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.

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