The Top 10 Best Prison Films


I know, I know… multiple times in the brief history of this blog I have stated that I vehemently detest lists and their all encompassing tribulations; daunting, disconcerting, bothersome, perturbing, and vexing are just a few adjectives that come to mind when having to describe my emotional state during the list making process. And yet I continue to create them. I guess you can say I have a penchant for self-hatred. But I promise that this time it’s slightly different. Instead of creating a list for the hell of it, it was upon my expedition into The Shawshank Redemption I began pondering what prison films I’d rather be enjoying right now.

The top five or so on the list came with relative ease but as I am not the biggest fan of the dubious prison film genre I had to dig deep into my mind to ring out another six I enjoy. Sure, prison films provide a dangerous and enthralling environment that many people know nothing about, but for the most part filmmakers often take the (no pun intended) easy way out. Prison is a place in which people are physically confined and, usually, deprived of a range of personal freedoms so how can the film medium not succeed in capturing man’s struggles? Ever since the release of Buster Keaton’s Convict 13 in 1920, few prison films have been able to standout. Alas, a top ten of my favorite prison films was formed and below you can find them all!

10. Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, A Tale of Life, Werner Herzog, 2011

My love for German director Werner Herzog knows no bounds. Since he started making films well over forty years ago he has been constantly searching for new ideas to investigate, new stories to tell. It seems as if Herzog has always done things his own way, with near-complete creative control over his work. His latest documentary, Into the Abyss is really no exception. It’s a look at the death penalty and the wider impact of violence on our society. It focuses on two inmates who committed the same crime ten years ago. One was sentenced to death and has since been executed, the other was sentenced to life on the appeal of his father, who is also serving in prison for life. There is very little in Into the Abyss beyond simple face-to-face interviews. Herzog tells us about the crime and the facts at the start to give us some background, but after that it is all about how this crime has affected the people around the victims and the convicts.

What makes Into the Abyss so special for me, especially as a documentary, is that it isn’t so much about the boring who-done-it or why. If anything, I think Herzog investigated this case specifically because of the senseless pointless violence of the crime. He doesn’t ask the two convicts why they did it. If you’ve ever watched a Werner Herzog documentary before, you’d know that Herzog himself is a dominating force in his documentaries. It’s a well-known fact that in some of his documentary films he even invents stories, not as a way of misleading the audience, but as a way of explaining something in a more poetic manner. He’s interested in the emotional truth of things, not the factual truth. In Into the Abyss he does not need to add poetic additions. He mostly sits and listens. He occasionally adds a question, but that is it. The film left me asking the questions: Is it morally consistent to condemn a person to death? Does the human being deserve to be assigned the task of executing another person? Herzog didn’t answer this important questions in this film. We just need to answer it in our mind and hearts.

9. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, Mervyn LeRoy, 1932

As I’m sure you know by now, many prison films try to paint a sympathetic portrait of the wrongly convicted; those who fall victim to the clutches of a swift, merciless justice system. It’s been done so many times we’ve all lost count. But it’s Mervyn LeRoy’s classic 1932 film, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang that is the most gutsy and realistic in doing so, and as a result it is hard to forget. In the Pre-Code era of Hollywood, where sexual innuendo, scantily clad women, drug use, protagonist evildoers and intense violence was the norm, it was still very courageous of LeRoy and Warner Bros. Pictures to release the film as it challenges social institutes from all angles. LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is extremely serious, but never approaches melodrama. Instead, it has a wonderfully gritty atmosphere that tends to be underplayed instead; there are similarities to more recent films that it probably influenced such as Don Siegel’s Escape from Alcatraz and Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law, both excellent in their own right. What I like most about I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, and how it differs from many wrongly convicted prison films, is the point of the film is that even if guilty of robbery, the punishment imposed by the state, the conditions at the chain gang, were extremely inhuman. Much like in Cool Hand Luke, wrongly convicted James Allen has had enough and escapes the first time. He makes a decent living but his past eventually catches up with him. I won’t spoil anything and I will conclude by saying that I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is not only one of the best prison films but is one of the greatest social problem films to ever illuminate the silver screen.

8. Cool Hand Luke, Stuart Rosenberg, 1967

Possibly the most well known and celebrated film on the list, Cool Hand Luke, like a lot of prison films, relies on the quality of the craftsmanship on the screen more than the events that drive the story. Not a whole lot happens in the plot, but its Stuart Rosenberg’s direction and Paul Newman’s performance that keep it all together. Unlike Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, who steals only to eat and is turned by society into a hardened criminal, Lucas Jackson is a criminal from the start. And while at first the film presents Luke as an unlikeable character (he does, after all, cut off the heads of parking meters for fun) we later find there are important points in helping to define the character of Luke beyond just being drunk and damaging public property. Luke is a character who is born to lose, but a man full of pride and dignity. Cool Hand Luke is the story of a man who refuses to be nailed down or conform to the rules and regulations of a society that he has never craved to fit into. As Luke enters the prison that will supposedly be his home for the next two years, we meet the other inmates. Some of them wear chains, some of them do not. It is a point early in the film that director Rosenberg, emphasizes. We understand quickly that sooner or later you conform. You either walk the line the way the bosses tell you to, or they will find the means to get you to walk the line. As the Captain reiterates, “for your own good, you’ll learn the rules.” A point driven home often.

7. Down by Law, Jim Jarmusch, 1986

American independent cinema leader Jim Jarmusch treads a fine line between prison film and oddball comedy in Down by Law. But the film works on several levels and that’s usually the genius behind Jarmusch as a writer/director. The premise of the film is simple, as we follow three rather different convicts that end up in the same cell in a penitentiary. Tom Waits plays a DJ who is framed by the police, and is thrown in jail. John Lurie plays a pimp who is also framed by the police, and is thrown in the same cell. After a short period of time, they’re accompanied by Italian Roberto (Roberto Benigni), who killed a man in self defense. Roberto is like a Duracell bunny on speed, and needs a little English dictionary he keeps around to communicate. After a while they break out of jail, which is in no way described how, because that’s irrelevant to the story. That’s one of the most special things about Down by Law; we don’t see what we don’t need to see.

After breaking out, the three fugitives find a boat, and eventually make their way down the river of Louisiana. Jim Jarmusch’s genius outlines and beautiful black and white lightning makes the places they drift to (especially a run-down cabin they spend a night in) look quite similar like the very prison cell they just escaped from, making us wonder if they’re really as free as they think. Paranoia and different opinions start to grow among them. Every gesture of the characters signifies worlds of meaning and consequence and Jarmusch does it better, with more skill and with more compassion than anyone out there in indie film land. If you are prepared to get involved, if you are brave enough to commit to the journey, you will be rewarded with a kind of epiphany that few prison films can offer.

6. Hunger, Steve McQueen, 2008

A few days ago in my entry, “A One-Two Punch from McQueen and Fassbender, Cinema’s New Dynamic Duo” I gushed plenty over Steve McQueen’s Hunger, calling first time director Steve McQueen an intelligent and capable director, and praising Michael Fassbender’s performance as Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteer Bobby Sands. If I gush over Hunger anymore I may very well become as emaciated and weak as Hunger’s Sands. But for the sake of not leaving this one blank and further paying respect to such a fine piece of work I will discuss it a bit more here. McQueen’s Hunger uses very little dialogue throughout the film, instead choosing to communicate through strong visuals and raw imagery. The film is less about the politics behind the IRA conflict, and more about the suffering of the prisoners and the dehumanization of them at the hands of the guards. It is not an easy film to watch. The imagery is so strong and raw that you couldn’t help but grimace during some parts making Hunger one the most brutal and uncompromising portrayals of prison life.

5. A Prophet, Jacques Audiard, 2009

At first glance A Prophet might not exactly seem like a revelation, it’s a story we’ve all seen many times before in cinema. It’s the story of a young hoodlum’s rise to the top of a underworld gang, who, along the way learns the skills needed to survive at that level. He learns to be ruthless, to make decisions, and to handle threats to his existence. We’ve seen this before in films like The Godfather, Goodfellas, Scarface and countless other gangster films. But looks can be deceiving, my friends. What A Prophet has that those films do not is that it is set mainly within prison walls. In the opening paragraphs I disclosed my disinterest in the prison film genre, but A Prophet is one film that truly benefits from it. Unlike most gangster films, A Prophet depicts a gangster’s prison ‘career’. What young Malik has done in the outside to achieve his status in the criminal underworld is relevant in prison, he has to start fresh. A Prophet works as a social description of the hellish atmosphere one could encounter in prison. The promiscuity, the dirtiness, the drug, the sex, the corruption are detailed through very well drawn out characters and situations. You live in prison and what you live isn’t giving any concessions to reality.

Most of A Prophet is concrete slabs and dirt. Within the last decade or so, French filmmakers were hellbent on displaying life as a gritty and boring affair, and resorted to radical violence to underscore this point, that audience was almost forced to feel disgusted, which was then claimed to be a denominator of the film’s artistic success. This phenomenon has been labeled as New French Extremity. What director Jacques Audiard has done is combine the aesthetics of this modern trend with the traditions which once made the French film industry the most powerful and meaningful in Europe, namely to focus on the relationship of the leading actors. The result is a film that is totally engaging from the get-go, because it entrusts the actors with the task of transforming the script into something of their own making. Between the buildings of a drug business, the contract to assassinate a mafia kingpin, the negotiation with a local mobster and the rise to power of a young bandit, the film manages to link every single story and wrap them all in one big and dark vision of what the French society can also produce. Eventually the film triggers so many emotions; in two hours and thirty minutes the audience balances from bitterness to injustice and from violence to peace.

4. A Man Escaped or: The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth, Robert Bresson, 1956

Most of the pleasure in watching a Robert Bresson film comes from seeing how even the most mundane things can assume enormous spiritual/metaphysical significance. A Man Escaped is no different that even the title of the film can imply a physical, psychological or spiritual escape. Of course, there is indeed a physical escape here and Bresson painstakingly focuses on the ritual-like preparation for the escape. It is almost wrenching in its calm severity; yet always graceful, always fluid. The details of the final escape make for one of the most memorable sequences in all of the prison film genre. It is interspersed with episodes of doubt in which Lieutenant Fontaine falters for hours or more before taking the next step, just as he delays the escape itself for many days even though he knows his execution is imminent. The escape can be seen as a a somber dance with death or at least a morally exacting examination of one’s limits and a fear of the transcendent (which in this case is represented merely by freedom itself.) In the end, A Man Escaped is a film about patience, about the intellect of a prisoner whose will and desire to escape a prison portrays the strengths of the human spirit. However, the film does not have uplifting phases that often fall into clichés. Less is more.

3. Grand Illusion, Jean Renoir, 1937

What makes Grand Illusion a great film, and one of the best in the prison film genre, the reason that some of us keep returning to it, is that it can’t be reduced to a single simple proposition, the way that recent war films like Platoon (war bad) or Saving Private Ryan (war senseless) can. It’s easy to be sentimental about war, even while deploring it, by focusing on the horror of it or by making heroes out of those who are forced to fight. Instead Jean Renoir deals with the far more complex mesh of differences and alliances that separate and divide our characters. And while his main characters all have a clear class/national/religious identity, he makes much more out of them than just sociological categories. But sitting here and attempting to explain to you why Grand Illusion is such a great film by charting all the conflicting bonds of nationality, class, religion, etc. doesn’t explain why the film is so powerful. As far as prison films go, these guys seem to have it easy, however the fact that they are officers gives us some explanation. The storyline effectively moves from escape attempts to human realization of the situation they are in.

2. Brute Force, Jules Dassin, 1947

In the Westgate Penitentiary, warden A. J. Barden is a weak man, and the institution is actually ruled by the ambitious and sadistic Captain Munsey, who uses violence, fear and treachery to control the prisoners. Jule Dassin’s 1947 Brute Force is the best look at what life is like in a prison which is being run in a particularly brutal and autocratic manner. The consequence for the inmates is that they live in an oppressive and overcrowded environment where hard labor, poor quality food and harsh treatment are the norm. Furthermore, they are also subjected to a cruel system which leads to many of them being abused, tortured or even killed as a result of actions taken by the officials in charge. As well as the extreme brutality that they experience, the prisoners also suffer the deep level of despair which comes from the knowledge that there’s absolutely nothing they can do to improve their circumstances, as even the prospects for rehabilitation and parole are taken away from them. The sheer desperation of these men who can’t get away from either their pasts or their current tribulations inevitably creates a need for an escape plan to be developed and Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster), the leader of the convicts in cell R17 is a man who has more reasons than most for wanting to get out. Unlike many films about prison life, Dassin’s Brute Force isn’t a story of good guys and bad guys as it’s made clear that not all the guards are bad and clearly not all the convicts are good. Both groups are perpetrators of appalling brutality as the prisoners’ punishment of stool pigeons provides a couple of the most sickeningly cruel scenes in the film. What it really illustrates most strongly is how much hopelessness the people in the institution feel, how futile the self perpetuating brutality is and how inevitable it is that “nobody escapes, nobody ever really escapes”.

1. Le Trou, Jacques Becker, 1960

Probably, to truly get Le Trou, this splendid, intense film, you have to be conscious that the great French director Jacques Becker was dying during the making of the film. A quiet stoicism permeates this work of art. The story is supposed to be very sad, but it isn’t. The guys on the screen are too tough, by no means apt to mourn their dire destiny or, metaphorically, to ask for the viewer’s sympathy. It doesn’t try to tug on your heartstrings. What we have in Le Trou, my absolute favorite prison film, is another escape plot. By now you’re as tired of this concept as I am but Le Trou, a film based on a true story of the hole dug by a few inmates to escape from a jail in Paris, is told in the simplest, neatest possible way. No music at all in Le Trou, instead an essential, dry, sharp yet powerful dialogue. The Parisian inmates do their job, to try to escape. That’s it. Becker is smart to avoid the annoying cliché, typical of the American prison films, of showing the wardens as sadistic torturers. They are tough and strict, sure, they don’t like them but they feel no hate for the prisoners. The wardens just do their job, that’s all. In fact, there are no really despicable characters in the film. At his last appointment with the art of cinema, director Becker seems to accept and forgive all human beings.

A brilliant idea in Le Trou is to show how the guys turn common objects and waste iron into the tools needed for the escape (a key, a lamp, a pick, a sand glass). The little periscope made with a toothbrush gives raise to a shocking scene, few seconds of great cinema. We follow the inmates’ apparently endless, exhausting labor of digging and sewing. I love the meticulous details these men pay attention to when trying to escape. That should be rather boring for the viewer, but it isn’t for me. How comes there’s not a single moment of bore in the film? That’s the privilege of art. Are there deep messages in Le Trou? It’s film after all, there’s got to be some profound imagery! Two wardens bring a fly to feed a spider. There is the spider, a patent symbol of death, ghastly in its immobility. Two prisoners are peeping and wondering: What the hell are the wardens doing? Got no idea. And who cares, really? Maybe that is Jacques Becker’s dry, ironic message. Don’t be too deep. Fight against bad luck, be stoic and brave. Who cares, after all? Becker, displaying the same toughness of the guys on the screen, just fought to leave us a major work of in cinema history. Our task of viewers is to enjoy and love it. Le Trou is indeed an unforgettable film.

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