Prison Essay, Research Paper
The first prison films in American cinema were short documentaries and melodramas which all shared a strong social consciousness. For The Commonwealth (1912) showed the benefits of convicts performing useful labor; The Convict's Parole (1912) and The Convict King (1915) denounced the exploitation of prisoners as cheap workers. Convict Life In The Ohio Penitentiary (1912) and The Modern Prison (1914) depicted the beneficial effects of the humane treatment of convicts; Life In A Western Penitentiary (1913) warned lawbreakers of the sufferings awaiting them behind bars, and The Exposure Of The Delaware Whipping Post (1914) sang the praises of the lash (which would not be retired in Delaware until 1972). The Honor System (1917), directed by Raoul Walsh, attacked the mistreatment of inmates and included a dramatic prison-break sequence. Capital punishment was criticized by Lois Weber's The People Vs. John Doe (1916) and the modern story of D.W. Griffith's classic Intolerance (1916), as well as by The Girl And The Crisis (1917) and Who Shall Take My Life? (1917). The 1920s saw far fewer of these social-minded prison films (along with a similar decrease in the crime genre); the rare exceptions include Within The Law (1923) and Capital Punishment (1925). Prison riots in the summer of 1929 gave the topic currency, at first on stage and then in films. The talkies saw the birth of a genre with The Big House (1930), directed by George Hill, produced by William Randolph Hearst, and written by Frances Marion and Martin Flavin. Historian Carlos Clarens described the line-up of characters introduced by this landmark film, which came to typify the genre: "the semi-hysterical weakling victimized by both guards and fellow prisoners, the informer, the ineffectual warden, the guard who deals out unnecessary punishment, and the strong-willed [convict] leader" (Crime Movies, 1980). The film also treated audiences to such genre hits as the prison riot, as well as a depiction of the alternative society which inmates create for themselves — a world with its own slang, hierarchies, laws, and punishments. Although it recognized the brutal life of incarceration, The Big House avoided condemning the system itself and instead blamed the most gross injustices on the character deficiencies of bad apples among both prisoners and guards. Nevertheless, the notion that the criminal and society are locked together in a vicious cycle of transgression and punishment, bringing out the worst in both of them, soon began taking hold as the genre developed. The success of The Big House guaranteed that more prison tales would follow, starting with two spoofs of the new genre. Up The River (1930), directed by John Ford, had its convicts residing comfortably in the pen, breaking out to help a buddy, and then returning to jail! The film gave Spencer Tracy his first role in a feature; he was then a star on the New York stage in the prison drama The Last Mile. Pardon Us (1931) featured Laurel and Hardy as bootleggers who get sent to the slammer (and used the sets left over from The Big House). A serious prison drama, Ladies Of The Big House (1931), directed by Marion Gering and starring Sylvia Sidney, initiated what would become a popular sub-genre in the 1950s: the women's prison film. Among the follow-ups in the '30s and '40s were the fact-based Ladies They Talk About (1933), starring Barbara Stanwyck and directed by Howard Bretherton and William Keighley; Women In Prison (1938), directed by Lambert Hillyer; Prison Girl (1942), directed by William Beaudine; Girls In Chains (1943), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer; and Girls Of The Big House (1945), directed by George Archainbaud. Otherwise, the prison genre focused on men — making it congenial to that auteur of male-bonding, Howard Hawks, who directed The Criminal Code (1931), an adaptation of Martin Flavin's hit play, which starred Walter Huston, Phillips Holmes, and Boris Karloff. Hawks brought an eye for realism to his depiction of guards and convicts, even as his film downplayed Flavin's social protest. The sound film's first serious indictment of the penal system was the classic I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932), directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Paul Muni starred as an innocent man railroaded into serving time on a chain gang in a character based on Robert Elliott Burns, a real-life escapee from a Georgia chain gang. Burns had rehabilitated his life and was a model citizen until his secret was betrayed to the police. He returned voluntarily to the chain gang, having been assured by Georgia officials that he would serve only a short time and then be paroled, but the state reneged on its promise after he was re-incarcerated. A year later, Burns escaped a second time, went into hiding, and wrote an expos? of his treatment. I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang softened Burns' initial criminal past, but the film was faithful to his unfair treatment and provoked a nationwide protest that ultimately led to the end of chain gangs in 1937. Other prison films of the time also took a more critical stance against the mistreatment of convicts. Hell's Highway (1932), directed by Rowland Brown and starring Richard Dix, attacked cruelty in convict camps. The Last Mile (1932), directed by Sam Bischoff, brought John Wexley's Death Row play to the screen, with Preston Foster as the condemned killer Mears. Perhaps as consolation for not playing the character that had been his stage triumph, Spencer Tracy starred the following year in 20,000 Years In Sing Sing, directed by Michael Curtiz. The early '30s also saw the introduction of another sub-genre, the reform-school film, with Hell's House (1932), directed by Howard Higgin and starring Junior Durkin. School For Girls (1935), directed by William Nigh and starring Sidney Fox, offered a rare look at a female institution; normally, this sub-genre stuck to imprisoned boys during these early years, most notably with The Mayor Of Hell (1933), directed by Archie Mayo and starring James Cagney as a politician who battles to end abuses in a reform school. The film would be remade twice before the end of the decade, both times with the Dead End Kids, as Crime School (1938), directed by Lewis Seiler, and Hell's Kitchen (1939), directed by Seiler and E.A. Dupont. A rosier look at reform-school life came with sentimentalized accounts of Father Flanagan's humane approach to delinquent teens, Boys Town (1938) and Men Of Boys Town (1941), directed by Norman Taurog and starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. Flanagan's spirit also hovered over the prison dramas Mutiny In The Big House (1938) and Men Without Souls (1940), in which padres Charles Bickford and John Litel, respectively, try to win over hard-bitten convict Barton MacLane (who starred in both films!) Prison films remained popular right up to the start of World War II. Humphrey Bogart was behind bars in San Quentin (1937), directed by Lloyd Bacon, and You Can't Get Away With Murder (1939), directed by Lewis Seiler. Innocent reporter James Cagney and mobster George Raft were fellow inmates in Each Dawn I Die (1939), directed by William Keighley. John Garfield starred as a convict in Dust Be My Destiny (1939), directed by Seiler and written by Robert Rossen, and director Anatole Litvak's Castle On The Hudson (1940), a remake of 20,000 Years In Sing Sing. Other 1930s prison films include director John Brahm's Penitentiary (1938), a remake of The Criminal Code; Prison Nurse (1938), directed by James Cruze; Prison Farm (1938), directed by Louis King; and Prison Break (1938) and The Big Guy (1939), both directed by Arthur Lubin. The war years saw a dip in the prison and crime genres, but the thrill of cinematic violence and rebellion reasserted itself once the war was over. Prison films became increasingly rough, starting with the landmark Brute Force (1947), directed by Jules Dassin and written by Richard Brooks. Hume Cronyn was the sadistic guard who plays the music of Richard Wagner while he beats inmates; Burt Lancaster and Charles Bickford were among the convicts driven to mutiny. Escape (1948), directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, starred Rex Harrison as an innocent man who breaks out after his unjust imprisonment; Philip Dunne adapted the John Galsworthy story. The 1950s was a heady decade for prison films, although few of them were as distinguished as the realistic Riot In Cell Block 11 (1954), produced by Walter Wanger (himself a former convict) and directed on location at Folsom Prison by Don Siegel. The big-house action included Under The Gun (1950), directed by Ted Tetzlaff; Hell On Devil's Island (1957), directed by Christian Nyby; Cell 2455, Death Row (1955), a dramatization of real-life convicted killer Caryl Chessman and his doomed efforts to secure a retrial, and the more generic Escape From San Quentin (1957), both directed by Fred F. Sears. The Criminal Code was remade again as Convicted (1950); The Big Guy became Behind The High Wall (1956); and The Last Mile was also filmed again in 1959, with Mickey Rooney as Killer Mears. More offbeat looks at life behind bars include the Elvis Presley musical Jailhouse Rock (1957) and the spoof My Six Convicts (1952), directed by Hugo Fregonese and produced by Stanley Kramer. Interest in youth behind bars was kept warm with Edward Bernds' Reform School Girl (1957) and Riot In Juvenile Prison (1959), directed by Edward L. Cahn. The women's prison film gained new life with the intelligent and disturbing Caged (1950), directed by John Cromwell and starring Eleanor Parker, Agnes Moorehead, and Hope Emerson. The follow-ups included Women's Prison (1955), directed by Lewis Seiler and starring Ida Lupino and Jan Sterling; Girls In Prison (1956), directed by Edward L. Cahn; the fact-based I Want To Live (1958), directed by Robert Wise and starring Susan Hayward; and producer Albert Zugsmith's Girls Town (1959), with Mamie Van Doren. Foreign films offered a more provocative look at the prison film. The great Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini made two very different looks at convict life: the ironic comedy Dov'e La Liberta…? (1953), starring Toto as an ex-con who finds life more meaningful behind bars, and General Della Rovere (1959), with Vittorio De Sica as a con man imprisoned by the Nazis so he can impersonate a dead Italian general and inform on the Resistance; instead, he lives up to his role's reputation and becomes an inspiration for his fellow prisoners. The Japanese film Women In Prison (1957), directed by Seiji Hisamatsu, was an unusually realistic account and even included a look at lesbian life in prison. From France came the classic short Un Chant D'Amour (1950), the only film written and directed by the great author Jean Genet, who had established himself with a series of poetic, autobiographical novels of prison life, in which he exalted crime and homosexuality. Un Chant D'Amour is an impressionistic hymn to the prisoners' indomitable life spirit, showing how they manage to eroticize even such a seemingly innocent act as the sharing of a cigarette. Homosexuality had been the unspoken reality of prison life in earlier films, despite occasional allusions in works as different as the grim Hell's Highway and Charlie Chaplin's classic comedy Modern Times (1936). It began moving closer to the fore with the gradual relaxation of censorship in the 1960s, turning up in prison films such as Millard Kaufman's fact-based Convicts Four (1962) and the brutal Riot (1969), directed by Buzz Kulik and produced by William Castle. The more popular prison films of the time, however, still avoided homosexuality: the thoughtful and moving Birdman Of Alcatraz (1962), directed by John Frankenheimer, with Burt Lancaster as real-life convicted killer Robert Stroud, who became a respected ornithologist while serving time; producer/director Tony Richardson's reform-school drama The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner (1962), written by Alan Sillitoe and starring Tom Courtenay as an inmate who gives meaning to his life by becoming a marathon runner; the harsh stockade drama The Hill (1965), directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Sean Connery; and the chain-gang tale Cool Hand Luke (1967), directed by Stuart Rosenberg, with memorable performances by Paul Newman and Strother Martin as models of rebellion and authority, respectively. By the late 1960s, the women's-prison genre saw dramas such as House Of Women (1962, aka Ladies Of The Mob) and The Smashing Bird I Used To Know (1969, aka School For Unclaimed Girls; House Of Unclaimed Women) replaced by exploitation films that offered audiences titillating tales of scantily clad women fondling and fighting each other. Horror-film specialist Jesus Franco directed many such movies over the years, including 99 Women (1968, aka Isle Of Lost Women), Caged Women (1975, aka Barbed Wire Dolls; Women's Penitentiary IV), Women In Cell Block 9 (1977), and Gefangene Frauen (1980). These low-budget crowd-pleasers also launched new talents such as Johnathan Demme, who went from writing Black Mama, White Mama (1972) and The Hot Box (1972) to his first directing effort, the cult film Caged Heat (1974), with Barbara Steele as the evil warden. Actress Pam Grier made a career in these films, including The Big Doll House (1971, aka Women's Penitentiary I) and The Big Bird Cage (1972, aka Women's Penitentiary II), both directed by Jack Hill, and Women In Cages (1972, aka Women's Penitentiary III). Linda Blair kept busy acting in Chained Heat (1983), Savage Island (1985), and Red Heat (1988). Other popular films include Sweet Sugar (1972, aka Chaingang Girls; Captive Women 3); Michael Miller's Jackson County Jail (1976), starring Yvette Mimieux; Women In Cell Block 7 (1977), directed by Rino Di Silvestro; Concrete Jungle (1982), directed by Tom DeSimone, with Jill St. John and Barbara Luna; Escape from Women's Prison (1985), directed by Conrad Brueghel; and Purgatory (1989), directed by Ami Artzi and starring Tanya Roberts. The strongest prison films of the 1970s took their sources from the actual experiences of inmates. Fortune And Men's Eyes (1971), directed by Harvey Hart and adapted by John Herbert from his autobiographical play, revealed homosexual rape as an expression not of erotic desire but of power and control between inmates. This dynamic was also explored in the stunning Short Eyes (1977), directed by Robert M. Young. Ex-convict Miguel Pinero adapted his harrowing, realistic play, which also depicted the racism between black, white, and Latino inmates, and the corruption and violence of guards. Tom Courtenay starred in One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich (1971), an adaptation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's autobiographical account of how a prisoner survives for one more day in a Soviet prison camp. Two popular tales of real-life prison escapes rewrote history as it suited their narratives: Midnight Express (1978), directed by Alan Parker and written by Oliver Stone, starred Brad Davis as Billy Hayes, an American who was brutalized in a Turkish prison; Escape From Alcatraz (1979), produced and directed by Don Siegel, starred Clint Eastwood as Frank Morris, the convict who spearheaded the only escape from the infamous maximum-security prison. Other prison films of the period include the serio-comic tales The Slams (1973), directed by Johnathan Kaplan, and The Longest Yard (1974), directed by Robert Aldrich; the brutal Scum (1979), directed by Alan Clarke, set in a British reform school; the realistic On The Yard (1979), directed by Raphael D. Silver and produced by Joan Micklin Silver; and Jamaa Fanaka's series of exploitation films spawned by his Penitentiary (1979), with Leon Isaac Kennedy. Since the 1970s, television has unexpectedly produced several quality films about prison life, most notably the downbeat and realistic The Glass House (1972), directed by Tom Gries and written by Tracy Keenan Wynn, starring Alan Alda, Vic Morrow, and Billy Dee Williams. Alda also scored as Caryl Chessman in Kill Me If You Can (1977), directed by Buzz Kulik. George Grizzard played writer Tom Wicker, who was brought in to negotiate with rebelling inmates, in Attica (1980), an adaptation of Wicker's book A Time To Die; the film was a grim account of the 1971 uprising at the New York penitentiary, which was squelched by then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the most lethal instance of Americans killing Americans since the Civil War. Director John Frankenheimer recounted the same catastrophic events in Against The Wall (1994). Gideon's Trumpet (1980) starred Henry Fonda as Clarence Earl Gideon, a semi-literate prisoner who changed American legal history by having his conviction overturned on the grounds that he'd been too poor to afford a lawyer. For The Executioner's Song (1982), Norman Mailer adapted his book about convicted killer Gary Gilmore, who fought not to escape execution but to be put to death. Television also dipped into the exploitation waters of the women's-prison film, with the notorious Born Innocent (1974), starring Linda Blair, and Michael Miller's Outside Chance (1978), starring Yvette Mimieux. But it also gave women the opportunity to describe the lives of female prisoners, with Prison Stories: Women On The Inside (1991), directed by Donna Deitch, Joan Micklin Silver, and Penelope Spheeris. In recent years, the prison film has remained vital, offering a special openness to such disparate perspectives as social protest, comedy, biography, avant-garde experimentalism, and exploitation. Stir (1980), directed by Stephen Wallace from Ben Jewson's autobiographical script, looked at abuses in an Australian penitentiary. John McVicar, England's former Public Enemy Number 1, adapted his book about his experiences for McVicar (1980), directed by Tom Clegg and starring Roger Daltry. The fact-based Brubaker (1980), directed by Stuart Rosenberg, starred Robert Redford as a crusading warden. Turkish filmmaker Yilmaz Guney, himself a political prisoner who escaped incarceration, made a blistering indictment of the penal abuses in his homeland with The Wall (1983). Kiss Of The Spider Woman (1985), directed by Hector Babenco and adapted by Leonard Schrader from Manuel Puig's novel, starred William Hurt and Raul Julia as cellmates in a South American prison, a gay window dresser and a political radical who instead of informing on each other become lovers and accomplices. Director Mai Zetterling offered a tough look at the lives of girls in reform school with Scrubbers (1982). Weeds (1987) starred Nick Nolte as a lifer who becomes a successful playwright, in a tale based on the experiences of convict Rick Cluchey (whose drama The Cage, performed by the San Quentin Drama Workshop, was videotaped and released in 1991). Meri Per Sempre (1989, aka Forever Mary), directed by Marco Risi, starred Michele Placido as a teacher who tries to help students in a harsh Sicilian reformatory. Jim Sheridan's In The Name Of The Father (1993) starred Daniel Day-Lewis as real-life Irish political prisoner Gerry Conlon, who was wrongly imprisoned by the British government for 15 years. Recent spoofs include Stir Crazy (1980), directed by Sidney Poitier and starring Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor; Jim Varney in Ernest Goes To Jail (1990); and the campy satires Reform School Girls (1986), directed by Tom DeSimone, and The Boys Of Cellblock Q (1993), directed by Alan Daniels. Low-budget exploitation of women persists with Caged Fury (1990), directed by Bill Milling, and Lust For Freedom (1992), directed by Eric Louzil. The big-budget exploitation of men includes the brutal Bad Boys (1983), starring Sean Penn and Esai Morales, Lock Up (1989) with Sylvester Stallone and Donald Sutherland, and An Innocent Man (1989), starring Tom Selleck. Although not strictly prison movies, two '90s films have also offered memorable looks at life behind bars: Spike Lee's biopic Malcolm X (1992) features Albert Hall as the convict who converts Malcolm to Islam during their incarceration; Todd Haynes' stylish and provocative Poison (1991) includes surreal, homoerotic prison sequences inspired by the writings of Genet. More recent entries in the prison genre include 1994's The Shawshank Redemption, a superior drama that paints a most realistic portrait of prison life — filmed in an actual prison and starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman — and 1995's Dead Man Walking, starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, in which the highly charged issue of capital punishment is sensitively and effectively explored. All told, prison seems destined to remain the place Americans least want to visit — except at the movies.