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Clint Eastwood in the 1979 movie Escape from Alcatraz. Paramount Pictures
Clint Eastwood in the 1979 movie Escape from Alcatraz. Paramount Pictures

The Rock and roles: Movies filmed at Alcatraz

It's 50 years ago this month that the world's most famous prison, Alcatraz, said goodbye to its final inmates. To commemorate The Rock's anniversary, here are some of the most memorable movies set on the island.

The Rock (1996)

Michael Bay’s best movie has an A-list cast having tons of explosive fun – Ed Harris is the former marine who has taken tourists hostage and is threatening to fire chemical weapons at San Francisco, Nicolas Cage (as the amusingly named Stanley Goodspeed) is the reluctant scientist hired to stop him and Sean Connery (stealing every scene) is the only inmate to have ever escaped who gets coerced into taking a team of good guys back to Alcatraz to save the day. It’s desperately silly but also hugely enjoyable, with a witty script that, rumour has it, was worked on by Quentin Tarantino and the British comedy writers Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement.

Murder in the First (1995)

This gritty drama loosely inspired by a true story stars Kevin Bacon in one of his best performances, as a petty criminal sent to Alcatraz who spends three years in solitary confinement after an escape attempt. Killing a fellow inmate on his release back into the main prison, he’s charged with murder, but a young public defender (Christian Slater) decides that the prison itself should be on trial. Gary Oldman co-stars as a particularly sadistic warden, alongside William H Macy, Brad Dourif and Bacon’s real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick.

Escape from Alcatraz (1979)

One of the most famous films about The Rock, this drama is based on the only possibly successful escape from Alcatraz prison (the escapees were presumed drowned in the bay but their bodies were never found). Teaming with his Dirty Harry director Don Siegel, Clint Eastwood stars as inmate Frank Morris, who with three other prisoners devises an escape plan that involves papier mâché dummies in their beds and digging through the walls of their cells with spoons. While one escapee in the movie is fictional, this tense, fascinating film otherwise keeps close to the facts and features a mesmerising performance from Eastwood, who had previously filmed the climactic scenes of the Dirty Harry sequel The Enforcer at the prison in 1976.

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

If you take the tour of Alcatraz Island, one of the first things the guides tell you is that prisoner Robert Stroud wasn’t really the Birdman of Alcatraz – he kept birds at his previous jail, Leavenworth, but wasn’t allowed any pets when he was transferred to The Rock. In fact, this dramatisation of his life (with Stroud played by Burt Lancaster) spends much time at Leavenworth, where Stroud fed birds and nursed them (even writing a book on bird diseases) while in solitary confinement. If you can forget that the real Stroud was far nastier than portrayed here, it’s a compelling movie from the director John Frankenheimer, well performed by Lancaster and with great support from Karl Malden and Thelma Ritter.

Point Blank (1967)

The first film to shoot at Alcatraz after the prison was shut down three years prior, this begins with tough guy Walker (Lee Marvin) being left for dead there
by his friend Mal (John Vernon), who is also having an affair with Walker’s wife. This kicks off a vengeful rampage that we know will lead back to the deserted prison in a thriller that is both brutal and stylish.
Directed by John Boorman, this was loosely based on the Donald E Westlake novel The Hunter, that was also adapted into the Mel Gibson movie
Payback.

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

The third X-Men movie in the series has the good guys (Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, Halle Berry’s Storm and Patrick Stewart’s Professor X) battling bad guy Magneto (Ian McKellen), who has raised an army to stop the production of a cure for mutants that is being made on Alcatraz island. The movie’s main battle takes place there – Magneto has handily diverted the Golden Gate Bridge with his metal-bending powers so he can storm the island. But the scenes weren’t actually filmed at the real Alcatraz or Golden Gate Bridge  – a full-scale section of the bridge was built and the sequence in the movie was reported to have cost approximately one-sixth of the film’s total budget.

Slaughterhouse Rock (1988)

The singer-dancer Toni Basil is the star of this ridiculous horror movie about a man who, plagued by nightmares of the ghost of a killer on Alcatraz, decides to go to the island with some friends to confront it, only for his brother to be possessed by a demon there. Luckily, the ghost of a heavy metal singer (Basil) is there to help them – shame she had no access to the movie’s clunky script, shaky camerawork or ludicrously gory special effects. For more horror, there is also the 2001 movie New Alcatraz starring Dean Cain, set in an Antarctic version of the California prison, where a giant snake chomps on the inmates. Yes, a giant snake.

On the tube

Completists should note there was an interesting 2012 television drama series called Alcatraz that imagined the prison’s closure was brought about when nume-rous guards and prisoners disappeared in 1963 – only for them to turn up, having not aged a day, in 21st-century San Francisco. Jorge Garcia (of Lost fame) starred alongside Sam Neill and Sarah Jones in the show which lasted 13 episodes and was filmed on the island.

artslife@thenational.ae

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