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Ten Best Prison Movies

The Hollywood prison movie has been a staple since the earliest days of the cinema. Birdman of Alcatraz, The Shawshank Redemption, Cool Hand Luke, The Green Mile, Riot in Cell Block 11, Papillon and The Last Mile are the top films.

Birdman of Alcatraz 1962 German poster image courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries

Prison movies, one might say, play to a captive audience. Many of them can be brutally entertaining, effectively capturing the harsh realities of prison life as viewed by both inmates and guards.

Here are ten outstanding prison movies that no fan of the genre should ever miss. Watch these films or risk a life sentence on Hollywood’s own Alcatraz, reserved exclusively for recalcitrant motion picture buffs with absolutely no hope for parole.   

Birdman of Alcatraz (United Artists, 1962)

Burt Lancaster portrays real-life murderer Robert Stroud, who became one of the world’s foremost ornithologists while behind bars. Although producers took certain liberties – Stroud, for example, tended to his birds at Leavenworth and not on Alcatraz – the movie presents an intriguing, claustrophobic look at the infamous island prison in San Francisco Bay. Briefly touched on in the film is the 1946 Battle of Alcatraz, one of the bloodiest prison uprisings in American history. Burt Lancaster is outstanding as Stroud, with Karl Malden and Telly Savalas also turning in grand performances as Warden Harvey Shoemaker and inmate Feto Gomez, respectively.

  • Academy Award nominations: Best Actor (Lancaster), Best Supporting Actor (Savalas), Best Supporting Actress (Thelma Ritter), Best Cinematography 
  • Director: John Frankenheimer
  • Review: “The finest ‘prison’ picture ever made…” – Variety (6/20/62)
  • On DVD: Birdman of Alcatraz (MGM, 2001)

The Shawshank Redemption (Columbia, 1994)

Tim Robbins plays wrongly convicted banker Andy Dufresne, who’s doing a life sentence at Maine’s Shawshank State Prison for the murder of his wife and her country club lover. As Andy tries to tunnel his way out, he has to contend with the brutality of life behind bars, battling a vicious band of cons called “The Sisters” and locking horns with a corrupt, temperamental warden who uses him as the keeper of his secret financial ledgers. Morgan Freeman is excellent as Red, Andy’s prison buddy, with Bob Gunton delivering a fine performance as Warden Norton.

  • Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Freeman), Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Writing, Best Original Music Score, Best Film Editing
  • Director: Frank Darabont
  • Review: “The director, Frank Darabont, paints the prison in drab grays and shadows, so that when key events occur, they seem to have a life of their own.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (9/23/94)
  • On DVD: The Shawshank Redemption Two-Disc Special Edition (Warner, 2004)

Cool Hand Luke (Warner Bros./Seven Arts, 1967)

Paul Newman has the title role, playing a loner convict who’s doing a two-year stretch on a southern road gang. It’s hardly easy time, as Newman as Luke Jackson must contend with a sadistic commandant (Strother Martin), a bruiser of a con named Dragline (George Kennedy) and various punishments meted out by prison authorities, including isolation in the infamous sweat box. Yes, boss!

  • Academy Award nominations: Best Actor (Newman), Best Supporting Actor (Kennedy, won), Best Writing, Best Original Music Score
  • Director: Stuart Rosenberg
  • Review: “The traditional object of sorrow and compassion in American folk song and lore, the chain-gang prisoner, is given as strong a presentation as ever he has had on the screen in Cool Hand Luke…” – Bosley Crowther, The New York Times (11/2/67)
  • On DVD: Cool Hand Luke Deluxe Edition (Warner, 2008)

Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke (1967), image courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries

The Green Mile (Warner Bros., 1999)

Tom Hanks stars as Paul Edgecomb, the head screw of Cold Mountain Penitentiary’s death row in 1935. Edgecomb and his fellow guards carry out executions using Old Sparky, the prison’s foreboding, oft-used electric chair. One death row inmate, John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), possesses supernatural healing powers, magically sucking out disease from the afflicted. The Green Mile’s three execution scenes are not for the faint of heart, especially the botched job involving Eduard Delacroix (Michael Jeter), who literally fries in the chair after sadistic Percy Wetmore (Doug Hutchison) refuses to follow proper procedure.

  • Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Duncan), Best Writing, Best Sound
  • Director: Frank Darabont
  • Review: “…An intermittently powerful and meticulously crafted drama that falls short of its full potential due to considerable over-length and some shopworn, simplistic notions at the center.” – Todd McCarthy, Variety (11/29/99)
  • On DVD: The Green Mile Two-Disc Special Edition (Warner, 2006)

Riot in Cell Block 11 (Allied Artists, 1954)

This gritty, low-budget melodrama was actually filmed on location at Folsom State Prison in Represa, California. Emile Meyer plays Warden Reynolds, with Neville Brand, Leo Gordon, Alvy Moore, et al. as convicts who stage a riot in order to publicize the inhuman living conditions they are forced to endure. Told in a semi-documentary fashion, Riot in Cell Block 11 was produced by Walter Wanger, who had served a four-month prison term for shooting the suspected lover of his wife, actress Joan Bennett. It was old home week of sorts for actor Leo Gordon, who had actually served a stretch in prison for armed robbery.

  • Director: Don Siegel
  • Review: “In its own small way, Riot in Cell Block 11 is a realistic and effective combination of brawn, brains and heart.” – A.H. Weiler, The New York Times (2/19/54)
  • Not currently available on commercial DVD

Papillon (Allied Artists, 1973)

Steve McQueen plots his escape from the infamous penal colony of French Guiana, with a reluctant Dustin Hoffman along for the perilous journey. The hellish prison conditions in Papillon are second to none, complete with crocodile-infested swamps, knife-wielding cons, sadistic guards, a quack doctor, silence-enforced solitary confinement and of course the guillotine, the latter of which is used to deal with more serious infractions on Devil’s Island. The movie is based on the best-selling memoir by former inmate Henri Charriere a.k.a. Papillon, who no doubt combined a lot of fiction with fact.

  • Academy Award nomination: Best Original Music Score 
  • Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
  • Review: “As played by Steve McQueen, Papillon is as all-American as a Rover Boy. He is manly, alert, self-reliant, deeply imbued with a sense of fair play. His love of freedom is so great that he must attempt the impossible, that is, to escape from Devil’s Island.” – Vincent Canby, The New York Times (12/17/73)
  • On DVD: Papillon (Warner, 2005)

The Last Mile (United Artists, 1959)

Mickey Rooney stars as John “Killer” Mears, a convict sitting on death row who decides not to go gentle into that good night. The Mick leads a prison break at the big house, only to be crushed in his quest for freedom. Rooney is absolutely riveting as the desperate con with nothing to lose, mouthing a whole lot of prison trash talk while he blasts away at his antagonists. The Last Mile was first filmed in 1932, with Preston Foster as Killer Mears.  

  • Director: Howard W. Koch
  • Review: “…Killer Mears – now played by Mickey Rooney – the toughest, meanest inmate ever to create havoc along Death Row.” – Howard Thompson, The New York Times (2/19/59)
  • Not currently available on DVD

The Last Mile 1959 half sheet poster style B image courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries

Midnight Express (Columbia, 1978)

Brad Davis plays young American Billy Hayes, who draws a long sentence in a Turkish prison after being convicted of smuggling hashish. Rat-infested Sagmalcilar prison proves to be a nightmare, populated by homicidal inmates, brutal guards and thieving children. Finally, a desperate Hayes can take no more, making his escape by simply donning the uniform of a bludgeoned guard and walking out the door to eventual freedom.

  • Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (John Hurt), Best Writing (Oliver Stone, won), Best Film Editing, Best Original Music Score (won)
  • Director: Alan Parker
  • Review: “Midnight Express is a sordid and ostensibly true story about a young American busted [in 1970] for smuggling hash in Turkey and his subsequent harsh imprisonment and later escape.” – Variety
  • On DVD: Midnight Express (Sony, 2008)

Midnight Express 1978 advance movie poster

Escape from Alcatraz (Paramount, 1979)

The real-life 1962 escape from Alacatraz Island gets the Hollywood treatment, with Clint Eastwood in the starring role of ringleader Frank Morris. Alcatraz, in operation as a maximum security federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963, continues to fascinate, with Escape from Alcatraz effectively dramatizing conditions inside the notorious prison. Patrick McGoohan makes for a fine, nameless warden who obviously enjoys his work.

  • Director: Don Siegel
  • Review: “For almost all of its length, Escape from Alcatraz is a taut and toughly wrought portrait of life in a prison. It is also a masterful piece of storytelling, in which the characters say little and the camera explains the action.” - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (6/27/79)
  • On DVD: Escape from Alcatraz (Paramount, 1999)

The Longest Yard (Paramount, 1975)

Burt Reynolds plays ex-NFL quarterback Paul “Wrecking” Crewe, who ends up behind bars following a drunken tiff with his wealthy gal pal (Anitra Ford). The prison is run by Warden Rudolph Hazen (Eddie Albert), who wants the defiant Crewe to help coach his semi-pro football team comprised of prison guards. Crewe eventually forms his own team inside the walls, recruiting other convicts for the big game against Hazen’s bruisers. The Longest Yard, remade in 2005 starring Adam Sandler and Chris Rock, is both brutal and funny. One of the more humorous scenes involves Reynolds’ Paul Crewe, who is forced to perform a “personal service” for Miss Toot (Bernadette Peters), a big-haired secretary at the prison.

  • Academy Award nomination: Best Film Editing
  • Director: Robert Aldrich
  • Review: “…The Longest Yard is a cynical, often brutal, crudely stated movie that blends two seemingly unmixable genres – the slice of sadistic prison life and the equally ancient tale of an underdog football team conquering impossible odds to win the Big Game.” – Richard Schickel, Time (9/23/74)
  • On DVD: The Longest Yard Lockdown Edition (Paramount, 2004)

The Longest Yard 1975 Australian one sheet movie poster

Ten More Prison Movie Gems

  • I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
  • Reform School Girls (1986)
  • Brubaker (1980)
  • The Big House (1930)
  • 20,000 Years in Sing Sing (1932)
  • Devil’s Island (1939)
  • Bad Boys (1983)
  • The Hurricane (1999)
  • Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985)
  • Stir Crazy (1980)

The Big House (1930) title lobby card

 

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32 Comments
  1. Posted January 1, 2010 at 7:59 am

    I saw The Green Mile and it was a great movie. Wonderful compilation :)

  2. Posted January 1, 2010 at 9:20 am

    Great post..very informative..a work of love..thanks for sharing!

  3. Posted January 1, 2010 at 12:12 pm

    shawshank redemption was the best of the lot

  4. Posted January 1, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    Shawshank is my favorite followed by Papillon.

  5. Posted January 1, 2010 at 9:44 pm

    William..a fantastic line-up of the best prison movies according to you *g* Midnight Express was another excellent prison movie. Shawshank Redemption has to be my favourite, but then I’m biased because I adore Morgan Freeman:) The Green Mile is another favourite but once again, Tom Hanks is another favourite leading man of mine. Top of the year to you Will and top of the Cinemaroll Category to you too – you deserve it. Congratulations on making it to the Hot Content List again – you deserve a place there too mate:)

  6. Posted January 1, 2010 at 10:59 pm

    The Shawshank Redemption and the Green Mile are two of my all time favorites. Great list, there are a few there I haven’t seen, will have to check them out.

  7. Posted January 2, 2010 at 7:24 am

    Ah… “Stalag 17″ ???. Hello?

  8. Posted January 2, 2010 at 11:20 am

    I deliberately did not include any of the POW movies – Stalag 17, The Great Escape, The Bridge on the River Kwai – as most people think of them as war movies. I wrote a feature on The Bridge on the River Kwai (Cinemaroll).

  9. Posted January 2, 2010 at 11:52 am

    Shawshank and Midnight express – definitely up at the top of my list!

  10. Posted January 2, 2010 at 2:22 pm

    Shawshank Redemption is my favourite. I could watch that plenty more times. Great film.

    Good article. :0)

  11. Posted January 2, 2010 at 11:16 pm

    My stepfather played an extra in Brubaker. I live only a few miles from the prison grounds where they filmed at least part of the movie. Pretty cool! Part of the compound is now a junkyard. lol

  12. Posted January 3, 2010 at 12:58 am

    This may not qualify but I thought Death Race and Running Man were good futuristic sci-fi movies about prison life. How prisoners became entertainment and how the public fed off this. With all this reality tv stuff it’s seems the only logical next step.

  13. Posted January 3, 2010 at 10:05 am

    you did not put in the great escape…its also a great movie

  14. Posted January 3, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    this is bad article

  15. Posted January 3, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    truely great article my favorite of these is papillion of course i am a big Steve Mcqueen fan

  16. Posted January 3, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    I remember watching Escape From The Alcatraz. It was a great movie.

  17. Posted January 4, 2010 at 5:35 am

    very fine done.

  18. Posted January 4, 2010 at 6:24 am

    Havnt seen these movies yet, might rent it someday. Should add in modern prison movies. Something like longest yard etc. Great read!

  19. Posted January 4, 2010 at 9:03 am

    Great movies, when I saw your title I immediately thought of “Escape from Alcatraz” movie.

  20. Posted January 4, 2010 at 4:33 pm

    personally the shawshank redemption was always up there
    and those videos on youtube of dancing Philipino prisoners i think they should be here too.

  21. Posted January 5, 2010 at 7:08 am

    Great job man

  22. Posted January 7, 2010 at 12:35 am

    Yey… i knew some of these are based from stephen king’s books.. great..!

  23. Chad
    Posted March 6, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    Im trying to remember a movie that I downloaded awhile back. It was about a man and his wife that lived a really nice life until a burgler broke in and the husband shot him and was sentected to prison for trying to protect his family. He ends up getting forced to join a gang for protection and is hired to fight in the yard constantly while the guards bet on em. His wife almost leaves him as he gets further locked down into maximum security and what not…Can anyone remember the name of this movie?

  24. Posted March 6, 2010 at 11:49 pm

    Chad:

    It sounds like An Innocent Man (Buena Vista, 1989) starring Tom Selleck as Jimmy Rainwood. Two corrupt police officers break into Selleck’s house on a drug bust. One problem: they have the wrong house and have shot Selleck by mistake. In order to cover their own hides, they frame Selleck as a drug dealer.

    While in prison, Selleck is finally forced to defend himself, ramming a shank into his main tormentor. I watched this movie a few years ago and highly recommend it. Laila Robins plays Selleck’s wife.

    Is this the film?

  25. mohammed
    Posted April 4, 2010 at 2:28 am

    chad ..the movie is called..felon

  26. mohammad
    Posted April 8, 2010 at 4:14 am

    best are : doing hard time, lock down and in hell

  27. Tara
    Posted June 1, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    I love that lobby card for The Big House. Fantastic!

  28. izat
    Posted February 23, 2011 at 1:32 am

    whatever

  29. AZNC
    Posted May 3, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    Dude yall got it messed up, BLOOD in BLOOD OUT!!!!

  30. Gary
    Posted July 9, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    yall’ check out the prison movie FELON

    very nice movie also…

  31. George Githui
    Posted November 8, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    Shawshank Redemption is great!!! I am yet to find any better.

  32. Posted December 23, 2011 at 4:50 am

    Good for you Snooky excellent choice,It,s great to stand out from the crowd and see past what is great but also what is classic where do all you shawshank fans imagine Stephen King got his inspiration to write a prison yarn from? EXPERIENCE! PAPILLON was written from a memoir. truth will always not only be stranger than but also greater than fiction.

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