Top Five Prison Films

Written by Matteo Sedazzari
  • font size decrease font size increase font size
  • Print
  • Email
 /Prison Films 1

Prisons, with their collection of colourful personalities, is bound to create a melting pot of incidents and situations, that makes everyday a challenge and eventful for the staff and inmates. A habitation, where acts of humanity and brutality rub shoulders regularly.

Considering these factors, it is no wonder that the prison film genre has been immensely popular since the birth of the cinema. Backed with a grim setting, the concept of a prison gives the filmmaker the opportunity to create a plot and sub plots, that offers interesting and interweaving story lines, with an array of strong characters. From the commercial aspect the audience are given a dynamite story line, which allows the actors to demonstrate their skills, as they absorb us into the film.

1. The Glass House (1972)

The Glass House 1972Based on a short story, by the late great American writer, Truman Capote, comes this made for TV film. A little unknown gem that you might come across late one night on cable TV. Well it only goes without saying that any film that uses the work of the author of In Cold Blood, is certainly going to be a fierce and intelligent one.   

Filmed entirely on location at Utah State Prison, (The prison that executed Gary Gilmore). The film gives an authentic feel of the barrenness and asperity within the confines of a Prison.   The film begins as new arrivals, worldly political science professor, Jonathan Page (Alan Alda), naïve and nervous student Allan Campbell (Kristoffer Tabori) and good willed Prison Officer (Chu Gulager) enter the prison.

All three are unprepared for the acrimonious culture of the prison, and the barbarous administration, which is not imposed by The Warden (Dean Jagger), but by fellow inmate Hugo Slocum (Vic Morrow). A man that controls the contraband that comes into the prison, and has the final say on what goes on. Slocum feels invincible, and believes no one be it prisoner or staff, will stand up to him. 

Yet when new inmate Paige begins work at the prison pharmacy, which is Slocum’s main source supply of drugs to the inside, Paige takes the brave step (or what some might perceive as a foolish one) and decides to cut off Slocum’s pipeline. This action, of course, results in major conflict between Slocum and Paige.

 Whilst waiting to seek his revenge on Paige, Slocum focuses his attention on Paige’s gullible cellmate Campbell. Slocum uses his superficial charm to manipulate the boy. Furthermore Campbell is gang raped when he rejects Slocum’s advances. Resulting with Campbell’s suicide. Paige now knows it is war. With only one conclusion, that one of them will leave the prison in a body bag. 

Considering the aggressive and brutal feel of The Glass House, it would have been easy for cast and crew to fill the screen with blood, guts and carnage. Yet The Glass House is an emotional film, that studies people and how they adapt to severe living conditions.

 Moreover the film shows how men will govern other men to achieve power, and that compassion is a fading memory of your childhood.  Everything you fear about a prison daddy is illustrated to a t by a tour de force performance by Vic Morrow, which is worthy of an Oscar, yet as The Glass House was made for TV, sadly that opportunity was never given to Morrow. 

2.I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932)

I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (Based on the writings of Robert Elliott Burns) is a poignant and melodramatic film that criticises the social injustice and the barbaric incarceration that occurred in the US Southern states after World War One. Burns was the technical advisor to Warner Bros during the making of the film, and interestingly enough, was a fugitive at the time.

I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang  1932.

Sgt James Allen (Paul Muni), returns to his small hometown Lynndale, after the war. Filled with ambition and determination to succeed in engineering and not to work in his former job as a clerk in the Parker Manufacturing (The Home of Kumfort Shoes.) However still needing an income, Allen returns to the shoe factory, though he spends the day watching a bridge being built in the distance, believing that one-day this could be him. The urge is too much, so Allen packs his bags and goes in search of a better life.

Yet what Allen experiences, are periods of unemployment, and brief stints in minimal jobs. He starts to drift from town to town across the US. As his dreams start to fade, so does his appearance as he transcends from a confident young man into a weary hobo.  Tired, hungry, penniless and now in the south US. The exact town where Allen ends up, is never revealed in the film. However common belief, is that it is in Georgia. Which lead to the film being banned for a number of years in the state of Georgia.

 Allen bumps into fellow vagrant Pete (Preston Foster). Pete persuades Allen to join him in begging at the local diner for a couple of hamburgers. Just as Allen believe he is in burger heaven, Pete tries to rob the place with a gun. The attempted robbery is intervened by a passing policeman, who shoots Pete and arrests Allen as an accomplice.

Now his journey for personal fulfilment has turned into a bedlam of fear and pain. As Allen is sentenced to ten years hard labour at County Camp No 2. A labour camp notorious for its fierce and inhumane environment.

Allen becomes determined to escape. Which he does thanks to the pinpoint accuracy of African American convict Sebastian (Everett Brown), who breaks Allen’s shackles with his sledgehammer whilst they are out on a work trip.  After an heroic escape from the camp, with bloodhounds at his heels across the swamplands of the south, Allen winds up in Chicago. Where he reinvents himself as Allen James, and finds work as a construction engineer. At last Allen feels that he has found his Nirvana, until his flirtatious blonde bombshell landlady Marie Woods, (Glenda Farrell), finds out that he is an escaped convict.

 Blackmailed into marriage, Allen is once again a prisoner, until he finds true love with society woman Helen (Helen Vinson). Allen pleads with Marie for a divorce, and in turn she decides to hand Allen over to the police. Allen is once again put on trial. Yet this time with the support of Chicago State, Allen is offered a deal. He must return to prison for ninety days, and he will be fully pardoned by the Southern State, Allen agrees.

Once back in the south, Allen is denied the initial bargain and returns to an even harder chain gang. His hopes are dashed, and escape is his only option, which he does for a second time. Allen disappears off the face of the earth, for over a year. Until one night Allen comes from out of the shadows to make a brief farewell to his former fiancé Helen. Allen is now a broken man and living like a hunted animal. Helen asks Allen “How do you live”, scared and desperate Allen fades back into the shadows and replies “ I steal” darkness falls.

 The effective ending of an abrupt blackout (which came about due to a light and fuse blowing during rehearsal) is a perfect ending to the film, that is harrowing throughout. Over the years the film as been perceived, as being instrumental in bringing the demise of the Chain Gangs in the early 30’s. Whether this was the case, that remains to be seen. Nevertheless, it is still a powerful and classic film. 

3. Brute Force (1947)

Brute Force 1947The title says it all, an explosive and fierce prison drama which centres around the callous and sadist prison guard Capt. Munsey (Hume Cronyn) and his insensitive relationships with the inmates. Which is a regime of brutality and cruelty, which Munsey relishes as each inmate pleds for mercy. Munsey does not believe in rehabilitation only punishment.

However Capt. Munsey is playing a dangerous game, as he is dealing with incarcerated men, who are growing tired and weary of this unnecessary punishment. Dr Walters, the prison GP, (Art Smith), who foretells that the prison could explode with devastating consequences. Yet Munsey will have none of it. As the scene is set for an inevitable ignitable confrontation.

 One thing about Brute Force, even though it is an effective film of the film noir genre, is the way that the film takes a compassionate view of the inmates. Brute Force portrays Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster, in one of his first staring roles), as a tough prisoner with a big heart.

 Moreover as the film moves away from the gritty violence of the prison, there is a flashback scene where some of the inmates speak about their journey into prison. Tom Lister (Whit Bissell), the accountant who cooked the company’s books to buy his wife a fur coat. The Solider (Howard Duff), who fell in love with an Italian girl and took the rap when she murdered her father and loveable rogue Spencer (John Hoyt), the charismatic con man.

However the benevolent view of the prisoners was due more to MGM, than the director Julius Dassin. Who detached himself from the film shortly afterwards, as he did not want the prisoners to be seen as reputable. Even with MGM’s intervention of the film, Brute Force still offers a strong illustration of how man can exploit man. Which may have been Dassin’s biggest objective.

 Being of Jewish descent, and with Brute Force being made shortly after the 2nd World War. Dassin may have felt that this was an opportunity to show the world via the cinema, of how the Jews were treated in the Nazi concentration camps.

 There is certainly a feel of a boot camp, and apart from the flashback scene, Brute Force moves rapidly through a violent excursion. A journey that witnesses the brutal murder of prison grass Wilson, as he is pushed into a compactor and the beating of a prisoner bound to a chair. Munsey demonstrates more of his baneful side along the route, by pushing popular prison Lister to suicide.

 From the suicide, Munsey is given more power as the prison withdraws privileges and parole hearings. Chaos starts to sweep through the prison. As Collins along with Gallagher (Charles Bickford), whose parole has been denied, attempt to break out. But Munsey thwarts their plan.
With nothing left to lose, the prison became lawless and a major riot breaks out. With the climate scene of Munsey, getting his comeuppance, by being thrown off a high guard-tower screaming, into a rampant and revengeful crowd.

 The violence in Brute Force may not be as graphic as today’s films, yet it still shows what people will do in a brutal environment, if thoughtfulness no longer exists. However if MGM had allowed Dassin to make the film the way he wanted to, then perhaps Brute Force may have been perceived as one the as a bigger classic than it already is. 
4. Two Way Stretch (1960)

Following on from the tradition of Ealing Comedies, The Lady-Killers, The Green Man and many more who had stopped making films the previous year. Comes along this great British comedy classic, Two-Way Stretch.

Two Way Stretch  1960.jpg

Two Way Stretchis a light-hearted affair that does not attempt to alarm or intrigue the audience. The film’s only intention is the make you laugh. With such a strong array of great British actors, it is hard not raise a smile during this little treat. > The film centres around three prisoners Dodger Lane (Peter Sellers), Lennie (The Dip) Price (Bernard Cribbins) and Jelly Knight(David Lodge), who are detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure. However their incarceration is far from being a burden. In fact they live a life of luxury with all mod cons. In addition they are the blue eyed boys to the Prison Governor, Horatio Bennett (Maurice Bennett), who allows them their idyllic existence and Dodger Lane’s business to flourish. Lane and his lads, really are the living and breathing examples of the then British Prime Minster Harold Macmillan’s famous 1957 quote ‘You Have Never Had It So Good'.

 In the guise of a vicar, fellow con arrives, Soapy Stevens (Wilfrid Hyde –White) on visiting day. Who informs Lane and the boys, of the possible robbery of a trunkful of diamonds being sent to an Indian Maharajah. Soapy will make the arrangements so the lads can break out, commit the theft, and be back in their cell in time for tea. The boys will have a cast iron alibi and be a little better off. > To Lane and his cronies, it seems like a stroll in the park. But circumstances have a knack of changing, when you least expect it. The Prison Governor, Horatio Bennett retires, and in comes new chief Prison Officer Sidney Kraut (Lionel Jeffries). Kraut has every intention of enforcing a tougher and stricter regime. Not only will this upset Lane and the boys with their creature comforts, but it also throws the robbery into jeopardy. So begins a great cat and mouse game between captor and captives, as Lane and the boys do everything they can to see out the heist.

Sellers is breathtaking to watch, but it would be unfair to say he steals the show. However from his performance, it is easy to see why world wide stardom beckoned. Yet the entire cast pulls together to give great comic performances. Jeffries is ingenious in creating a po-faced character who you love to hate.
A brilliant comic rivalry is forged in Two-Way Stretch, between Jeffries and Sellers and the relationship was developed further three years later, in The Long Arm Of Law. Sellers again represents the criminal fraternity whilst Jeffries personifies the stiff upper lip of the law. A comedy partnership that should have lasted for many films, oh well, but at least we are treated to the odd one.> The shapely Liz Fraser, as Lane’s gangster moll adds the glamour. Fraser had amazing comedy presence, as well as beauty, and always in demand with the likes of Hancock and the Carry On team. As was the demand for comic legend Irene Handel, who is the mother type figure to the boys. Fraser and Handel credentials are unquestionable in British cinema, as they appeared in fourteen films together, including The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. A cinematic partnership that has been unjustly underrated and unnoticed by many.

Many cite Two Way Stretch as the forerunner to Porridge. You can see glimpses of Fletcher in Lane, and Mckay in Kraut. It is not hard to imagine Porridge creators Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais watching this film, and taking notes. Perhaps, when they cast Maurice Denham as The Honourable Mr Justice Stephen Rawlay, as the judge who sent Fletcher down in two episodes of the show. It may have been their way of saying thank you to a film that has made and continues to make so many people laugh on a Sunday afternoon.

5. Brubaker (1980)

Brubaker 1980Like I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, Brubaker is based on a true story. Accomplices to the Crime: The Arkansas Prison Scandal, (1969)  by ex Prison Warden Tom Morton ( with co-author Joe Hyams), which is an account of the hardships, scandal and brutality that he witnessed, as the warden at  Arkansas prison. In 1968, after exposing many acts of perniciousness, especially the discovery of 3 bodies in the prison farm, and it was predicated that a further 200 bodies buried were there. Morton was expelled by the same administration that had employed him to clear up the prison, Rockefeller.

 In fact Morton was told to leave the state with 24 hours, or he may be charged with grave robbing. A charge that could see a man sentenced for 21 years under Arkansas laws in the 60’s. However Morton did mange to bring his appalling data to the attention of the US public and the media, notably to publications like Time Magazine and Newsweek. Which added further abashment to the Rockefeller administration. Driven by rage and a sense of injustice, Morton released the book a year later. Determined to make his mark in social charge. However it was not until 11 years later, that his book would become a film.

 Brubaker opens with the one of the most dramatic entrances of a leading man, the movie world has ever seen. Henry Brubaker (Robert Redford) enters the Wakefield Prison Farm, incognito, as a prisoner. Where he encounters the true sadism nature of Wakefield, which is enforced by armed Prison trusties, replacing salaried prison guards. Brubaker bites his lip, as he witnesses the slum living conditions that the inmates have to endure.

Then Brubaker breaks his silence, after a confrontational situation with some of the prison trusties and prisoners. Brubaker had made his mark, and now he wants to change Wakefield for the better. The film’s introduction to Brubaker may have been fictionalised from Morton’s book. Yet it could  been influenced by Washington journalist Ben Bagdikian, who spent 6 days undercover in a maximum-security prison.

Once Brubaker has established his authority, he enters into a labyrinth of distrust and deceit.  Furthermore the harsh bullying that he has witnessed, is just an extension of a wider corruption that is within the walls of Wakefield prison. It seems that Wakefield is using the inmates for pure profit for those in power, and the unwilling workers are treated like slaves. The director of the police has a motel built for him, whilst the district judge has his show horses kept on the prison farm. Even parole is being sold at $1,000 a time. Brubaker will not stand for any of this.

The film comes to a stalwart conclusion when Brubaker is informed of the possible graveyard of 200 unknown corpses in the prison farm. A part of the film that reflects the true plight of Morton. Yet when Abraham Cook (Richard Ward) informs Brubaker of the graves, the inmates use the infamous Tucker Telephone, an instrument that sends electric currents throughout the prisoner’s body, to seal his fate. Devastated, but unperturbed by his friend’s death, Brubaker goes deeper to expose all that is rotten at Wakefield.

A collection of films, which have pure high value entertainment, and in some cases the stories, can question our morality as a society. Each with strong plots with mesmerising performances.

One of the strengths of the prison film is that the audience is taken into the unknown, where survival by any means necessary is the key. An environment of paranoia is created, where the smallest gesture of goodwill is savoured with both hands, and a smile is a rare commodity. Enough to make you appreciate your life on the outside.

The prison film gives us a critical insight into human interaction, and what man will do to man, whether it is kindness or spit. They are great case studies, and brings to our attention what might really go on behind bars. In addition, for years to come, these films will continue to keep our minds captive, as we watch with relish the story of captivity and its affects.

Words Matteo Sedazzari/ ZANI Media
Read 6237 times Last modified on Friday, 08 May 2015 16:30
Rate this item
(0 votes)
Matteo Sedazzari

Matteo Sedazzari

About Us

ZANI was conceived in late 2008 and the fan base gradually grew by word of mouth. Key contributors came from those of the music, film and fashion industry and the voice of ZANI grew louder. So, when in 2013 investor, contributor and fan of ZANI Alan McGee* offered his support to help restyle and relaunch the site it was inevitable that traffic would increase dramatically and continues to grow. *Alan McGee co-founder of Creation Records and new label 359 Music..


What We Do

ZANI is an independent online magazine for readers interested in contemporary culture, covering Music, Film & TV, Sport, Art amongst other cultural topics. Relevant to modern times ZANI is a dynamic website and a flagship for creative movement and thinking wherever our readers live in the world.