1. Le Trou (1960): Four convicts are planning an escape when a fifth guy is transferred into their cell. Can they trust him? Can they scratch, dig and saw their way out? The story is based on an actual 1947 escape from a French prison (and one of the real-life escapees has a role in the film). This was the final film for director Jacques Becker (Touchez pas au grisbi). Also released under the titles The Hole and The Night Watch.
Much of the suspense in Le Trou is driven by its innovative use of real time narrative. This clip is not subtitled, but it will give you a taste of the real time technique.
2. A Prophet (Un Prophete) (2010): The story of a young French-Arab from his first terrifying day in prison to his release. Once he starts to adjust to his prison role as the toady of a Corsican crime boss, no one else in the movie knows what he is really thinking. It evokes the DeNiro scenes in The Godfather: Part II, except set with gritty realism in contemporary France. Won nine Cesar awards in France, the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and was nominated for the Foreign Language Oscar.
3. Stalag 17 (1960): The great Billy Wilder adapted and directed this taut WW II POW drama from a play written by two former POWs. If it’s not bad enough being held in a Nazi prison camp, there is a German mole informing on the prisoners. The POWs blame the wrong guy – the cynic played by William Holden – and he must uncover and expose the mole and help a POW in peril escape.
This is a thriller, not a comedy, but you can’t tell from this trailer, which oversells the humor; it makes you expect Hogan’s Heroes.
4. Cool Hand Luke (1967): Paul Newman plays a free-spirited character that refuses to bend to The System – even in a Southern chain gang. Many memorable scenes include the fight with George Kennedy’s Dragline, the wager on eating a massive amount of hardboiled eggs, getting sent to the hole, the scariest aviator sunglasses ever and the unforgettable: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”.
5. The Shawshank Redemption (1994): A banker (Tim Robbins) serves decades for murdering his wife. The corrupt warden uses the banker’s skills in various scams and then suppresses evidence of the banker’s innocence. It looks like the banker will be unjustly trapped in prison forever, but he has an ingenious solution.
6. American Me (1992): The plot of this East LA gang film spans thirty years, most of which takes place in California prisons. Brutal prison gang life is realistically depicted, from drugs to tattoos to rape to handball. The thirty-year arc of Edward James Olmos’ lead character makes this underrated film hold up well. Olmos, William Forsythe and Pepe Serna are excellent. Olmos also directed.
7. Midnight Express (1978): Speaking of rape, this film has done more to keep American kids from bringing drugs into Turkey than any other factor. This film is so gripping that, thirty-plus years after its release, you can’t hear “Turkish prison” without immediately thinking of Midnight Express. Based on a true story, amped up considerably by Oliver Stone’s screenplay. Nominated for six Oscars, it won two.
8. Brute Force (1947): This Jules Dassin noir is by far the best of the Hollywood prison dramas of the 30s and 40s. A convict (Burt Lancaster) is taunted by a sadistic guard (Hume Cronyn) and plans an escape. It’s a pretty violent film for the 1940s, and was inspired by the 1946 Battle of Alcatraz in which three cons and two guards were killed. Charles Bickford, Whit Bissell and Sam Levene are excellent as fellow cons.
9. In the Name of the Father (1993): This is based on the true story of Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis) of the Guildford Four, wrongly convicted of an IRA bombing that killed four British soldiers and a civilian. The four were coerced into confessions by torture and threats against their families. The real IRA terrorists, captured later for another act, confessed to the crime, but the British government suppressed the evidence of the Guildford Four’s innocence. Gerry Conlon wound up in prison with his father Giuseppe (Pete Postlethwaite), also convicted of an IRA plot as a member of the Maguire Seven. Nominated for seven Oscars.
10. The Jericho Mile (1979): Peter Strauss plays a convict training for the mile race that he will not be released to run. This was shot on location at California’s infamous Folsom Prison. This opening clip is a time capsule of Folsom in the late 70s.
Other Notable Prison Movies
Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957): This epic is about surviving a brutal Japanese POW camp in WWII. And at 161 minutes, with a cast of thousands and the direction of David Lean it is an epic by any definition. Alec Guinness, William Holden and Sessue Hayakawa give excellent performances.
Escape from Alcatraz (1979): This is another movie based on a true story: the three convicts who escaped from Alcatraz and were never heard from again. Don Siegel delivers a solid procedural with Clint Eastwood in the lead. It’s probably the best Hollywood prison escape movie.
Capote (2005): This is the true story of Truman Capote writing his masterpiece In Cold Blood. Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as Capote and Clifton Collins, Jr., plays convicted killer Perry Smith. The best scenes are those where Capote visits Smith in his prison cell to cajole and seduce information out of him.
I Want to Live! (1958): Susan Hayward’s performance as a good hearted but very unlucky floozy won her an Oscar. It’s about a party girl who takes up with a couple of lowlifes. The lowlifes commit a murder and pin it on her. There is a great jazz soundtrack and a dramatic walk to The Chair.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932): This is the granddaddy of prison movies. In one of his most famous performances, Paul Muni plays a man wrongfully imprisoned in a Southern chain gang, where he undergoes horrific brutality until he can escape. The movie is based on the true story of Robert Eliot Burns (although Burns really did steal the $5.29 for food money) in the Georgia penal system. The Georgia Prison Commission sued Warner Brothers for libel and lost. Burns’ book and the movie helped reform the chain gangs.
Sullivan’s Travels (1941): This great Preston Sturges comedy is about a pretentious movie director who goes slumming to discover The Real America. In one of his adventures, he is wrongly sentenced to a chain gang, which is a hilarious send-up of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.
The Green Mile (1999) is a well-made and popular tale, but a little sappy for my taste. Tom Hanks and Michael Clarke Duncan star, and are baked up by an excellent cast: David Morse, Patricia Clarkson, James Cromwell, Harry Dean Stanton, Barry Pepper, Sam Rockwell and Graham Greene
Birdman of Alcatraz (1962): This is on every list of famous prison movies, but I’ve never liked it.