolls (1976), and with Karine Gambier in Women in Cellblock 9 (1977), which has still yet to be given a UK release certificate by the BBFC.
Blaxploitation icon Pam Grier was also no stranger to the calaboose, as she followed the Jack Hill duo of The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972) with Eddie Romero's Black Mama, White Mama (1972). Never one to miss a trick, Roger Corman got into the act with Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat, which was released the same year as Pete Walker's House of Whipcord (both 1974) which sees Penny Irving consigned to a secret women's prison run by strict warden Barbara Markham and her blind husband judge, Patrick Barr. In Japan, Meiko Kaji created one of the more striking characters in prison folklore, as Nami 'Matsu the Scorpion' Matsushima goes on a vengeful spree in Shunya Ito's Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (1972), Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (1973) and Female Prisoner #701: Beast Stable (1977), the latter of which sees Matsu on the run after making her escape.
More of the same followed in Tom DeSimone's The Concrete Jungle, Gianni Siragusa's Hell Penitentiary (both 1982), Paul Nicholas's Chained Heat (1983) and Lloyd A. Simandi's Chained Heat 2 (1992) - which respectively landed Jill St John, Linda Jones, Linda Blair and Brigitte Nielsen in nightmare scenarios - and the trend has continued since with items like Henri Charr's Cell Block Sisters: Banished Behind Bars (1996), Neema Barnett's Civil Brand (2002) and Derek Wan's Shadow: Dead Riot (2006). More thoughtful were items like Jonathan Kaplan's Brokedown Palace (1999), which follows the efforts of lawyer Bill Pullman to get Claire Danes and Kate Beckinsale out of a squalid Thai jail.
Banged Up in Britain and Abroad
Despite the excellence of Conrad Veidt in Walter Forde's kicking against the system saga, King of the Damned (1935), the prison picture never caught on with British film-makers and the best efforts were made by such Americans in exile as Joseph Losey, whose 1960 drama, The Criminal, turns on the cat-and-mouse game between jailbird Stanley Baker and the cops and robbers keen to know where he buried the proceeds of a racetrack heist. Sidney Lumet put glasshouse inmate Sean Connery through hell in the Libyan Desert while serving a punishment under sadistic sergeant Ian Hendry in The Hill (1965), while Stanley Kubrick incorporated some eye-watering prison sequences in his 1971 adaptation of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, as Malcolm McDowell becomes a guinea pig for the new Ludovico technique.
Indeed, in the immediate postwar period, there were more features about POW camps than there were about jails. Strangely, the Carry On crew never got round to life behind bars. But, for every serious drama like Pat Jackson's Seven Keys (1961) and crime quickie like Montgomery Tully's Clash By Night (1963), there were comedies such as Peter Graham Scott's The Pot Carriers, which starred Ronald Fraser in a caper about contraband grub, and Robert Day's Two-Way Stretch (both 1962), in which Peter Sellers seeks to get one over on martinet warder Lionel Jeffries by committing the perfect crime without seeming to leave his cell.
Urbane bigwig Noël Coward also saw the funny side while continuing to run his empire from inside Wormwood Scrubs in Peter Collinson's The Italian Job (1969) and the smiles kept coming, as old lag Ronnie Barker taught rookie Richard Beckinsale how to keep his nose clean at HM Prison Slade in Dick Clement's Porridge (1979), which was spun-off from the classic BBC sitcom (1975-77) of the same name, which the director had co-written with Ian La Frenais. More recently, HMP Leyhill in the Cotswolds allows convicted killer Clive Owen to bloom in Joel Hershman's fact-based Greenfingers (2000), while HMP Long Rudford provided the setting for Peter Cattaneo's Lucky Break (2001), which gathers such estimables as Bill Nighy, Timothy Spall, James Nesbitt and Christopher Plummer for an escape caper involving the cast of Nelson: The Musical, a production penned by the governor. The documentary qualities of Paul King's Paddington 2 (2017) are equally open to question, as our ursine hero from Peru plans a daring jailbreak with cook Brendan Gleeson in order to expose the culprit responsible for stealing a pop-up book.
But the British prison movie has come into its own in recent times, with Les Blair's H3 (2001), Gillies MacKinnon's The Escapist (2002), Rupert Wyatt's Escapist (2008), Jesse V. Johnson's Green Street 2 (2009), Reg Traviss's Screwed, Craig Viveiros's Ghosted (both 2011), Ron Scalpello's Offender (2012), David Mackenzie's Starred Up (2013) and Frank Berry's Irish drama, Michael Inside (2017), all presenting credible accounts of surviving the ordeal of doing time. However, the more memorable outings have centred around actual inmates, with David Hayman playing Glaswegian hard man Jimmy Boyle in John McKenzie's A Sense of Freedom (1979); The Who's frontman Roger Daltrey reliving John McVicar's experience inside Durham Jail in Tom Clegg's McVicar (1980); Daniel Day-Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite earning Oscar nominations for their performances as Gerry and Giuseppe Conlan in Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father (1993); Michael Fassbender excelling as Maze Prison hunger striker Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen's Camera d'Or-winning Hunger (2008), and Tom Hardy transforming from small-timer Michael Peterson into bare-knuckle pugilist Charles Bronson in Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson (2008).
Across the Channel, French cinema boasts three of the finest prison pictures ever made in Robert Bresson's A Man Escaped (1956), Jacques Becker's Le Trou (1960) and Jacques Audiard's A Prophet (2009) - trust us; rent them all. Fred Cavayé's Anything For Her isn't bad, either, while the breakout sequence in Jean-François Richet's Mesrine (both 2008) makes it worthwhile renting both 'Killer Instinct' and 'Public Enemy Number 1'. Although Alan Parker's Midnight Express (1978) is an American film, the bulk of the action takes place in Sagmalcilar Prison in Istanbul, while a military jail in 1950s Poland provides the setting for Ryszard Bugajski's chilling study of the Stalinist era, Interrogation (1982). Every bit as unsettling is Olivier Hierschbiegel's Das Experiment (2001), an adaptation of Mario Giordano's bestseller, which was inspired by the actual events recreated in Kyle Patrick Alvarez's The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015). The German film was remade by Paul Scheuring as The Experiment (2010), with Adrien Brody among the 26 volunteers agreeing to take on the roles of prisoners and guards to allow some scientists to study the shifting power dynamics.
Rookie Spanish warder Alberto Ammann has to pose as a prisoner when he gets caught up in the riot being led by the vicious Luis Tosar in Daniel Monzón's simmering Cell 211 (2009). Discerning how the system works is also the subject of Dane Tobias Lindholm's R: Hit First, Hit Hardest, which was released in the same year as Norwegian Marius Holst's King of Devil's Island (both 2010), a fictionalised version of the revolt at the remote Bastøy prison for young offenders in 1915. A century later, a demented warden and his assistant hit upon a gruesome method of controlling the inmates under their watch in Dutch director Tom Six's The Human Centipede 3: The Final Sequence (2015). While watching Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's Golden Bear-winning docudramatic masterpiece, Caesar Must Die (2012), many will feel more comfortable with the decision made by the powers that be at Rome's Rebibbia Prison to let the Mafia and Camorra inmates re-enact William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.
Hector Babenco restages the pitiless events the occurred on 11 October 1992 in the eponymous São Paulo prison in Carandiru (2003), Javier Bardem earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance as gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, who relied on cross-dressing cellmate Bon Bon (Johnny Depp) to smuggle his novel out of jail in Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls (2000). Moving to South Africa, Joseph Fiennes and Dennis Haysbert recreate the relationship that formed on Robben Island between Apartheid-supporting prison guard James Gregory and Nelson Mandela in Bille August's Goodbye Bafana (2007). Australia provides the backdrop for a pair of brutal action dramas, Martin Campbell's No Escape (1994) and Julius Avery's Son of a Gun (2014), which are respectively headlined by Ray Liotta and Ewan McGregor.
But we end this whistlestop world tour in Asia, as Hong Kong martial arts legends Jackie Chan, Andy Lau, Sammo Hung and Tony Leung hook up in Chu Yen-ping's Island of Fire (1990), The scene shifts to Japan's Ishikawa Island for Takashi Miike's Sabu (2002), while the clue is in the title for Masahiko Murata's anime, Naruto Shippuden: The Movie 5: Blood Prison (2011). A Death Row prisoner finds 11th Hour romance in South Korean auteur Kim Ki-duk's Breath (2007), while a prison assassination plot proves to the start of a beautiful, but brutal friendship in Byun Sung-hyun's The Merciless (2017). Lastly, cocky Brit Joe Cole takes up Muay Thai boxing to defend himself when he is slammed away in Klong Prem prison in Bangkok in Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire's adaptation of Scouser Billy Moore's memoir, A Prayer Before Dawn (2017).
Cool Hands and Tough Nuts
For half a century, Hollywood had given citizens a credible impression of incarceration in films that had been designed to show that prison was an appropriate and effective place to detain those who had chosen to live outside society's laws. In so doing, however, the studios had created an array of clichés and stereotypes relating to inmates and prison life and, with television reinforcing them on a nightly basis, audiences were beginning to tire of the same old scenarios.
Adapted from a novel by Donn Pearce, Stuart Rosenberg's Cool Hand Luke (1967) did much to revive the subgenre by giving it a subversive swagger that suited the Swinging Sixties. Revelling in the role of anti-hero Luke Jackson, Paul Newman earned an Oscar nomination as the war veteran who is sent to a Florida chain gang prison for vandalising parking meters and rebels against the regimes of both warden Strother Martin and cellblock nemesis George Kennedy, who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Rosenberg would return behind bars with Brubaker (1980), which starred Robert Redford, Newman's co-star in George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Sting (1973). Inspired by the memoirs of Tom Murton, this hard-hitting drama sees Redford pose as a newcomer to Wakefield State Prison in Arkansas and witness all manner of corruption, violence and abuse before revealing himself to be the new governor. Playing a top-ranking soldier who disobeyed a presidential command, Redford would be sent to the glasshouse in Rod Lurie's The Last Castle (2001), where he bridles at the sadistic cruelty of commandant James Gandolfini. However, it's enemy combatants who are subjected to inhumane treatment in military facilities in such War on Terror exposés as Michael Winterbottom's The Road to Guantánamo (2006) and Peter Sattler's Camp X-Ray (2014).
In an effort to vary the generic themes, Terence Young had Charles Bronson testify against mob boss Lino Ventura while doing time in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in The Valachi Papers (1972), while Robert M. Young focused on the Manhattan detention centre known as The Tombs in Short Eyes (1977). Working from a script based on an idea by Akira Kurosawa, Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky pitched Jon Voight and Eric Roberts into a hellish scenario after escaping John P. Ryan's tyrannical regime at Alaska's Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison in the gripping actioner, Runaway Train (1985).
Despite such efforts to reimagine the format, audiences remained ready to root for the underdog battling against jailhouse injustice. In Peter Yates's An Innocent Man (1989), airline mechanic Tom Selleck is shown the ropes by cellmate F. Murray Abraham, as he confronts the Black Guerilla Family while plotting revenge on the cops who had framed him. As the scene shifts to Maine in 1947, Morgan Freeman plays confidante Red Redding observing the way in which Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) handles his thuggish fellow inmates and corrupt warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton) in Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption (1994), an adaptation of Stephen King's novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption that many regard as the finest prison picture ever made, even though it failed to convert any of its seven Oscar nominations.
Reversing the race dynamic between inmate Kiefer Sutherland and guard Forest Whitaker in Sutherland's directorial debut, Last Light (1993), Darabont had no more luck when his adaptation of King's The Green Mile (1999) garnered four nominations, including one for Best Supporting Actor for Michael Clarke Duncan for his touching turn as John Coffey, the Death Row inmate whose seemingly miraculous powers enable him to form an unexpectedly close relationship with supervising officer Paul Edgecomb (Tom Hanks) at Cold Mountain Penitentiary in the mid-1930s. The same year also saw Denzel Washington headline Norman Jewison's The Hurricane as Rubin Carter, the 1960s middleweight boxing contender who was wrongly accused of a triple murder in a New Jersey bar.
Pugilism also plays its part in Ringo Lam's In Hell (2003), as barbarous Russian governor Lloyd Battista forces inmates to participate in a bloody bout nicknamed 'The Shu'. Unsurprisingly, Jean-Claude Van Damme reacts to the situation in much the same way as he had responded to the sickening conditions he had witnessed as an undercover cop in Deran Serafian's Death Warrant (1991). Gulf War veteran Tommy Lee Thomas also sees sickening sights when he goes incognito into California's infamous Doscher State Prison to discover the identity of a murderer in Jefferson Edward Donald's Con Games (2001).
Having accidentally killed a burglar in his home, Stephen Dorff has to toughen up to combat mass murderer Val Kilmer and ferocious guard Harold Perrineau in Ric Roman Waugh's Felon (2008). The director returned to the corrupting nature of prison in Shot Caller (2017), in which businessman Nicolaj Coster-Waldau is transformed into a gangster after being sentenced for a drink driving offence. Enraged by the fact that the home invader who killed his wife and daughter can walk away scot free, Gerard Butler bides his time before exacting his revenge from inside his prison cell in F. Gary Gray's Law Abiding Citizen (2009). Arsonist Edward Norton also seeks to pull the strings from his bunk in John Curran's Stone (2010), as he looks for a weakness to exploit in parole officer Robert De Niro, who is just a few weeks away from retirement.
Security expert Sylvester Stallone agrees to take on one last job in Mikael Håfström's Escape Plan (2013). However, he finds himself locked inside The Tomb and has to rely on fellow inmates Arnold Schwarzenegger and Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson to confound callous governor Jim Caviezel. The latter teams with Sly in the sequel, Steven C. Miller's Escape Plan II (2018), in order to get the better of Titus Welliver, the warden of a Thai facility known as Hades who calls himself The Zookeeper. As played by Don Johnson, Warden Tuggs of the Redleaf Correctional Facility is even more vicious, as ex-boxer Vince Vaughn discovers when he undertakes a mission to assassinate a mysterious prisoner in order to save his wife and unborn child in S. Craig Zahler's devastatingly dark, Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2011). Getaway driver Mel Gibson can hardly be called an innocent victim, as he has a wounded accomplice and $2 million in his car when he's arrested. But he gets his dander up when a couple of corrupt Mexican cops dump him in the notorious El Pueblito prison in Tijuana in Adrian Grunberg's How I Spent My Summer Vacation (2012).
Cinema hasn't produced a more fearsome inmate in recent times than Hannibal Lecter and one can appreciate the trepidation with which FBI agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) approaches his cell in Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which became the third film after Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934) and Miloš Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) to win the big four Oscars. However, Anthony Hopkins proved every bit as unsettling as deranged anthropologist Ethan Powell, whose psyche is probed by inexperienced shrink Theo Caulder (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in Jon Turteltaub's Instinct (1999). But what rogues' gallery would be complete without Woody Harrelson in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994), Nicolas Cage in John Woo's Face/Off, John Malkovich in Simon West's Con Air (both 1997), Edward Norton in Tony Kaye's American History X (1998) and Eric Bana in Andrew Dominik's Chopper (2000). Those seeking a cult addition to this list might want to seek out Uwe Boll's Stoic (2009), for which Edward Furlong and his co-stars improvised much of their dialogue in describing how their cellmate came to die.
What's striking about the films we've looked at so far is that the vast majority of the heroes have been white males. Yet, as troubling documentaries like Eugene Jarecki's The House I Live In (2012) and Ava DuVernay's The 13th (2016) point out, changes in American law relating to the so-called War on Drugs have meant that the bulk of the country's prison population is actually African-American. There is also a disproportionate number of Hispanic prisoners, as the 'three strikes' legislation and the growing commercialisation of the penal system have also contributed to it making business sense for US jails to be full.
However, mainstream Hollywood is less willing to examine these shocking statistics than it is to tug on liberal consciences with such emotive Death Penalty dramas as Tim Robbins's Dead Man Walking (1995) and Patty Jenkins's Monster (2003), which respectively earned Best Actress Oscars for Susan Sarandon and Charlize Theron. Indeed, Tali Shalom-Ezer even exploited the divisiveness of the capital punishment debate in her lesbian love story, My Days of Mercy (2017).
Wrongly convicted friends Richard T. Jones, Gabriel Casseus and De'Aundre Bonds have differing experiences after being sentenced in New Mexico in John Luessenhop's Lockdown (2000), while framed Death Row inmate Ashley Tucker is victimised by the warden eager to lay his hands on a hidden jewel stash in Art Camacho's 13 Dead Men (2003). Vengeance is on Boris Kodjoe's mind when his only son is gunned down during a drug turf war in Preston A. Whitemore III's Doing Hard Time (2004). But, while Kodjoe is willing to mix it with Michael K. Williams and Michael Kimbrew, numerous black prisoners are literally forced to fight for their survival, including Leon Isaac Kennedy in Jamaa Fanaka's Penitentiary (1979) and Wesley Snipes in Walter Hill's Undisputed (2002). The title rather gives away the fact that white inmate Don 'The Dragon' Wilson has to go through much the same ordeal in Oley Sassone's Bloodfist III: Forced to Fight (1992).
Sport has been used as a way for prisoners to regain a little self-respect since washed-up quarterback Burt Reynolds accepted Citrus State warden Eddie Albert's challenge to form an American Football team to give his semi-pro guards outfit a game in Robert Aldrich's The Longest Yard (1974). In Peter Segal's 2015 version of The Longest Yard, Reynolds took the role of the coach who helps Adam Sandler pip warden James Cromwell, while Vinnie Jones starred as the disgraced England captain who picks up the gauntlet thrown down by soccer-mad governor David Hemmings in Barry Skolnick's British remake, Mean Machine (2001).
It's basketball that gives Attica denizen Denzel Washinton the chance of an early release in Spike Lee's He Got Game (1998). But his fate depends on persuading hot prospect son Ray Allen to enrol at the governor's alma mater, when Allen hasn't forgiven Washington for murdering his mother. The ball goes back to being oval in Phil Joanou's Gridiron Gang (2006), which stars Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson as a probation officer given four weeks to put together a football team at a detention centre for young offenders.
In a bid to shuffle the prison pack, film-makers have frequently put a cross-generic spin on the traditional incarceration format. Among the best sci-fi hybrids are John Carpenter's Escape From New York (1981), Stuart Gordon's Fortress (1992), Geoff Murphy's Fortress II (2000) and James Mather's Lockout (2012), while both David Fincher's Alien³ (1992) and Claire Denis's High Life (2018) are set aboard interstellar penal colonies. Horror provides the sting in the tale in Renny Harlin's Prison (1987), Uwe Boll's Seed (2007), Andrew P. Jones's Haunting of Cellblock 11 (2014) and Harrison Smith's Death House (2017).
After such a gruelling stretch, we should end with a look at the lighter side of prison life, as real estate con artist Rob Schneider becomes a martial arts master after being banged away in the self-directed Big Stan (2007) and career criminal Dax Shepard wangles his way into a cell with Will Arnett in Bob Odenkirk's Let's Go to Prison (2006), so that he can pay back his father, who just happens to be the judge who has repeatedly sent him back to the pen. Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence form another odd couple of cellmates in Ted Demme's Life (1999), which is set in 1932 and follows the misfortunes of Murphy's small-time hustler and Lawrence's Manhattan bank teller when they are sent to Camp 8 in Mississippi after being framed for murder while on a bootlegging jaunt.
Unemployed DJ Tom Waits and pimp John Lurie are also innocent. Yet, they quickly come to blows after being forced to share a New Orleans cell with Roberto Benigni, a chatty Italian tourist on a manslaughter rap in Jim Jarmusch's classy monochrome indie, Down By Law (1986). The critics were less kind to Sidney Poitier's Stir Crazy (1980), in which screenwriter Gene Wilder and actor Richard Pryor are erroneously jailed for an Arizona bank robbery while travelling to Hollywood. Indeed, Georg Stanford Brown received a Razzie nomination for Worst Supporting Actress for his cross-dressing cameo. But this became the first film directed by an African-American to make $100 million at the box-office and only Irvin Kershner's The Empire Strikes Back and Colin Higgins's 9 to 5 bettered its takings in the end of year charts.
If you're looking for even more films focused on the prison topic, be sure to check out Prison Dramas where you'll find plenty of additional titles.