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#147. Working the Prison System

The inevitable truth about prison is that everyone is trying to escape. Most will make a run for the fence and immediately find that their effort is in vain. This causes many to give up on escaping after their first few attempts. Sometimes a tunnel is the best way to escape, especially if you’re trying to get a lot of people out of prison (a la The Great Escape). However, trying to hide a tunnel can be a challenge, especially if the warden knows you’re trying to escape. The best escape films work in much the same way that good heist films are constructed, merely in reverse. Brute force escapes are just as boring as brute force heists. We are more entertained by someone who figures out the prison system, works it to their advantage, then manages to escape. This week’s two films examine characters who were able to work the prison system.

Cool Hand LukeCool Hand Luke
Year: 1967
Rating: PG
Length: 126 minutes / 2.1 hours

Because escape is so difficult from prisons, those who do manage to escape are held with a high and god-like esteem amongst the other prisoners. They were able to accomplish what so many had failed to do: escape. Even if the escaped prisoner is eventually found and brought back, the simple fact remains that they were able to escape. Unfortunately, a single escapee usually means the rest of the prisoners are punished, which minimizes any copycats. Despite the communal punishment, these fugitives become idols amongst their fellow prisoners and their exploits are praised for years to come. That’s the system that Lucas Jackson takes advantage of: the community developed amongst prisoners. Everyone roots for everyone else when it comes to escapes, so with Luke’s multiple attempts, he gains the prisoners’ respect.

Lucas “Luke” Jackson (Paul Newman) quickly finds that his time in prison (even if it’s just for a few short years) could be difficult because of the difficult warden, the Captain (Strother Martin). Furthermore, when he breaks the prisoners’ pecking order, the leader of the inmates, Dragline (George Kennedy), makes it a point to show Luke his place in their little society. And yet, after a few stunts and great stories, soon the prisoners are rallying behind the clever and tenacious man. After each escape attempt, Luke is punished by the Captain, but held in high esteem by the prisoners. As the punishments to keep Luke in line grow more severe, he starts to lose his confidence. That is until he gets a brief chance to escape, which he ends up taking with Dragline. Luke doesn’t come back, but Dragline carries on Luke’s legend to the incarcerated men.

The Shawshank RedemptionThe Shawshank Redemption
Year: 1994
Rating: R
Length: 142 minutes / 2.36 hours

A new addition to the American Film Institute’s top 100 list in 2007, The Shawshank Redemption chalks up a win for intelligence in the never-ending battle of brains vs. brawn. Most wardens would be able to tell you at a glance whether or not someone would pose as an escape risk. In order for capital punishment to work, prisoners must be kept in prison for the length of their sentence. This means that those serving life sentences would probably want to escape the most. However, the innocent also would want to escape, since they don’t belong in prison, even if they’re the only one who knows this fact. And yet, even if you plan to escape, how would you do it? The overt methods all fail because the prisoner is too eager. In order to really work the system, you must appear as though the capital punishment is doing its job, all the while whittling away at the walls.

Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is sent to prison for killing his wife and her lover. While in prison, he meets “Red” (Morgan Freeman) and forges a friendship with the prisoner for life. Due to his superior intellect and background in banking, Andy survives life in prison by helping the guards with their taxes, balancing the prison’s books for the warden and keeping his fellow inmates occupied with a variety of activities. Knowing that he is innocent, Andy doesn’t complain about being wrongfully imprisoned. Even though he has to endure many atrocities, Andy works on an elaborate scheme for many years that eventually sets him free. The trick turns out to be making simple requests that most people would never tie together over a long enough period of time, flying just enough under the radar to eventually make it outside.

2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 prison players

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3 responses to “#147. Working the Prison System

  1. Pingback: End of Act Three | Cinema Connections

  2. Pingback: #136. Summer Camp | Cinema Connections

  3. Pingback: #140. Morgan Freeman | Cinema Connections

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