Why Frank Morris is not a Hero - tuesday 2006-10-03 0800 last modified 2006-10-04 1744
Categories: Film
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I caught snippets of Escape from Alcatraz on the Saturday afternoon special while growing up. I never caught the full film, so as a make-up, I brought it home last week. It's part western, with the distinct paucity of dialog, and part prison drama. But it doesn't match up with Cool Hand Luke or the rest of the great prison dramas. Sure, Frank Morris gets tossed into solitary, is being picked on by the resident tough, and befriends the old leader of the black prisoner contingent, and yes, he gets singled out by the warden for particular malignment and abuse. But this one's not a hero, even if Andy's blueprints for life in the can and eventual escape from Shawshank were mailed directly to him from Frank.

For starters, every extended conversation in this film serves only one purpose: exposition. There are little character moments, but almost every interaction is designed to convey exactly what I wrote above and nothing else. Frank smart. Warden meticulous. Wolf mad. And remember, nobody has ever escaped from Alcatraz. Nobody. Nobody. Really. Nobody.

Once the aura of impossibility has been established, the film is about Frank's technical matters of escape; soldering tools, painting fake walls, molding dummies, stealing fans. I mean, it's obvious why you'd want to escape prison, especially one with mean wardens and vicious inmates (and don't forget - nobody's ever done it. Nobody.); why belabor the point except with token and vauge expressions about what's inside a man? Which is apparently a chrysanthemum.

The reason Alcatraz fails its protagonist is because it centers on his plans and his luck. We are truly watching an escape from Alcatraz, and it matters not a whit who's doing the escaping; Morris' cohorts are entirely forgettable. What might script writers learn from contrasting successful and failing prison dramas to take into other genres?

Don't make a movie about technicalities unless it's a documentary. Maybe not even then. Focus on the characters. We love Andy and Red, partly because we never knew to pay attention to Andy's long, tedious plan to escape until he escaped. Conversely, we don't care at all if Frank, et al., drowned. Considering the actual, real life events left the world wondering if the three escapees survived, that's quite a feat - turning a living mystery into a dead schematic.

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