It’s interesting how much Alcatraz has captured people’s imaginations. Over the weekend, I watched Point Blank (1967), which admittedly does not make much use of the setting — it’s the kick-off point for a revenge story — but there it is, the prison on Alcatraz Island, on film once more.
But watching that movie got me thinking about other movies that use Alcatraz, and what it is about Alcatraz that’s so interesting in the first place.
I think part of the fascination is that it’s no longer in operation. So, not only does it have this reputation, deserved or otherwise, as the most secure prison in the world, and not only is it located in such a picturesque setting, but it is now forever buried in the past. What remains today is the edifice itself, a monument you can tour, but even that has got to be a distant sort of experience. You can take the tour and see where the prisoners were and what the daily routine was and so on, but no matter how much your imagination in inspired, there is only so close you can get to that experience when you’re taking a nice amiable tour through the facility with a lot of other camera-laden people who will be leaving the island along with you in another hour. Similarly, had you actually been a prisoner in Alcatraz, imagining a tour group filing through and snapping pictures of where you once ate and slept wouldn’t have been a very real thing either.
Last year, I went to Rhode Island and took a tour of a Russian submarine captured during the Cold War and now docked in Portsmouth harbor as a museum. That was an awful lot like a prison. One hundred people crammed in a very confined setting for months on end. There were 34 beds, and the men slept in 8 hour shifts. The dining room table served a dual purpose as an operating table. To bring this back to the subject of movies, they filmed a lot of K-19: The Widowmaker on that sub, although, trust me, the movie makes the sub look enormous compared to the actuality. Anyway, my point is, again, settings like this really fire up the imagination, and yet the actual experience you’re imagining still just seems so far away and unreal.
Movies can’t quite recapture the physicality of the setting like a real-life tour of it can. But they can help realize bygone experiences with the setting in a pretty compelling way. Alcatraz, like I say, has served as the setting of many good films. Here are a few that I liked:
- Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
- Escape From Alcatraz (1979)
- Murder In the First (1995)
- The Rock (1996)
- X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
The most interesting of those to me is the first, Birdman of Alcatraz, because it’s got such a unique feel to it. It’s a prison movie about a hardened criminal, and yet the movie itself is so gentle and sweet. Burt Lancaster’s performance is paramount to the success of the film, absolutely convincingly portraying his evolution from a pretty creepy, ruthless guy into a gentle soul. Not an easy thing to pull off.