Friday, February 5, 2016

Busting Out of Prison, Cinema-Style

We in Southern California don’t seem very good at keeping our felons where they belong. Over the last few weeks, we’ve listened breathlessly to news reports about three accused killers who escaped by rappelling down (via a rope of braided bedsheets) from the roof of an Orange County jail. The fact that they were considered armed and dangerous didn’t make us feel particularly good. I just read a harrowing story about a Vietnamese immigrant cab driver who was commandeered at gunpoint to drive the three around Northern California. At night in a seedy motel room, he listened to them arguing about whether or not to kill him.

They’re back in custody now (phew!), after more than a week of freedom. (Fortunately, the least vicious of the men, the one who ultimately turned himself in to authorities, saw fit to protect the cabbie from his murderous partner in crime.) But around the time they got caught, another inmate escaped, this one from an L.A. lockup. And this morning my newspaper brought me the story of an L.A. County gang member released by accident, even though a murder rap was pending. Oops!

The whole thing, of course, has got me thinking about movies. As we know, there are plenty of great films about dangerous convicts on the lam. Here’s one oldie: The Petrified Forest, starring Humphrey Bogart in a star-making role. It’s not Bogart but Leslie Howard who’s the movie’s hero, the character for whom we’re rooting. Bogart, though mesmerizing, is dangerous and scary: not anyone you’d want to hang out with. (Bogart was to play a similar role in The Desperate Hours, before permanently evolving into a movie good-guy.)

But it occurs to me that over the decades we’ve come to root (at least when we go to the movies) for convicts who manage to break free from their prison cells. Back in the Production Code days, it was a given that lawbreakers had to be punished and escapees had to be tracked down by the forces of law and order. Since then, though, we have developed a curious tendency to view prisoners with sympathy, seeing them as wrongly convicted or as guilty only of minor transgressions that we can somehow excuse. Perhaps it’s a holdover from the turbulent Sixties: today outlaws appeal to us as charismatic anti-heroes. The judges, the wardens, the prison guards: these are the people we mistrust, and we’re glad to see them thwarted in their attempts to bring down men and women who should be roaming free.

Examples? How about The Fugitive, both the TV series and the 1993 film, which focus on the flight of a man (Harrison Ford in the movie) wrongly convicted of his wife’s murder? Then there’s The Rock (1996): its plot is so convoluted as to defy description, but one of its chief heroes (Sean Connery) is the only man ever to escape from the fortress-like island we call Alcatraz. But the best example is The Shawkshank Redemption (1994), a film so well-loved that it was just added to the National Film Registry administered by the Library of Congress because of its cultural and aesthetic significance. Its protagonist (Tim Robbins), has been convicted of a double murder he didn’t commit. He suffers horrors like months of solitary confinement, but ultimately makes a triumphant escape.  

Then of course there are all those Roger Corman flicks I worked on – movies with titles like Caged Heat and The Big Bust Out --in which invariably innocent (and scantily clad) young ladies break away from their sadistic captors. But that’s a story for another day.

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