One time I inadvertently stole a Milky Way bar. I was at the Drug Fair and I wanted the candy but my mother said no. I got sad and started following her around and she said maybe. So I continued following her around and then next thing you know we were in the car and I had the candy bar but she hadn’t paid for it. Then she yelled at me and told me I could go to jail for that and I started to cry. After that – which happened to coincide with my 25th birthday – I never stole again.
If I was caught, however, I would know what to do, as I’ve seen plenty of movies about prisons. Here are eight that I think are somewhat obscure and deserve your attention. So grab your shiv and let’s go.
I Want To Live!(1958); Robert Wise, director.
Lots of times a little kid sees a scary movie too young and is plagued with nightmares. I had a stranger childhood. I distinctly remember watching this one on New York’s Channel 11 with my Dad, mostly because he wanted to expose me to its great jazz score. (Saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, Art Farmer and Shelly Manne can be heard all over the place.)
The collateral damage was unexpected. I was convinced that I would some day get framed for a murder I didn’t commit and get sent to the gas chamber. This was absurd for a number of reasons, chief among them that I was not (at least not at the age of 8) a freewheeling, sexually-liberated moll with blowzy hair living in Eisenhower-era America. But try telling that to a kid!
My cracked psychology aside, Robert Wise (yes, he later directed Star Trek: The Motion Picture) offers up one of the best beat-spolitaiton pictures, and Susan Hayward’s performance as the condemned woman won her an Academy Award.
I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932); Mervyn Leroy, director.
I’m flabbergasted to learn that I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang is only 93 minutes. It is an epic of twists and turns, with enough action, manipulative romance and psychological horror to fill an entire season of serialized television.
A WWI vet can’t adjust back to family life, falls in with some bad people, ends up a cog in the brutal hard labor prison system, escapes (the title gives that away, don’t it?) but then finds himself living a false life under blackmail. Its iconic last moment (“How do you live?” “I steal!”) is among the best in classic Hollywood and the film led popular opinion to challenge some aspects of our prison system.
They don’t make ’em like this anymore.
Un Prophète (2010); Jacques Audiard, director.
Just when you think you know about all the ethnic groups who have beef with one another, you learn that the Corsicans and Arabs are duking it out in the French underworld.
Audiard’s film is a fascinating look at someone caught between these two worlds, and uses a prison term to help train for a career in crime. The solitude also eats at his soul, however, making Un Prophète not your typical crime opera.
It’s an unusual movie in that it seems fueled by a call to social justice, but still has a thirst for genre set pieces. This was nominated for the foreign language Oscar, and my theory is that if this and The White Ribbon split the voters that year, which is why the forgettable The Secret In Their Eyes won the prize.
Fortress (1993); Stuart Gordon, director.
Christopher Lambert, Jeffrey Combs, Kurtwood Smith and director Stuart Gordon join forces to give us a sneak peek at jurisprudence of the future. The above embedded trailer is just a taste of the very 90s special effects on display. Best is the Zed-10 security computer, linked to mobile security cameras with laser guns and the ability to activate surgically implanted “intestinators.”
The titual prison is something like Deep Space Nine with a dose of LSD (lots of swirly computer displays) but rest assured that Christopher Lambert will break out and find justice. This is a great late night movie because there’s just enough intelligence behind it. Not too much, but still a flavor so you don’t feel like you are totally wasting your time.