Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Stars and Bars

Prison movies aren't all alike.

By Noel Murray

MAY 18, 1998:  Since the year began, cinema audiences have been treated (figuratively speaking) to adaptations of The Man in the Iron Mask and Les Misérables. The source of the former--Alexandre Dumas' potboiler--is one of the earliest examples of the prison story, a genre that has inspired such great films as Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape, and The Shawshank Redemption. Prison stories like these rarely have anything to do with right and wrong, or literal crime; they deal more with the feeling of being trapped and the longing to be free. That may be why the best of the bunch take place in wartime prisons, where messy issues of apt punishment are easily set aside.

There is a sub-genre of prison movie, though, that's better represented by Victor Hugo's timeless classic, Les Misérables. In these films, the protagonists are either on their way to prison or have just been released. Whichever the case, the characters are branded as cons and can never escape the confines of their own paranoia. If the "classic" prison stories are about the thirst for freedom, the tales in this second batch are more about the dawning awareness that freedom is merely an illusion.

The archetypal example of the "internal prison" movie is Mervyn LeRoy's 1932 masterpiece I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, which despite the exploitative title is one of the most fully realized social protest dramas of the Depression era. Paul Muni stars as a World War I veteran who leaves his country hometown to pursue a life as a civil engineer. But a tight job market leaves him penniless, and an accident of fate places him in a diner while a robbery is taking place. Sentenced to hard labor on a Georgia chain gang, Muni rebels and escapes to Chicago. There, he becomes the prosperous bridge-builder he always hoped to be, until a shrewish woman blackmails him into marrying her and supporting her lavish lifestyle.

Chain Gang was intended as an indictment of Georgia's corrupt and inhumane penal system, but the result is far broader in scope. The jailers' contempt for their charges is a vivid illustration of the casual abuse of power. Muni's life on the outside seems a fantasy ideal, but bitter reality forces him to modify his identity, limit his travel, and avoid feelings of comfort. The sense that everything could come crashing down at any moment was a palpable one in 1932 (and still is today).

Jim Jarmusch's absurdist comedy Down By Law presents a different kind of escape story. Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Benigni play New Orleans lowlifes who find themselves in the same cell for fairly rinky-dink crimes (Benigni's murder charge notwithstanding). Inexplicably, they escape through the bayou to an unadorned cabin with three hard bunks, which, Waits notes, seems "kinda familiar." Jarmusch's specialty is deadpan comedy and existential dread, but he has a heart, and he lets his characters off the hook. Their lives were going nowhere before they were arrested, and even after they escape they fall into the same patterns that were imprisoning them. Somewhere in the swamp, they experience a mild revelation and the promise of a better day, and Jarmusch kindly ends the film before the boys can screw it up.

Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang

In Down By Law, the characters behave like prisoners even after they escape. In Hal Ashby's sharp 1973 comedy The Last Detail, the leads are trapped by a life they've chosen for themselves--a career in the Navy. Jack Nicholson and Otis Young play middle-aged sailors who are asked to transport a young kleptomaniac (Randy Quaid) to the brig. Nicholson decides that since they have more time than they'll need to complete the assignment, it's only right that they treat the inexperienced Quaid to a wild weekend of drinking and sex. Robert Towne wrote the perceptive adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan's novel, and between the ribald stories and the profane rants, the filmmakers find the poignant truth of the story--that Nicholson and Young need the break from routine more than the prison-bound Quaid does.

Writer-director David Mamet and coscreenwriter Shel Silverstein revisit The Last Detail's basic concept in 1988's delightful Things Change. Don Ameche is an immigrant shoemaker who vaguely resembles a Mafia button-man. He's offered a small fortune if he'll agree to serve a few years in prison in lieu of his doppelganger. Joe Mantegna is the ne'er-do-well henchman who's assigned to prep Ameche's testimony over a weekend and keep him company until the courthouse opens on Monday. Mantegna takes it upon himself to show Ameche a good time, so he flies them both to Lake Tahoe, where Ameche is mistaken for a mysterious don from the old country.

Mamet's emphasis is less on spiritual confinement than on remarkable plot twists. The sequence of serendipitous events in Tahoe is so breathtakingly choreographed that you find yourself giggling at Mamet and Silverstein's sheer craftiness. Still, in the rhythms of his typically staccato dialogue, the director manages to capture the exhaustion of two men who have been beaten down by their own tenacious commitment to small-time dreams.

Perhaps the ultimate prison-of-the-mind movie, though, is Stuart Rosenberg's 1967 cult fave Cool Hand Luke, which benefits from a terrific Frank Pierson script and shimmering cinematography by Conrad Hall. Covering much the same ground as I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang, Cool Hand Luke takes place in a Georgia prison camp during the Depression. Unlike Paul Muni, however, Paul Newman's Luke isn't really a victim of circumstance suffering a derailed destiny; he's been put away for drunkenly cutting the heads off parking meters. The story covers the aimless nights and sweltering days on the chain gang, pausing for a banjo interlude, an egg-eating contest, and a couple of escapes--the last of which ends in a cell-like cabin similar to the one used later in Down By Law.

Cool Hand Luke, despite its entertaining mix of action, humor, and pathos (as well as an Oscar-winning performance by George Kennedy), is almost pure abstraction. The chain gang and the criminals who populate it don't exist in the world of crime and punishment; rather, they're symbols for the drudgery of everyday life. As for Newman, he's in the tradition of '60s/'70s "beautiful loser" antiheroes who can't articulate what they want, but know they can't find it where they are. In prison movies such as Cool Hand Luke, Les Misérables, and the other tales described above, it doesn't take bars to pen the hero. He's already walled in by his conscience and by ennui. The world is his prison.

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