I actually remember when Escape from Alcatraz was at the cinemas. It was 1979, and although I haven't watched it at the time (I did watch it many years later) I remember it being an icon for tough manhood as well as the film to watch at the time. The beauty of it is that much of that original flavor still exists today in this Don Siegel film (Dirty Harry): despite its age, lack of special effects, and almost total absence of female presence, Escape from Alcatraz still works. I suspect it is exactly this quality that allowed films like The Rock to try and step in its shoes and gave them a marketplace in the first place.
As the film starts we find ourselves escorting Clint Eastwood, a prisoner, being transported into Alcatraz prison and learning to live in his new home. However, Alcatraz is not a place he intends to call home for long, and soon enough he thinks of the seemingly impossible: escaping. We follow him as he makes friends and enemies at the notorious jail; we follow him through the hardships of a hopeless jail term under an particularly evil warden (Patrick McGoohan); and we follow the progression of his escape plans.
At this point it is probably worth me mentioning that Escape from Alcatraz is based on real life events: indeed, some prisoners managed to escape Alcatraz, although the prevailing speculation is that they did not manage to cross the waters to the mainland alive. The film tries to take advantage of these events and build on the fact there was never any evidence to those escapees dying either.
The result of the above is quite a thrilling, in your face film. It has to be, with it being set entirely on the island prison's tight quarters. There is some crafty direction work at hand, utilizing top notch editing, which keeps the viewer on their toes despite the lack of flashy things taking place on the screen. I did found the film did not work that well in the department of making an ulterior message, though: unlike, say, The Shawshank Redemption, it's hard to pick a philosophical statement out of Escape from Alcatraz. It's there, but it's more to do with being in your face tough.
That said, the similarities between Escape from Alcatraz and The Shawshank Redemption (which, I have to add, is one of my all time favorite films) are striking. So much so that the thought of plagiarism occurred to me more than once or twice. Other than both being based on a prison escape, there are the similar characters of a warden who is the worst criminal around, being attacked for sexual reasons, finding salvation at the library, the method of escape, the old prison colleague with the pet mouse who happens to die just as the film hits its climax, and much much more. I'll put it this way: Stephen King published his novella, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (on which the 1994 film is based) in 1982, three years after Escape from Alcatraz' release. So we know who was there first.
Best scene: Eastwood's naked welcome to Alcatraz.
Overall: A 3.5 out of 5 stars film that is old but still is a solid performer.