The Best Prison Movies You Probably Haven't Seen

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.

Brubaker (1980); Stuart Rosenberg, director.

I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you've seen Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke. Well, anything Newman did Redford had to do, too, but his prison flick, Brubaker hasn't made the same lasting mark.

Robert Redford begins the film as the newest inmate in Arkansas' toughest prison, and is witness to corruption and cruelty. A second act reveal shows that he's actually the new warden in disguise. He and a zillion great character actors work together to try and restore the dignity of Man.

It's a fascinating movie – seemingly brought to us from another world, where a topic like prison reform could ever gain popular support. I'll leave it to someone else to argue that Brubaker, released just a few months before the election of Robert Reagan, is the last dying gasp of 1970s liberalism.

Le Trou (1960); Jacques Becker, director.

There are plenty of prison break movies out there – The Shawshank Redemption, Escape From Alcatraz, heck, The Great Escape and even Superman: The Movie, but the one with the most stylish grit, in my opinion, is Le Trou (The Hole).

Jacques Becker's film balances nerve-wracking tension and warm, humanist moments. The film famously employed non-actors, including one person who actually took part in the 1947 jailbreak that was depicted. (Spoiler?)

It's a great showcase of characters working together through tedium for the ultimate goal of freedom. There's a Criterion DVD floating around – I strongly recommend it.

PS – I know that video is mostly of a dude speaking in French, but I love that there's jazzy music playing and a disembodied female interviewer. I can't imagine a trailer being much cooler than this.

The Magdalene Sisters (2002), Peter Mullan, director.

Warning – this movie goes from interesting to infuriating when you realize it is based on an actual system of "punishment" that existed as recently as NINETEEN NINETY-FREAKIN-SIX!!!

In Ireland (oh, troubled Ireland) a system of indentured servitude existed for decades where "troubled women" would basically be slaves for a branch of the Church. Here they did laundry and sewed and weren't allowed outside the prison – excuse me – asylum walls. Their crime was perhaps showing inclinations toward lesbianism, or any sexuality at all, or maybe stealing a loaf of bread. There was a demand for warm bodies that could fold linen, so any parents who wanted to dump off their difficult daughters could do so.

The Magdalene Sisters tells the true, awful tale of three girls (one an innocuous flirt, one a new unwed mother whose child was stolen from her, the other a victim of incestuous rape) suffering the indignities of an institutional life they do not deserve. It's depressing as all hell, but absolutely vital to see, especially if you are one who thinks "it can't happen here."

Stir Crazy (1980); Sidney Poitier, director.

This is hardly an underseen movie for anyone over the age of 35. It was a massive, massive hit in 1980 and played on cable on a near-constant loop. The film – my first introduction to marijuana humor and possibly even my first pair of movie boobs – put the unlikely pair of chucklehead Gene Wilder and nervous Richard Pryor in the roughest southern prison. For some reason it all ends with a great big breakout during a rodeo show.

It's wall-to-wall schtick, and the best thing Wilder & Pryor ever did together. The phrase "yeah, we bad" was repeated ad nauseum by every kid for at least two years.