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Friday, February 8, 2008

Doing Hard Time (originally published 6/02)

When asked why he was so attracted to morbid subject matter, Alfred Hitchcock used to tell a story, probably apocryphal, but nonetheless revealing, about his childhood. At the age of 6, Hitchcock explained, he was caught misbehaving. His father sent him down to the local police station with a note for the desk sergeant. The officer read the note, then locked the youngster in a cell for five minutes, saying, "This is what we do to naughty boys."

The truth is that most of us, with or without childhood traumas, are fascinated by crime and punishment. It is a perverse attraction that is older than either Hitchcock or Dostoyevski. The history of the movies is rich with both crime and punishment, but some of the most interesting films have been those that focused mostly, or entirely, on punishment.

With that in mind, it's not so surprising that HBO launched its experiment in hour-long series drama with a prison show, paving the way for "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City." After five successful seasons, the producers of "Oz" have now begun production on a sixth and final season. If you're a fan of this groundbreaking prison drama, here are some classic prison movies you might want to look for on home video.

"I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang" (1932). Paul Muni, one of the most respected actors of the 1930s and 1940s, plays the part of James Allen. Arrested for a crime he didn't commit, Allen is sentenced to 10 years of hard labor on a Georgia chain gang. The treatment of the prisoners is portrayed as unbelievably brutal and sadistic. In a time when many movies tried to take people's minds off hard times, the Warner Brothers studio earned a reputation for tackling social issues. This unblinking expose of reprehensible penal practices is a prime example.

"Each Dawn I Die" (1939). By the end of the 1930s, Warner Brothers had very nearly cornered the prison movie market with pictures like this James Cagney vehicle. Cagney plays a crusading reporter who is framed on a manslaughter charge when his investigations point to corruption in the district attorney's office. Once he's inside, the prison system inexorably strips him of ideals, hope, and dignity.

"White Heat" (1949). It's Cagney again, this time as a gangster named Cody Jarrett. While he's doing a penny-ante prison stretch to avoid a more substantial rap, the police decide to send in an undercover man to be Cody's cellmate. Edmond O'Brien plays the cop whose job it is to ingratiate himself with Cody to try to get him to spill the beans. Most of the gangsters that Cagney had played in the past were just average street hoodlums with above-average mean streaks, but Cody is different. He's a full-blown psychopath. Cagney made the most of the dramatic potential of the role, creating one of his finest and most enduring performances.

"Riot in Cell Block 11" (1954). This grimly realistic chronicle of a prison riot was something of a pet project for producer Walter Wanger. He had recently seen prison conditions firsthand while serving a prison term for shooting and wounding a man who was fooling around with his wife. Director Don Siegel shot the film inside Folsom Prison, using actual convicts as extras.

"Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962). Burt Lancaster gives a virtuoso performance as Robert Stroud, the real-life murderer who became an authority on birds while serving his sentence and published an ornithology textbook from prison. When he subsequently tries to publish a book on penology, the authorities confiscate the manuscript. The parallel between caged birds and caged men is clear.

"Cool Hand Luke" (1967). One of the pillars of the Paul Newman film persona is his performance as Luke Jackson, the chain-gang convict who can take everything that The Man can dish out without losing his cool. The supporting cast is also uniformly excellent, especially Strother Martin as a particularly nasty guard. His immortal line, "What we've got here is failure to communicate," is familiar even to people who have never seen the film. Indeed, the memorable phrase loomed large in the advertising for the film, as you can see in the picture's promotional trailer, reproduced below courtesy of Turner Classic Movies.

By the way, unless your cool is as unshakeable as Luke's, I don't know that I'd recommend seeing more than one of these films at one sitting. To tell you the truth, I'm a little stir-crazy just from writing about them.

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