Alcatraz served as a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. Its walls housed such notorious convicts as Al Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Alvin Karpis and Robert “The Birdman” Stroud. ”The Rock” was a natural setting for filmmakers, with these seven entries topping the list of the best Alcatraz movies.
1. Birdman of Alcatraz (United Artists, 1962)
Burt Lancaster winningly plays convicted murderer Robert Stroud (1890-1963) – aka “The Birdman” — who resided at Alcatraz from 1942-59. Filmed primarily at United Artists Studios, Birdman of Alcatraz also utilized exterior shots of the actual island prison in San Francisco Bay.
This fictionalized account centers on Stroud and his stormy relationship with Warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden). Also explored is Stroud’s remarkable rise from prison thug to one of the world’s foremost ornithologists.
Birdman of Alcatraz garnered four Oscar nominations: Best Actor (Lancaster), Best Supporting Actor (Telly Savalas), Best Supporting Actress (Thelma Ritter), Best Cinematography (Burnett Guffey).
2. Escape from Alcatraz (Paramount, 1979)
Clint Eastwood is Frank Morris, who with the Anglin brothers, John and Clarence (Fred Ward, Jack Thibeau), bust out of Alcatraz on June 11, 1962. Patrick McGoohan plays the Warden, who tells budding accordion player Morris: “That’s one of the benefits of Alcatraz…lots of time to practice.”
Escape from Alcatraz was filmed on “The Rock” by producer/director Don Siegel. The production company had to lay 15 miles of cable from the mainland in order to provide the former island prison with electricity.
3. The Rock (Buena Vista, 1996)
Brigadier General Frank Hummel (Ed Harris) and his renegade Marines take over Alcatraz, threatening to kill their tourist hostages and level San Francisco with stolen rockets laden with chemical weapons. When a covert Navy Seal team is ambushed and killed, ex-Alcatraz con John Patrick Mason (Sean Connery) and FBI biochemist Dr. Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) are slipped into the island fortress.
4. Seven Miles from Alcatraz (RKO, 1942)
Convict Champ Larkin (James Craig) and his pal Jimbo (Frank Jenks) take unofficial leave of Alcatraz, winding up at a lighthouse in San Francisco Bay. Here they encounter the lighthouse owner (George Cleveland) and his daughter (Bonita Granville), along with a nest of Nazi spies.
Film critic Thomas M. Pryor of The New York Times found this picture lacking, remarking that the vital chemicals used to make this patriotic World War II thriller could have been better used in the manufacture of explosives.
5. Experiment Alcatraz (RKO, 1950)
Alcatraz physician Dr. Ross Williams (John Howard) is busy on the “The Rock,” using volunteer convicts for his medical experiments into blood diseases. Co-starring Joan Dixon and Walter Kingsford, Experiment Alcatraz is right out of the Atomic/Red Scare era, with the murdered Doc’s radioactive potion taking front and center.
6. Alcatraz Island (Warner Bros., 1937)
Racketeer “Gat” Brady (John Litel) winds up in Alcatraz on an income tax rap — the same beef that landed Al Capone in federal prison. Inside, Brady is framed for the murder of another convict. “It’s just the same in here as being in your grave,” Tough Tony Burke (George E. Stone) says of Alcatraz, “only you miss the fun of being dead.”
7. Murder in the First (Warner Bros., 1995)
Kevin Bacon plays Henri Young, a petty thief who is sent to Alcatraz in 1938. Following an unsuccessful escape attempt, Young is placed in solitary confinement for three years. Emerging from his hellish ordeal, Young later faces a murder charge, where he is defended by novice public defender James Stamphill (Christian Slater).
The production company experienced their own hell in making this picture. While filming the courtroom scenes, the Northridge (California) earthquake struck, delivering a 6.7 magnitude wakeup call.
Other Noteworthy Alcatraz Films:
- King of Alcatraz (Paramount, 1938)
- Train to Alcatraz (Republic, 1948)
- Al Capone (Allied Artists, 1959)
- The Alcatraz Express (Desilu, 1960)
- Curse of Alcatraz (Grindstone, 2007)
We bust out at midnight…