prison films


I’ve always had a thing for bad boys. There was the guy with the motorcycle. There was the dude with the tattoos. And there was the fellow who supposedly “did it” with a sheep. Maybe this weird attraction to naughty explains why I have a thing for prison movies.

Cover of "Escape From Alcatraz"
Cover of Escape From Alcatraz

One of the earliest prison movies I remember seeing was Escape From Alcatraz (1979). Based on a true story, Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) is a cunning bank robber who gets caught and is told upon his arrival at Alcatraz that no one ever escapes. From that moment on, Frank is pretty much hell bent on getting off the island alive. I knew I was supposed to reject Frank, but I found him handsome, persistent, creative and intelligent. I wanted him to get off the island. Honestly, I didn’t care if he went back to the streets of California and continued his life of crime. Weird how movies can get you to do that, n’est pas?

Cover of "The Silence of the Lambs (Full ...
Cover via Amazon

I remember seeing Silence of the Lambs (1991) in Buffalo, New York. A poor graduate student, I rarely had money enough to go to the movies but saw this one on a date. Newbie FBI agent, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) has to earn the confidence from the brilliant but wildly psychopathic Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) so that she can stop a serial murderer. What makes SOTL so dang delicious is that there are two hideous bad boys. We have a whack-job sociopath living on the outside with his moth collection, constructing a “skin-suit” out of plus-sized women’s flesh. Then there’s the maniac in a cage: good ole Hannibal Lecter—brilliant, intense, well schooled. And so thirsty for blood. We know they are both crazy as loons and unremorseful. Doesn’t get any better than that.

Cover of "The Shawshank Redemption"
Cover of The Shawshank Redemption

In The Shawshank Redemption (1994) Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), a talented banker, is in prison after being found guilty of murdering his wife and her lover. But as the movie unrolls, we see the real bastard is the warden who finds a way to use Andy’s accounting prowess to doctor the prison books for his personal gain. Like Frank Morris in Escape from Alcatraz, Andy spends every day in prison focused on getting out. He dreams of a life by the sea in a place called Zihuatanejo, and he is able to develop deep friendships while in prison. And we find ourselves rooting for Andy, praying for him to get out of there however he can.

Sidenote: In 1994, I had been dating the same man for nearly three years and knew we would one day marry. After seeing The Shawshank Redemption, we decided that we would travel to Zihutanejo, Mexico for our honeymoon. Yes, our honeymoon destination was based on our shared love for this movie, which was based on my love of bad boys. It should be noted that we arrived in Zihutanejo, we realized the movie had probably not been filmed on location. True story.

Cover of "Dead Man Walking: The Shooting ...
Cover via Amazon

In 1995, my (new) husband and I had been living in New Orleans for two years, so you can imagine my delight when Dead Man Walking came to the big screen. I was excited because there were bad boys and also because there were names like Delecroix and Prejean and Poncelet: names I knew how to properly pronounce and spell. After all, a Robichaux, a Boudreaux, a Naquin, and two Biguenets had sat through my classes. I had driven on Tchoupitoulas, and I just had seen a rodeo at Angola State Prison.

In the movie, Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) admits to being guilty of his heinous crimes. And while the good nun (Susan Sarandon) tries to guide him to salvation, I wanted him to stay bad. Why? I have absolutely no idea. At the time, New Orleans was a dangerous place. Friends had been robbed at gunpoint; my students had been car-jacked; two of my most beloveds had been stuffed in the trunk of a car and almost murdered. There were nightly news reports of tourists being fatally stabbed. And while I loved living in New Orleans, Dead Man Walking reminded me that life was not all about Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, sugar magnolias and crawfish boils. Danger lurked there too. And I liked it.

The Green Mile (film)
The Green Mile (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When my husband and I saw The Green Mile (1999), our son was a newborn. I was emotional. Tom Hanks played Paul Edgecomb, the most-seasoned prison guard at the Louisiana Cold Mountain Penitentiary, the fictional setting loosely based on death row at Angola, Louisiana in the 1930s. I knew nothing about this movie going in. I was expecting a bad boy and didn’t expect John Coffey. Eight feet tall and accused of killing two little girls, viewers immediately recognize that John Coffey is gentle as a lamb and possesses an amazing gift: the ability to take away others’ pain. The real bad guy is not the man behind the bars but prison guard Percy Wetmore, the evil and spoiled nephew of the governor’s wife. I was unprepared for the true horror of The Green Mile: that innocent people can die hideous deaths at the hands of “stupid and mean” people with strong political connections, folks who do things because they can. This movie unnerved me, and I sobbed even after the lights came on in the theatre. Hormones.

Which is the best movie? For me, they’re equally excellent and I can’t pick. In each of these films there is a hope—for escape, redemption, salvation, relief. Sometimes that hope is realized; sometimes it is squashed. All I know is that if the television is on and I hear one line of dialogue from any of these films, everything stops. I stop and sit on my chocolate brown couch, box of Kleenex at my side, to inspect the invisible, thin line where naughty and nice collide.

Who is your favorite bad boy from the movies?

tweet me @rasjacobson


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