Cinema Behind Bars

When it comes to the ideal climate for sowing the seeds for melodrama and conflict within film, the cramped parameters and fortified walls of the state prison seem as fitting an environment as any…

From prisoner of war camps to juvenile borstals and the county jail; filmmakers have used the claustrophobic backdrop of the slammer to hatch tales of the great escape, callous criminality or the resilience of human spirit. Some have been so bold as to construct scathing social commentaries that expose fundamental flaws within our own civil courts and the very legal system in which we entrust to uphold justice.

Too much time to reflect. François Leterrier in A Man Escaped (1956)

And if history is of any indicator, we are only too happy to revisit the subject matter time and again. Indeed it begs the question: is it the abominable predicament of the inmate or the squalid conditions of his or her environment that keeps us coming back?

In any case, our sympathy is almost uniform when it comes to the wrongly convicted. And for some our empathy extends even further for those smalltime crooks or petty felons down on their luck. Whether clearing their name, reclaiming their freedom or exonerating themselves and restoring their honour we are generally willing to sit it out in our cinema seats to see the drama through.

This week Privilege of Legends hands in all sharp objects and takes a walk with the warden down the gloomy corridors and cold cells of the clink, in search of the most dynamic prison films of all time…

The 30’s were particularly notable for the string of crime films being produced on Warner Brothers lots under the administrative eye of Darryl F. Zanuck. And the bounding momentum with which these films were churned out reflected the shifting appetites of a cinema audience trading in the musical for the grittier subject matter of mobsters and organised crime.


One of the finer prison films of this period was the 1939 classic Each Dawn I Die. Peculiarly the only film to pair the big names of James Cagney and George Raft in lead roles, the film follows a pertinacious news reporter wrongly convicted and thrown into jail, who forms an unlikely alliance with a feared mob boss. This time around Cagney is on the right side of the law, and Each Dawn I Die is a sterling example of why he was one of the most acclaimed actors of his generation.

It was two of the best filmmakers of that decade however, that utilised the prison setting to craft characters around the psychology of being involuntarily constrained. Their stories transcended the prison bars and shackles to expose the human spirit within us all. These were John Ford’s The Prisoner Of Shark Island (1936) and Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937).


When we talk of John Ford, we generally recall his contributions to the Western, and those wide-open spaces shot in and around Monument Valley. Centred around another rich segment of American history, The Prisoner Of Shark Island is loosely based upon the life of Dr. Samuel Mudd: tried and convicted as an enemy of the state after giving treatment to U.S President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

Banished on what the film describes as ‘America’s own devil’s island’ (at one stage we see the words ‘leave hope behind he who enters here’ etched into the cement of the prison walls with a shaky finger), Dr. Mudd finds himself shackled pariah and social outcast, mistreated and despised by the prison guards. Here the enemy is the wicked Yankees of the north, and Ford paints the Confederate as spirited victim to his northern aggressor.

Shark Island
Warner Baxter peers out of the bars in The Prisoner Of Shark Island

Renoir’s La Grande Illusion took the surroundings of a makeshift prison camp and the backdrop of the Great War to tenderly explore the depth of human spirit and the complexities of social class.

The characters consist of two French aviators; one of aristocratic roots and the other a working class Lieutenant, a German General and a modest German farmhand woman. Part great escape war film, part humanist tale of love and redemption, The Grand Illusion is rightfully regarded by critics as one of the greatest films ever made.

The postwar period saw a resurgence in the jailhouse film, but this time around the subject matter was becoming sharper and more critical of the institutionalised conduct of the penal system as a whole. With the introduction of television into the family home and news rapidly becoming more accessible, there became a spike in socially relevant drama on the big screen.

Brute Force, classic DVD
Brute Force (1947)

Such films as Jules Dassin’s noir-behind-bars Brute Force (1947) and Don Siegel’s consistently underrated Riot In Cell Block 11 (1954) certainly pulled no punches when it came to raw tales of simmering tensions and inmates at boiling point. What separates the two films is the angle that the subject matter is delivered.

In the former, Burt Lancaster’s character Joe Collins is persistently mistreated by a handful of corrupt prison authorities, prompting him to stage a daring escape with bloody consequences. Riot In Cell Block 11 on the other hand, is starkly void of any real heroes or antiheroes. Here the prison guards are overworked and under payed, many inmates are in need of psychiatric care, and the warden is struggling to maintain control of a prison overbrimming with caged men.

Shot on location in Folsom State Prison with real inmates and guards playing minor roles, Siegel delivers the story with a newsreel approach, exposing a penal system with large cracks in the foundations. In the end, Dunn, played by Neville Brand makes a heartfelt claim that: 

‘I been in and out of these joints all my life… and who cares?’


Lancaster would button-up the prison jumpsuit once again in 1962, when John Frankenheimer cast him for the role of Robert Stroud in Birdman Of Alcatraz. Based on a true, yet largely fictionalised story, Frankenheimer has an obvious affinity for gritty realism and has proven himself to be one of the greater Hollywood filmmakers of the 60’s. With Burnett Guffey behind the lens, it’s use of clever angles and framing, sharp editing and ambitious multiple exposed images makes for an aesthetically stunning piece.


It’s worth noting the parallel artistic approaches to visual style and story development between Hollywood and European cinema when talking in broader terms.

Taking a similar setting and plot structure but placing it in the hands of a revered French director like Robert Bresson demonstrates the creative disparity between the two institutions. For instance, in his 1956 film A Man Escaped, Bresson uses the memoirs of French Resistance fighter André Devigny to paint a tale of imprisonment and isolation with another brush. Here it’s the stark realism and treatment of disconcerting subject matter that distinguishes his work from your typical prison film. The dialogue is minimal, the actions are repetitious… and within the confines of a military camp, rightfully so.

A Man Escaped (1956)

With the 60’s came a different generation of filmmaker, and with the backdrop of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement a handful of directors were leaning towards anti-establishment subject matter and stories of liberation and rebellion.

Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke (1967) was one of the more notable prison films to come out of this mould. Based on Donn Pearce’s novel of the same name and adapted by the novelist himself for the screen, Paul Newman is unforgettable as the title role of Luke; a loner and rebel flung into a prison system that throws everything he believes in into turbulent counterbalance.

Back on the chain gang. Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke (1967)

In 1979 our attention was diverted momentarily to Britain and it’s younger generation. Alan Clarke’s confronting look at a borstal for juvenile offenders and it’s disturbing violence shook the nation and even galvanised the reform of the British borstals themselves.

Originally written for television and subsequently withdrawn from broadcast for it’s graphic nature, Scum was one of the controversial films of the 80’s and has since become a cult classic.

Standing in juxtaposition to this was Jim Jarmusch’s 1986 unconventional jailhouse film Down By Law. Very much a black comedy, the film centres it’s drama around the involuntary caging of three very dissimilar characters (played by musician Tom Waits, John Lurie and Roberto Benigni).

Shot in black and white with sweeping camerawork along America’s deep south by Robby Müller, Down By Law also features original music from Waits and Lurie.

John Lurie, Tom Waits & Roberto Benigni in ‘Down By Law’ (1986)

1994 rounds off the list of greatest prison films with Frank Darabont’s screenplay based on Steven King’s short story Rita Hayworth & Shawshank Redemption.

Losing the Hollywood starlet’s name from the title for it’s cinema release, Shawshank Redemption  told the story of wrongly acquitted Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), sentenced to life in the Shawshank Penitentiary and his relationship with fellow inmate ‘Red’ played by Morgan Freeman.

The film wields much of the necessary components behind most of it’s preceding ilk, and it’s payoff of redemption in the end still manages to lift our spirits.

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