The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

The Big House

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Shawshank Redemption is a movie which is hypnotising in just how good it is. You know the type of film; whenever it’s on TV (which in this case it constantly is) you have to stop what you’re doing and watch it – one of those rare movies in which you don’t want to end. With the all the movies out there in which you find yourself checking how long is left of the running time, here is one in which you see there is a whole hour left and you’re glad; the mark of a truly great movie.

Carcerophobia is the fear of going to prison and is something which has crossed my mind in the past, partially brought on by movies like The Shawshank Redemption. Even if you’ve committed nothing illegal like Andy Dufresne, there is always that possibility that an honest law abiding citizen could end up in the slammer. The world of Shawshank State Penitentiary is one with little to no human rights, one with shocking but believable treatment from both the guards and fellow prisoners as they engage in brutal, sadistic acts. Regardless of what prisons around the world are like circa 2017, your “whole life (is) blown away in the blink of an eye, nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it”. The Shawshank Redemption may be one of Stephen King’s non horror works, but the prospect of going to prison for a crime you never committed gets under my skin.

One of the aspects of The Shawshank Redemption which intrigues me the most in the empire Andy builds while inside prison as well as an insight of the economics and commerce which goes on between the prisoners and guards. Just like Robert Stroud in Birdman of Alcatraz, he is still able to find meaning in his life despite being in what first looks like a hopeless situation; he is able to find hope in despair. This really does show that at the end of the day, knowledge is power. Likewise Andy sending a letter every week to the state government for prison library funding and ultimately playing with the system, always something which inspires me.

What makes Andy Dufresne such a great character? Like Tim Robbins himself, there is more than meets the eye. Robins has an intelligence to him and you can’t quite figure out what is going on behind his eyes, an actor with a mysterious aura to him and this comes through with the character of Andy. He is not like the rest of the prisoners, he’s a civilised gentleman thrown into the jungle that is prison but he’s not a sheltered fool ether and knows how to deal with his new surroundings. But why do I need to tell you this, the narration sums up his character perfectly in a beautiful and poetic manner – “I must admit I didn’t think much of Andy first time I laid eyes on him; looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over.” Likewise I also find myself very intrigued by the character of Brooks; just how does such a gentle soul end up in prison? Did he really commit a crime? Who knows?

Morgan Freeman has the ability to play wise old men without coming off as a stereotype or a cliché. His narration is describing what obviously appears in the film, so what makes it so great? Like the best film narration it’s to do with its poetic manner and the way in which it’s delivered; scenes in the film were shot to time with the pre-recorded voice over plus it goes without saying Freeman has one of the most heavenly voices ever. None of his dialogue is necessary for the advancement of the plot, yet what would the film be without it? There are just so many inspirational quotes.

The escape sequence itself so incredible yet at the same time is entirely believable and one of the most satisfying movie revenge plots. Many people always point out as to how Andy could reattach the poster to the wall when he begins his escape through the tunnel, even Frank Darabont acknowledges this on the DVD audio commentary although I am puzzled as to why this is made into a big deal. Andy could simply attach the poster to the wall at the top two corners and allow gravity to cover the remainder of the hole and simply crawl into it from below as if the poster where a curtain, likewise we never see on screen if the poster has been reattached on all four corners.

When I think of films which can convey an expansive range of powerful human emotions and feelings and act as a form of emotional therapy a few instantly come to my mind – It’s a Wonderful Life, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shawshank Redemption. Films which help one to break from the mental prisons of our life.

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

The Birds

Birdman of Alcatraz isn’t just a movie, it’s an experience. The story of a man who’s able to lead a meaning and productive life despite serving a life sentence in solitary confinement. A man who is able to create an empire of bird keeping and aviary research within the solitary confinement quarters of a prison. When I first watched the movie I only vaguely knew about the story and I was in awe as just how his empire gradually comes to be. I don’t know what it’s like to be isolated in a confined area for days on end but I suspect this movie may provide the closest feeling I could ever get to it; black & white cinematography and claustrophobic prison cells go hand in hand.

Birdman of Alcatraz made me a fan of Burt Lancaster. It was not the first film I had seen him in but it was the first at which I was struck at what an immense powerhouse of an actor he is, carrying a two and a half hour long, mostly single location picture. His portrayal of Robert Stroud is the classic characterisation of tough on the outside, soft on the inside but Lancaster’s immense performance prevents this from coming of as a corny dichotomy. Stroud’s relationship with his mother even has shades to the Cody Jarret mother complex; yet I find the most compelling relationship in the movie is of that between Stroud and the warden played by Karl Malden, which I feel is summed up with one line (and one of my favourite movie quotes), “That convict has been a thorn in my side for 35 years but I’ll give him one thing, he never lied to me.”

Like many biographical films, Birdman of Alcatraz receives criticism with the historical liberties taken; most prominently in this instance the fact that the real Robert Stroud was reportedly an incredibly unpleasant individual. I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again: Movies are not documentaries. When adapting a real life story to the screen, changes and liberties are likely going to be made for the sake of storytelling and entertainment; would a story closer to the truth have been more interesting? My second rebuttal to the ‘not historically accurate’ criticism is that how many people would even be aware of certain historical figures if it wasn’t for their film biopics; movies can act as a gateway to learning about history. After watching Birdman of Alcatraz I wanted to read about the real Robert Stroud, otherwise I might not have even heard of the man.

 

The Big House (1930)

You Know What They Do To Guys Up At The Big House!

I suspect The Big House helped birth many of the conventions, staples and slang terms which have come to define prison films. Many of the classic elements are here but they manage to feel fresh instead of coming of as worn out clichés.

The big impact this film had for me was that it made me a fan of two of its main stars, Robert Montgomery and Wallace Beery. The Big House made Beery a star, establishing his loveable lug persona and making him one of the biggest stars of the early 30’s and one of the most unconventional stars in Hollywood history. Beery has a contradictory screen persona as seen here as his role of Butch; a thuggish brute one minute but as gentle as a puppy the next. However I feel Robert Montgomery is the one who steals the show, even If he doesn’t have as much screen time as Beery and Chester Morris. Montgomery strikes me as the most interesting character in the film, as a privileged pretty boy convicted of manslaughter while drunk driving; he appears to be barely ready for adulthood, yet alone ready for serving 10 years in prison. Throughout the entire film you can tell he’s completely out of his element with his trembling manner and naive wide eyed stare. Unlike the rest of the prisoners he is not a criminal in the common sense, displaying how it’s a scary possibility for any regular person to end up in prison regards of their background or social standing.

Being an early talkie, The Big House features many long static camera shots, muffled sound and no background music. However I feel these technical limitations are one of the film’s greatest assets as they heighten the claustrophobia of the cells and other confined areas of the prison. If The Big House was made or remade later in the sound era with more advanced cinematography and clearer sound and a music score, it would not be as effective. The sound design itself is impressive, with the sound effects of whistles, prisoners marching or turning their plates in perfect unison in the mess hall showcase the routine nature of prison life and its mundanity.

The film’s screenwriter, Frances Marion interviewed actual prisoners and prison personal when writing The Big House, making the film an as authentic as possible look at the American prison system in 1930. Director George W. Hill apparently threatened to fire anyone caught acting and forbade the use of makeup in the film. The sets don’t look like Hollywood sets and this is not a romanticized look at prison such as movies like Ladies They Talk About. At the beginning of the film the prison’s warden (Lewis Stone), delivers a monologue about the general public wanting criminals locked behind bars but don’t care about their treatment or rehabilitation once in prison. Here the prisoners have nothing to do all day in the overcrowded prison but grow animosity towards the guards and plot on how they are going to make their escape. Shortly after watching The Big House, I heard a discussion on the radio regarding the deteriorating conditions of prisons in the UK in 2014 and a caller phoned in and mirrored the exact points Lewis Stone made in The Big House; 80 years later and nothing has changed.