Back to IndieWire

25 Essential Prison Movies

25 Essential Prison Movies

Kyle Patrick Alvarez‘s “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” now playing in limited release, took fourteen years to get made, and finally arrived at Sundance 2015 with a stellar ensemble including Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Olivia Thirlby, Tye Sheridan and Michael Angarano. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the uncompromising nature of the film, the reception was divided (our own rave is here) but even those on the more negative end of the spectrum tended to use words like “compelling,” “vivid” and “effective” in their critiques. And those are adjectives that this film (which scooped the Screenwriting award for Tim Talbott) shares with the best in the wide and variegated genre of the prison movie.

The microcosmic possibilities of life on the inside have been mined many times for dramas, comedies, spoofs and thrillers that, while set in penal institutions or situations that resemble them, actually comment on human psychology or on the society outside those walls. And we got to thinking about our own favorite prison movies through the ages. Here are 25 we’d consider a great primer in the genre.

“Army of Shadows” (1969)
Thanks to a much-deserved critical reevaluation by Cahiers du Cinema in the 90s, this unfairly censored and derided Jean-Pierre Melville masterpiece was restored and finally given a proper US theatrical release in 2006 (and a gorgeous blu-ray by Criterion… that cover, be still our cinephile hearts!), nearly forty years after it was made and fell foul of the French political and social climate in the upheaval after May 1968. It stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Melville classics like “Bob le Flambeur,” “Le Samouraï” and “Le Cercle Rouge” in being, like many of his films, focused on the nitty-gritty of process of (usually criminal) work, while balancing a cool, composed artfulness. ‘Shadows’ zeroes in on the French resistance during World War II, following a small band of fighters as they dodge and weave into and out of captivity by brutal Gestapo agents. Melville’s trademark existentialism is in full swing here, as is a brutally honest fatalistic streak. These characters (including the great Lino Ventura) know that death is around the corner, yet they continue to fight and scratch through an unromantic, bleak existence that is somehow rendered deeply compelling by Melville’s muscular style.

“Birdman Of Alcatraz” (1962)
The most famous prison in the history of the U.S. was unquestionably Alcatraz, the island fortress off the coast of San Francisco, and its most famous inmate (beyond Al Capone) was probably Robert Stroud, the subject of John Frankenheimer’s “Birdman Of Alcatraz.” In an excellent performance by Burt Lancaster, Stroud, sent to prison at 19, is sentenced to life after killing a guard, but, per the screenplay based on Thomas E. Gaddis’ book, becomes a model of reform thanks to his interest in ornithology, which saw him become a world-renowned, published expert in bird diseases, despite never again leaving jail. The film is admirably liberal in its support of prison rehabilitation and it condemnation of the inhumanity of imprisonment (Karl Malden makes a great villain as the warden), but there’s a disingenuousness to its approach to Stroud, which overlooks the more troubling aspects of his personality in favor of a more mild-mannered persona, even if Lancaster occasionally sprinkles in some edge. Frankenheimer seems a touch wasted on the quieter material, bar a late prison riot that brings some needed energy to the film, but it’s still an engaging prison biopic if you can overlook the (probably to be expected) glossed-over nature of the scripting.

“The Bridge On The River Kwai” (1957)
It might not be David Lean’s finest film — “Lawrence Of Arabia” surely tops that list — but “The Bridge On The River Kwai” comes damn close. One of the earliest films to tackle the experience of soldiers in Japanese POW camps, it sees a group of mostly British soldiers interred in a camp in Burma, where they’re put to work on a construction of the titular railway bridge, with senior officer Alec Guinness initially resisting, before deciding to keep up his men’s morale, and show their captors the British spirit, by complying, while an American soldier (William Holden) plots to destroy the completed structure. Based on a novel by “Planet Of The Apes” author Pierre Boulle, and written in secret by blacklisted writers Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson (though initially credited to Boulle, who couldn’t speak English), it’s an epic, deeply complex tragedy that examines heroism, compromise, sacrifice, national pride and class, and does so in a deeply gripping, surprising and emotionally potent manner, and with all the lavish spectacle that Lean was known for. And of course, there’s the famous and devastating conclusion, undercutting the seemingly pro-imperial elements earlier in the film with one of the more indelible images ever to capture the savage pointlessness of war.

Bronson” (2008)
Nicolas Winding Refn’s pop art nightmare “biopic” tells the true-ish story of Michael Peterson, who at 19 attempted to rob a post office for a nominal sum of money and was captured and sentenced to seven years in prison. “Don’t worry, son, you’ll be out in four,” his mother tells him. But Peterson loves prison and yearns to be famous, taking on the name Charles Bronson and turning his many violent tendencies into “art.” As the title character, Tom Hardy gives a career -making performance, that combines perfectly with Refn’s thrilling direction, which sees him at his most full-tilt operatic: violent, gorgeously photographed, hilarious, embroidered with animation and slow motion that borders on still photography. Plunging the viewer into the dark recesses of Bronson’s maniacal mind Hardy and Refn deliver a funny, scary, psychotic jolt which yielded a surprisingly lukewarm critical reaction at the time. But that will probably be revised, as the film is discovered by a wider audience for being the movie that launched Tom Hardy’s career out of a cannon, and marked the opening salvo in a new, higher-profile phase of Refn’s. It seems destined for cult appreciation, if it’s not already there.

“Brubaker” (1980)
A dramatization of real-life  events, Stuart Rosenberg‘s return to the prison genre after the peerless “Cool Hand Luke” (he replaced director Bob Rafaelson, who was fired after allegedly punching the head of the studio) never reaches that touchpoint’s standards, but despite an overlong, made-for-TV feel, it deserves its spot here at least for showing us the other side of the coin. Following Robert Redford‘s crusading reform warden, it’s a harsh, unsparing, ultimately depressing look at the systemic corruption, deprivation and brutality in a Southern prison, and at how comprehensively the new warden’s efforts to clean it up are blocked and parried by the higher-ups who’ve managed to turn it into a profit-making private enterprise. Dealing in squalid details and admitting very little characterization, though, despite an early non-gravitas showcase from Morgan Freeman, and a supporting turn from Yaphet Kotto so good it threatens to become his film, Redford’s Brubaker, and too many of the other characters remain frustratingly out of reach as people, as opposed to archetypes. This anonymity is ironic, since it mirrors the best part of the film: the opening half-hour when Brubaker, disguised as a convict, wordlessly observes the horrors in the prison he’s come to change.

“Brute Force” (1947)
Burt Lancaster was a great choice to lead this Jules Dassin (“Rififi,” “Naked City”) prison break drama. Perhaps only rivalled by the likes of Robert Mitchum or Sterling Hayden as a star who knew how to leverage his natural physically imposing presence, here Lancaster uses that bulk and strength to dominate the screen while throwing punches and fighting his way out of a bad situation. The film leads up to a shockingly violent (at least for the time) prison riot, when the inmates can no longer take Capt. Munsey’s (a perfectly infuriating Hume Cronyn) sadistic tactics, as he holds power over his small kingdom, and they decide to put into action their long-plotted escape plan, which goes off, but not how you might expect. The cast all around is very good, but it’s Lancaster who really makes the material sing, leading the riot to its bloody conclusion. It’s a brawny, cynical film, in a way that almost prefigures a more modern era of downbeat anti-heroism in film and TV. And with Dassin a master subverter of the very genre conventions his films often  helped create (look at the near-silent robbery scene in “Rififi”), it is also a fascinating artifact in the history of the prison movie.

“Cool Hand Luke” (1967)
Coming right at the time when the fuse was lit in American cinema, ushering in an era of never-better Hollywood films that mixed low-budget European arthouse sensibilities with bigger budgets and established a new generation of stars, this Stuart Rosenberg (“The Amityville Horror”) masterpiece fits right in alongside the other oft-cited game-changing films of 1967, like “Bonnie & Clyde” and “The Graduate.” Legendary DP Conrad Hall shot the hell out of the picture and there are moments that have transcended the film to become part of popular lore, like the line “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate” and the famous 50-boiled-eggs-in-an-hour challenge. Even the overt Christian symbolism is handled deftly, adding layers to the film instead of hokiness. Anchored by a fantastic Paul Newman lead performance wherein he’s able to show just how multifaceted he is as a performer, while never stealing the spotlight from his co-stars (indeed, George Kennedy took home Best Supporting Actor honors), “Cool Hand Luke” is one of the greatest anti-establishment films of all time, and a sort of canary down the coal mine for the new independent movement of the 1970s, while also managing to be riotously entertaining and empathetic at the same time.

“Escape From Alcatraz” (1979)
Famously no one ever officially escaped Alcatraz, but the three who got the furthest, and might even have made it, were Frank Morris, Clarence Anglin and John Anglin, who built a home-made raft, busted out of their cells, and were never found (though they were declared dead by drowning). Don Siegel’s lean, tough “Escape From Alcatraz” dramatizes their attempt, and the result is one of the best films the Western master ever made. Clint Eastwood, in his final collaboration with the director, plays Morris, with Jack Thibeau and a young-but-still-craggy Fred Ward as the Anglins, with Patrick McGoohan as one of the most evil wardens in the history of evil wardens. The film sometimes brushes against genre convention, but there’s a real authenticity at play (in part thanks to shooting in the real life, now-defunct institution). It’s also a surprisingly austere and European picture for coming from two Hollywood legends, almost Bressonian in its quietness and soulfulness, complete with a perfect ending that neatly tackles the ambiguity of the real-life story. Eastwood and Siegel fell out over the picture, and never worked together again, but it’s a fine final statement for the duo.

“Escape From New York” (1981)
This one already made our essential John Carpenter films list back in 2013, as it came right in the director’s prime when it seemed he could no wrong. And it’s a total blast, featuring the first of many team-ups with star Kurt Russell (here doing his best John Wayne impression) and taking the prison movie to new, occasionally silly (but always fun), sci-fi heights. The concept of a future dystopian New York City that’s now a full-on maximum security prison for the country’s nastiest goons is brilliant, and ripe for social commentary. But even more impressive is Carpenter’s resourcefulness: like all his films from this era it feels significantly bigger in scope than the limited budget and production scale might suggest. Oh, and Snake Plisskin is just so goddamn cool, with that roguish bad-boy swagger mixed with proud anti-heroism and some wonderfully cheesy one-liners. Now that there’s a Carpenter renaissance happening—his trademark synthy scores and widescreen genre-filmmaking-on-a-dime approach have been all the rage of late in many US indie films (“The Guest,” “Cold in July” to name a couple)—there’s no better time than to catch up on your Carpenter and see what this new generation are ripping off, and this a great place to start.

“The Experiment” (2001)
“The Stanford Prison Experiment” is only the latest in a line of films and TV shows inspired, directly or indirectly, by the infamous project, making this 2001 German film from “Downfall” director Oliver Hirschbiegel, a forebear. Adapted from Mario Giordano‘s novel “Black Box,” it tells the story of  20 men lured by cash to participate in a prisoner/warder situation that, in case you hadn’t guessed, gets way out of hand. Prior to this year it was perhaps the best telling of this story, committed to its grim fatalism, punctuated with graphic violence and building to a chaotic last third in which the lunatics are literally running the asylum — though it makes a strong case for the lunacy of the doctors and scientists too. Hirschbiegel’s style can be distracting, though — it often veers into lurid splashiness, the plot doesn’t always hold water and Moritz Bleibtrau‘s lead is lumbered with an unconvincing love subplot. A little more restraint could have made it a more (thematically appropriate) ascetic experience. Still, if you’re new to this story it’s a solid telling, and it’s oceans better than the inevitable 2010 Hollywood remake which stars, also inevitably, Adrien Brody.

“The Grand Illusion” (1937)
One of Jean Renoir’s most recognized and celebrated films, a masterpiece that brought him his first taste of international fame, adored by Orson Welles, who picked it as his desert-island movie, and the first foreign film to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, “The Grand Illusion” has a formidable reputation. And it is totally earned: it’s one of the greatest POW films ever and probably the greatest film about international and interclass brotherhood. French Aviators Marechal (Renoir favorite Jean Gabin) and Boeldieu (a fabulously posh Pierre Fresnay) go from one prison camp to another, mixing with fellow inmates, plotting escapes and running into aristocratic German Captain von Rauffenstein (a fantastically rigid Erich Von Stroheim). But the way Renoir films these interactions — be it a discussion about restaurants between prison inmates, or about honor vs duty between aristocratic generals — is where the tripartate film’s overarching theme of compassion amid the senselessness of war is best felt. And if you think a film that deal so much in the masculine code might strong-arm any female performance, “L’Atalante“‘s Dita Parlo makes a late appearance, and in a few short scenes wrings out whatever is left of your heart. An incredible film.

“The Great Escape” (1963)
An un-ignorable entry in the canon (indeed the early suggestion we might leave it off this list as it’s more representative of an escape movie — rendered almost as a heist — than an incarceration movie per se, was met with a gasp of disbelief) John Sturges‘ “The Great Escape” is proof that there’s no accounting for what’s going to become a “Christmas classic.” It’s a stirring boys-own adventure tale, certainly, but it’s also long, involved and does not end happily for most of the participants we care about. Still, it boasts one of the defining Steve McQueen performances and some of the best-paced and edited action/suspense sequences of the era — damned if every single time we see it it doesn’t seem like this time McQueen’s going to make it over that last fence… And even with all that and an ensemble including Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, James Garner and James Coburn perhaps “The Great Escape”‘s greatest moment is does not involve motorbikes or tunnels or even the lived-in detail of life in the POW camp, but the brilliant irony of Gordon Jackson‘s Macdonald being caught out by what he himself had coached the men is “the easiest trick in the world.”

“Hunger” (2008)
Director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”), with his background in art, arrived a fully formed, fully gifted filmmaker with this tiny but mighty debut film. Telling its story mostly through brutal, haunting imagery (though there is that justly famous tour-de-force 15 minute one-take dialogue scene), McQueen gives the viewer the absolute minimum needed to set up this interpretation of the events surrounding the Irish Republican Army’s 1981 hunger strike led by Bobby Sands. So rather than a by-the-numbers biopic, the film deals as much in the philosophy of the story as the politics. Yet “Hunger” also evokes its time and place, putting us inside the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland in the early 80s, and immersing the viewer so successfully in the smells, sights and sounds of the prison that you feel you’re sitting in on every scene, whether as an observer or hurled right into the action. Featuring a breakout Michael Fassbender, “Hunger” is grim and visceral, but it doesn’t punish the audience, and it’s simply too artfully constructed to be labeled as depressing. It shows the body as a political tool, yet deals in ideas about sacrifice, idealism in the face of oppression and the toll resistance takes on all sides.

“Kiss of the Spider Woman” (1985)
Despite picking up 4 Oscar nominations, being the first independent film nominated for Best Picture, and winning the Best Actor statue for William Hurt, Hector Babenco‘s “Kiss of the Spider Woman” has somewhat fallen off the radar in the years since. And that’s unfortunate, because despite uneven elements (particularly the sections reimagining old films noir), it’s still a remarkable film that’s precisely germane to the topic of incarceration, while also providing heady provocative arguments on the value of escapism, especially storytelling, and escapist Hollywood filmmaking in particular. Luis (Hurt) and Valentin (Raul Julia) are cellmates in a South American prison. Luis is flamboyant but frightened, a gay man imprisoned for sex with an underage boy; Valentin is jailed for his radical politics, and pines for the woman he loved but could never have. As the film unfolds it suggests that movies, politics and love are all analogous in connecting us to one another in meaningful, even transcendent ways. But its most striking moral, and one that predates “The Shawshank Redemption“‘s more literal take, is that no matter how small the cell, friendship, even forged in the unlikeliest of places between diametrically opposed people, is its own kind of liberation.

“Le Trou” (1960)
The last film French crime filmmaker Jacques Becker would ever direct — he died a few weeks after the film wrapped — “Le Trou” (translated in English as “The Hole”) is a methodical prison movie, almost a rigorous procedural about confinement and escape and in this regard its reminiscent of Bresson’s “A Man Escaped.” The picture centers on young man (Michel Marcel of Jacques Demy’s “Lola”) who is forced to switch jail cells while awaiting trial. Upon entering his new oubliette he is welcomed by four prisoners who have been planning an elaborate escape for months, and are forced to include the new inmate. While Becker’s film centers around humanist qualities of fraternity, camaraderie (this is the kind of jail you want to be sent to, frankly) and ultimately, betrayal, much of the movie silently focuses on the breakout employing long dialogue-less takes of digging, hammering, cutting. And in these exacting sequences often evoke a riveting intensity. Also using non-professional actors, it’s difficult to not compare the film to Bresson’s similar picture, but if Becker’s picture falls somewhat short (a twist ending of treachery that comments on the moral individuality of convicts doesn’t land as hard as it should) “Le Trou” is still a demanding prison movie well worth the watch.

“A Man Escaped” (1956)
Based on the memoirs of André Devigny, who escaped from Fort Montluc in Lyon in 1943, legendary French auteur Robert Bresson also mined his own experiences as a POW for this outright masterpiece. Intense, breathlessly suspenseful and yet perhaps one of the quietest and most minimalist “thrillers” ever made, it’s so assured in its procedural approach, and so clean in its lines, that you can’t quite see where Bresson hides all that magic. On one side of a wall lie Nazi soldiers with their pistols; on the other side sits a ravaged man (an unforgettable Francois Leterrier), almost reduced to an abstraction of the simple will to survive. Told in whispers and glances and painstakingly minute scratches at a door panel, the quietude in “A Man Escaped” is unnerving. And while the film can be an almost excruciating study of incarceration, it is also an illuminating and deeply felt examination of the interior self — the more so for giving us so little direct interior information. Divinity and religion are staples in his work, but despite not dealing with them head-on, the austere silences here feel saturated with humanist philosophy: it may be the holiest of Bresson experiences.

“Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence” (1983)
Simply one of the weirdest films ever made about war or prison, this movie from Japanese provocateur Nagisa Oshima (the filmmaker behind notoriously queasy erotic drama “In the Realm of the Senses“) is best approached as a bewildering, indulgent and often frustratingly opaque arthouse title, rather than the triumph-over-adversity mashup of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and “Stalag 17” it’s somewhat billed as. But it does provide a unique take on the psychology of the jailer/prisoner relationship, in the homoerotically-charged sado-masochism of the interactions between David Bowie’s Celliers and Ryuichi Sakamoto‘s Yonoi. Depending on your standpoint, it’s either marred or enlivened by a clash of acting styles: between the underplaying, warm-eyed Tom Conti, Bowie, whose character is almost more an alien than when he played one, and the Japanese contingent which also features Beat Takeshi, who crushes it in the film’s manipulative but undeniably effective ending. But it’s certainly an interesting clash, and that’s needed, because at over two hours the film can feel like an endurance test of its own, and yet it’s hard to shake off, with certain powerful scenes and images lingering long after, and Sakamoto’s most valuable contribution probably coming not in his performance, but his amazing, anachronistic 80’s synth score.

“Midnight Express” (1978)
Alan Parker’s “Midnight Express,” based on Billy Hayes’ memoir (and adapted by a young Oliver Stone), stars Brad Davis as a young American busted for smuggling hash in Turkey, leading to a brutally tough five-year stretch that takes in cruel beatings, attempted sexual assault and a loss of hope and humanity. Parker, in an unlikely follow up to “Bugsy Malone,” brings a sense of music-video style to the hellish surroundings, and it’s undoubtedly grittier than most prison movies that had come before it, his camera never shying away from the ugliness, even if that ugliness looks quite pretty. But the film feels like a bit of a relic these days. Is it the way it shies from its source in rejecting the idea that Hayes could have sex with men inside (ironic, given the joke about Turkish prisons in “Airplane!” a few years later)? Is it Giorgio Moroder’s banging, but now ill-fitting synth score? Or the overtly racist depiction of the Turkish, which many of the filmmakers have since apologized for? It might have been a multiple Oscar-nominee at the time, but now it feels a little creaky, but it’s still pretty much a must-see for any true enthusiast for the genre, if for nothing else than to note how much is has changed over the years.

“Papillon” (1973)
While regarded in many circles as one of the classic prison dramas, perhaps what distinguishes Franklin J. Schaffner’s “Papillon” from most prison films is its exhausting sprawl. At 2.5 hours (which feels longer), Schaffner’s prison loyalty drama tracks an unlikely friendship between a brute (Steve McQueen) and a thinker (Dustin Hoffman) who come to a mutual understanding early on: physical protection in exchange for escape-plan assistance. But it also spans a few overlong decades. Charriere (McQueen), the safecracking man with the titular butterfly tattoo, fails in several of his attempts to escape and is rewarded by trips to the hole that last for several years (and take Hoffman out of the picture for long stretches). Based on an autobiography of a prisoner who actually escaped from the brutal French penal colony of Devil’s Island depicted in the film, “Papillon,” perhaps a little too faithfully adapted, takes on the dimensions of an endurance film with McQueen appearing as a gray-haired man in his 50s who is broken, but not quite defeated. Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-nominated score lends the movie some epic largesse, and McQueen’s performance is pretty solid, but the overstressed triumph-of-the-spirit theme leaves one a little fatigued by the end. Which is perhaps the point.

“A Prophet” (2009)
Director Jacques Audiard finally took home the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for “Dheepan,” but he’s been a force in world cinema for some time now, and his best film to date is this superbly crafted crime epic, which tracks the six-year prison term of Malik (Tahar Rahim, in a star-making turn), who enters jail at 19 with little chance of survival and comes out a top-tier criminal leader. The portrayal of life in the prison is detailed and lived-in, displaying a mix of grit and strange beauty while also satisfying (and elevating) expected genre beats. That’s Audiard’s gift as a filmmaker; all his work is based in familiar genres, but he twists and subverts enough to carve out his own memorable niche. Take the ethereal, supernatural elements in “A Prophet”: they feel unexpected (and for some, out of place), but they’re kept in the periphery just enough so as not to detract from Malik’s main arc. His criminal education in jail proves to be Audiard and co-screenwriter Thomas Bidegain’s biggest statement, meaning that while it’s a terrific prison story, “A Prophet” should also be remembered as one of the great crime films of this past decade.

“R” (2010)
This brutally honest, criminally under-seen Danish prison drama makes something of a trilogy with “Starred Up” and “A Prophet” in its portrayal of prison hierarchies and social structures. But “R” (a reference to the lead character, Rune, played by the great Pilou Asbæk), while seeming familiar at first, earns its spot on this list because of the way it uses the tropes of the prison movie only to undercut them in several successive rug-pulls. Writer/directors Tobias Lindholm (Thomas Vinterberg‘s frequent writer and director of similarly visceral Playlist favorite “A Hijacking”) and Michael Noer add to a gritty prison drama a shocking, almost Hitchcockian twist which reinforces the grim reality of this world: the weak will always be weak in this place, and control of one’s fate is but an illusion. Cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jønck employs docu-real stylistic techniques, like an always-mobile, hand-held camera, which lends the film a sense of urgency that is wholly appropriate, but the film is constructed in a deceptively artful way: while it feels like it’s simply unfolding in front our eyes in a verite style, its thrust is pointed, and its pacing keeps you hooked. It makes us anticipate Lindholm’s next film, “A War,” even more.

“Rescue Dawn” (2007)
Outwardly one of the more straightforward films from the brilliantly eccentric Werner Herzog,Rescue Dawn,” adapted from his own documentary “Little Dieter Needs to Fly,” is actually a pretty successful attempt to marry the director’s trademark obsessions to a more “Hollywood” narrative. Christian Bale‘s uncompromising portrayal of the indomitable Dieter Dengler a POW in a Laotian camp, along with Steve Zahn‘s great, less-heralded turn, gives it that Hollywood gloss, yet it deviates from the star vehicle paradigm in ways that, sadly, the director’s most recent film “Queen of the Desert” does not. And so we get the brutality and torpor of the first half, which shows how the human spirit can be progressively degraded through torture and isolation, followed by the messy escape attempt, in which we never learn the fates of most of the men, while Bale and Zahn flee their bamboo jail only to find themselves imprisoned in the dense crush of the jungle outside. It is, of course, a testament to a man’s unbreakable spirit, but simmering just beneath that is a real sense of Herzogian despair at just how much one might need to sacrifice to an uncaring, wild world simply in order to survive.

“The Shawshank Redemption”  (1994)
It’s strange to look back at this Frank Darabont-directed adaptation of Stephen King’s novella and remember that, even though it was nominated for 7 Oscars including Best Picture, it was considered an under-the-radar gem at the time of its release, earning only $28 million on a $25 million budget. It’s been a long, decades-spanning steady build en route to becoming one of the most beloved films of all time. Big words, but the film is now a frequent staple of all-time top movies lists, especially those voted for by the public, enjoying the benefit of being released just at the cusp of the DVD explosion and being shown on cable seemingly every day. And its status as an unimpeachable classic feels earned: time has treated the film well, remarkably so considering it features the type of “twist” surprise that doesn’t always lend itself to repeat viewings. But the performances, especially from Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman are quietly definitive, the period detailing lush and exact, and the message of hope is eternally moving, especially in a genre often given to miserabilism. Who doesn’t get at least a little choked up at that totally satisfying ending?

“Stalag 17” (1953)
By the time Billy Wilder’s “Stalag 17” was released, few American filmmakers had tackled the reality that so many soldiers had faced as POWs during the war (Fred Zinnemann’s “Act Of Violence” used it as the backstory for a thriller) — indeed, “Stalag 17” was delayed for nearly a year, and only released once Paramount decided it would cash-in on the release of U.S. soldiers from Korea. The result, as such, is one of the more influential films on this list, inspiring everything from “The Great Escape” to “Hogan’s Heroes” and Aardman’s glorious animated “Chicken Run.”  Based on a Broadway success, the film’s set in the titular camp, and involves a failed escape attempt, and the hunt for the man who betrayed his fellow soldiers to the Germans, mostly suspected to be the charismatic, morally nebulous Sefton (William Holden, terrific and Oscar-winning). It’s episodic stuff, though the plot eventually takes over late in the day, funny and painful and full of life thanks to its tremendous cast, and though the director’s trademark cynicism is in place, it’s among his most purely humanistic works. There have been plenty of POW pictures since, but this sits with “The Grand Illusion” at the very top of the tree.

“Starred Up” (2014)
Jack O’Connell’s breakthrough turn in this wonderful, unabashedly melodramatic British prison film is its main attraction, much like Tom Hardy’s in 2008’s “Bronson” (probably the last time we felt this sort of endorphin rush from a performance). Both are absolutely essential to the success of their respective films (both set in UK prisons), elevating already strong material by sheer force of charisma and their ability to bring tons of capital-T truth. Also like Hardy, O’Connell brings out the best in his supporting cast. Ben Mendelsohn may be among the most gifted characters actor working today (and a favorite around these parts), and in “Starred Up” he gives one of his greatest performances as O’Connell’s father. There’s an abundance of soap opera plotting: the father/son dynamic; pulpy criminal underworld twists; a therapist trying to teach communication to a group of prisoners; political backstabbing in the prison employment hierarchy. But director David Mackenzie (a 2014 Breakout Director) crafts the film with the grittiness befitting a modern prison drama that renders even the soapier moments thrillingly believable, all rigorously focused on O’Connell’s angry-dog turn. So despite the cliches, the film feels fresh and vibrant, shot through with truthful details that bring the story gasping to life.

Honorable Mentions
If you’ve seen all the above, you’re a) really into prison movies and b) probably hankering for more, so here’s another few titles we debated including (out of the many hundreds of films that qualify):

Frank Darabont‘s other prison drama, “The Green Mile” is solid, but still suffers by comparison to the immensely beloved ‘Shawshank’; “The Cube” is a chilling low-budget sci-fi take on the genre; 1950’s fascinating “Caged” with Agnes Moorehead is set in a women’s prison and details an otherwise decent inmate’s descent into criminality, though it is dated now; speaking of, or rather leering at women in prison, “Caged Heat” is a great example of exploitation cinema, slightly elevated by the presence of Jonathan Demme as writer/director of this Roger Corman pic; “Stir Crazy” the apex of the Wilder/Pryor collaboration is a ridiculous, brash comedic take on prison life; “The Longest Yard” with Burt Reynolds is a surprisingly successful mash-up of prison drama, comedy and sports movie; “Carandiru” is a shocking and brilliant expose of life in the infamous Brazilian prison; Alan Clarke‘s bruising “Scum” from 1979 is set inside a British borstal and features a knockout, breakout turn from Ray Winstone; and while “The Escapist” and “Escape to Victory” are both terrific, they featured on our Prison Break feature (along with some of these other titles) and we kind of deemed them to be more about the escape plot than about incarceration itself (also why we excluded “The Rock,” in case you’re a rabid Michael Bay fan about to draft a death threat).

Finally, there’s the whole subgenre of the prison documentary which we avoided in favor of the narrative films above, but suffice to say they are often as bruising, if not more so, than their fictional counterparts. You could do a lot worse than checking out Werner Herzog‘s “Death Row/Into the Abyss” series, “The Life and Mind of Mark deFriest” and Nick Broomfield‘s “Tattooed Tears” if non-fiction is more your thing.

It’s a massive genre, though, and there are many more we could have chosen, so feel free to make the case for your own favorites by shouting through the bars, hiding a note behind a loose brick, or even using the comment form below.

–Jessica Kiang, Erik McClanahan, Oliver Lyttelton, Rodrigo Perez

Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , , , , , , ,

Get The Latest IndieWire Alerts And Newsletters Delivered Directly To Your Inbox