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  1. #1
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    Apr 2002


    This is one of those titles I had on my DVD want list for a long time, but just never got around to buying it because it always seems to be on cable at some point when you turn on your TV, or maybe it was the fact that the disc just didnt look all that appealing, specs-wise, whenever I picked it up in was one of those cheap Paramount bare-bones discs with a mono soundtrack, like The Warriors, but recently I caved in and picked it up at Wal Mart for around six or so bucks, along with the just-reviewed Lean On Me, another great fact-based drama.

    And sure enough, I know why Escape From Alcatraz was only the price it was; it sure had nothing in terms of extras, video quality or audio quality going for it, and considering the real, true background on this case and Alcatraz island itself, a full-blown Special Edition would make this title very desirable for Paramount, although I dont see it happening.

    And so we're left with this bare bones, one-disc, non anamorphic, average transferred version of this Clint Eastwood classic, and perhaps arguably the best prison film ever made (some film scholars have made this claim). You know, San Francisco is actually a great place to visit and vacation, which I have done, because the city is just so rich in history ---- from Fisherman's Wharf to Alcatraz island, it's a fascinating place to visit. Last time I was there, I went on the guded tour of Alcatraz island, and it was FASCINATING to see the real cells the way they were, to see where outlaws like Al Capone were housed, and to even see the last meal that was served in the mess hall which is still listed on the overhead board. I even went into a solitary confinement cell with my father, by volunteer, and was locked in there for sixty seconds to get an idea of what the guys who were locked down there for days on end went through......needless to say, we wanted out way before the sixty seconds were up. I dont know how these guys did it.

    But there have been so many different characters and incidents revolving around this prison island in San Francisco --- a prison that was deemed inescapable but was proven wrong --- including the legendary "Birdman of Alcatraz" and the aforementioned celebrities such as Al Capone who were imprisoned there. There is also the Christian Slater film Murder in the First, another excellent Alcatraz-based motion picture, which deals with cruel and unusual torturing of inmates in the isolation cells, one of which is clearly handicapped by it (Kevin Bacon in the film) and Slater, as a San Francisco D.A., brings charges against the prison and its evil warden (played by Gary Oldman). As good as a film it is, Murder in the First cant really compare to the original Clint Eastwood Escape From Alcatraz, which was the story of the infamous incident that lead to the institution being closed down once it was proven someone could actually escape from the prison.

    Eastwood plays real-life brilliant bank robber Frank Morris, who is sent to Alcatraz because he has escaped from multiple prisons already; the sadistic warden of the facility, played by Patrick Mc Goohan, knows Morris is up to something and tries to keep a close eye on him, but Eastwood has already begun his escape plans.....based on real, actual events documented about the real Frank Morris, Eastwood's character learns that he has found a way to dig himself out of his cell from a small grille in the back wall, which leads up to the top of the ventilation shaft to the roof of the prison. The escape attempt, while watching the film, seems just about impossible, and the ways in which Eastwood and his cohorts --- the Anglin brothers (also real-life characters who escaped with Morris) actually pull this off actually DID happen as impossible as the story suggests. Somehow, one night, the Anglin brothers and Morris make their way out of their cells, on to the roof of the prison, down the outer hills, over the barb wire fence, onto the beach, and using rafts they made out of raincoats, they somehow, someway escape from Alcatraz and try to make it to Angel Island --- a nearby retreat next to San Francisco --- instead of going to Frisco because they figured they would have less of a chance to being caught by agents. But, as history would have it, the Anglins and Morris were NEVER recovered and their bodies were never found, leading authorities to believe they either escaped into society and were never again caught......or they were eaten by sharks in the waters surrounding Alcatraz or simply drown.

    The ways in which Eastwood (Morris) come up with the plan to fool the guards and get to the top of the prison and out of its walls seems, as I said, impossible and laughable......but it actually worked. Morris and the Anglins actually took their time and created dummy heads of themselves out of materials they had exposure to, so that when the guards came around for count, it looked like real people were lying in their beds as they were outside was a fascinating plan that was actually pulled off. But how these guys actually crawled out of their tiny cells through tiny vent shafts in the back of their cells, and up through the ventilation shafts, is just baffling.....but they did it, and Escape From Alcatraz portrays the efforts quite historically accurate in its 111 minute running time.

    However, re-watching this film on RECORDED MEDIA, that would be DVD, I gotta say.....there are many moments when you can really fall asleep on this film because the pace does slow to a crawl in certain spots, such as when the guys are plotting their escape at the end, hanging upside down in the crawlspaces, drilling away at the ceiling with concealed makeshift drills made from fans, etc.....I dont know.....somehow watching Escape From Alcatraz on cable or broadcast TV was a better experience than watching it tonight on DVD; its almost as if I get the feeling that EVEN FOR six or so bucks, you can take or leave this film from your collection; in fact, I may consider selling it down the road......I dont know yet because it USED to have a soft spot in my heart when I had it on VHS.

    But a positive main characteristic about Escape From Alcatraz is the ENVIRONMENT it creates while you are watching it ---- you get the feeling you are just there with the prisoners on that island, with no real way out, and with San Francisco bay just miles in the distance, yet the prisoners have no way of getting there (well, that is, until the escape)......the film is one of the best examples of creating mood and atmosphere, something sorely needed in prison genre motion pictures and Escape From Alcatraz succeeds on THAT front. As I said, though, there are points I found myself forgetting just how slow and boring this film can play; and this could be for a couple of reasons if we wanted to point a dirty end of a stick towards writers, producers and editors. The bottom line is, I found myself enjoying Escape From Alcatraz more whenever I caught it on cable late at night on a random offbeat channel better than on DVD; has this ever happened to any of you?

    One thing I noticed about watching Escape From Alcatraz for the first time on any recorded media (I always have watched this motion picture on some kind of cable TV station in edited form) was the many scenes that were cut from the broadcast version, including multiple shots of Eastwood's naked ass, no doubt for the benefit of female fans of the film, if there were any at the time of 1979 theatrical release. More scenes involving added vulgarity are also on this DVD version, including racial references to African American people that were always cut out of television versions. There were other scenes I noticed that NEVER aired on broadcast TV, making the DVD version of Escape From Alcatraz a surprising gem indeed. There is ALSO a memorable and controversial scene in the film when an elderly character named "Doc" Dalton cuts his own fingers off in the woodshop with a huge hatchet because the warden took away his painting priveleges for painting pictures of EVERY television cut of this film, the severed fingers are never shown......but here, we actually see this prisoner chopping his fingers off of his hands. And thats something that bothered me about Escape From Alcatraz: this was supposed to be American's most extreme version of a maximum security prison, but yet VIOLENT CRIMINALS are allowed to use weapons in a woodshop like axes and hatchets? For the six or so bucks I paid for this at Wal Mart, you really cant argue putting this into your collection. Unless you turn and look at the specs of this disc, which we can do now.....


    Paramount just ****ed up on this one, visually and audio wise; I mean, the back of the box simply says WIDESCREEN VERSION, as the front of the box proclaims Escape From Alcatraz is part of its WIDESCREEN COLLECTION, but it doesnt say ANYWHERE if the picture has been anamorphically enhanced, nor does it mention anything ANYWHERE about aspect ratio; when playing it back in STANDARD mode on my Mitsubishi 16:9 screen, there was considerable letterboxing, so I am assuming this was a non-anamorphic 1:78 or 1:85 transfer which needed to be zoomed to get rid of the letterboxing; however, I didnt zoom it and decided to analyze the video as-is. Lets just say this isnt the cleanest print from Paramount; sure, this is a 1979 back catalog title, but from the Paramount logo opening on, you can see the grain specking the screen and there is print damage throughout the run of Escape From Alcatraz. No, I am not expecting Finding Nemo quality here, especially since Paramount in no, way, shape or form promised a re-mastering of this title nor did they put much effort into THIS version, but the overall presentation just isnt that great. It's hard to judge Escape From Alcatraz because for the AGE of the film and the source print, it really doesnt look that bad; but on the other hand, it doesnt look that GOOD either. I guess for the price Paramount asks for this thing, you cant complain.

    Dont get me wrong, though.......Paramount's DVD release of Escape From Alcatraz is probably the best this title is going to look on recorded media. It's not totally unwatchable or inexcusable, but it does get grainy and slightly dirty in certain spots. And I need to confirm with my press sources at Paramount exactly what damn ratio this DVD is supposed to be in.....


    Whew........another lifeless, powerless and dynamic-less mono track from a major studio.....this one wont win any awards, people. Much like the mono track Paramount decided to dump on its Warriors DVD, Escape From Alcatraz contains a mono mix that needs LOTS of power from your processor/receiver to get going. Some scenes of the dialogue are downright difficult to hear, such as when Eastwood is planning the escape with the Anglings, but I think this audio effect was intentional and exists in the original audio stems of this mono track. The main characteristic I picked up on during Escape From Alcatraz's mono mix was the fact that it sounds so can really tell this was a film from 1979. The opening sequence of the film, when the cops are transferring Eastwood from a boat onto Alcatraz island, is downright SILENT audio wise, needing you to crank your master volume way up just to make sure your system is on; when effects onscreen like lightning or thunder come into play, the mono mix opens up a bit and gets louder, or scenes in the shower room.....these sound much louder in the center channel mono position than the dialogue stems, a common problem with 2.0 mono mixes.

    If it were up to me, I think Paramount should re-visit this title at some point and give the film a remixed 5.1 treatment as well as bonus materials regarding the real story behind this film because there is a TON of material that can be gathered regarding Alcatraz, the Anglin brothers and Frank Morris. The studio is planning a Special Edition of The Warriors, another cult following hit from Paramount, sometime this Fall I believe if my sources were right, so why not apply the same treatment to this Clint Eastwood gem which would surely benefit from such an effort?

    We don't even get an original theatrical trailer on this.
    Last edited by Lexmark3200; 07-21-2005 at 10:34 AM.

  2. #2
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    Apr 2002
    Quote Originally Posted by Sir Terrence the Terrible
    Keep in mind that most all of the DVD you are reviewing are all old films in bad condition, using old encoding technology, and original mono soundtracks. It is always better to keep your expectation of what you are going to review very low, and be pleasantly surprised when any studio does a good job with these older titles. The studio's have not be very good about maintaining their film catalog. Many have missing soundtracks and master tapes, so they have to use second generation copies, or a older printmasters as sources for encoding.
    Yes Terrence, I have all this in mind and I am aware that these are old titles using vintage techniques; I am just being critical --- as a DVD analyst should be ---- OF these old technologies and their results; I dont really go into watching something like Escape From Alcatraz with high expectations at all; I simply wrote what I felt after watching the disc, as the same on other older titles. It is kind of a given that we're not going to get U571 performance from Escape From Alcatraz and Lean On Me; I am just being critical OF those old mono and/or Dolby Surround tracks and telling it like it is with my own ears being the judge......

    Thanks for reading the review!

  3. #3
    M.P.S.E /AES/SMPTE member Sir Terrence the Terrible's Avatar
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    Jul 2002
    Keep in mind that most all of the DVD you are reviewing are all old films in bad condition, using old encoding technology, and original mono soundtracks. It is always better to keep your expectation of what you are going to review very low, and be pleasantly surprised when any studio does a good job with these older titles. The studio's have not be very good about maintaining their film catalog. Many have missing soundtracks and master tapes, so they have to use second generation copies, or a older printmasters as sources for encoding.
    Sir Terrence

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