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The Prison in Cinema
Page 1Page 2Page 3Page 4Page 5Page 6    by Dr. Paul Mason -- page 2 of 6

Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman as
prison convicts in

The Prison Movie as Genre

Early in my research it struck me that the term "prison movie" was both a nebulous and problematic one. It is not a term used in everyday discourse in the same way that "gangster film," "musical," and "Western" are used, and yet most of us would describe Midnight Express, The Birdman From Alcatraz, and Papillon as "prison movies." Few critics have written about the prison movie and none of them have attempted to define the genre. It is perhaps the difficulty in defining the genre that explains why so little has been written about the prison film -- despite over three hundred prison films having been made since 1910. The biggest problem with prison films is deciding how much of a film must be set in prison in order for it to be classified as a prison film. As Nellis and Hale (1981) point out:

"Scenes of imprisonment occur in all different types A Man For All Seasons, swashbuckling melodramas like The Count Of Monte Cristo and even in westerns, There Was a Crooked Man for example." (Nellis and Hale 1981, p.6)

"Dancin' to the Jailhouse Rock."
Elvis Presley in
Jailhouse Rock.

Conversely, a film about prison does not necessarily have to be set in one. David Hayman's film Silent Scream (1990) concerns the suffering and mental anguish brought on by incarceration, yet this film is not predominantly set in prison. We're No Angels (1955), Breakout (1975), In the Name of the Father (1995), and Sleepers (1996) could all be seen as concerned with prison, yet a significant part of each film takes place outside the prison walls. Furthermore, Laurel and Hardy in The Hoose Gow (1929), Elvis Presley's Jailhouse Rock (1957), and Porridge (1978) -- all set within prison walls -- are merely star vehicles with prison as a backdrop.

Having considered these problems, I settled on the following definition of a prison movie: "a film which concerns civil imprisonment and which is mainly set within the walls of a prison or uses prison as a central theme." While not without its flaws (not least of which being the well-documented problem of delineating genre), this working definition allows us to begin discussing the prison movie as a film genre.

page 2 of 6


Page 1: Introduction

Page 2: The Prison Movie as Genre

Page 3: The Prison Machine

Page 4: On Entering Prison

Page 5: Other Themes

Page 6: Captured On Film


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