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

The prisoners are chained together in
I Am a Fugitive From a Chaing Gang.

House of the Dead: The Prison Machine

Central to the prison movie is the concept of the prison as machine -- as a "system" with impenetrable rules and regulations that grind on relentlessly. The effect of such a mechanistic depiction of punishment is to highlight both the individual fight for survival and the inherent process of dehumanization that comes with incarceration. The monotony and regulation of prison life is most often depicted by the highly structured movement of prisoners. Prison films convey the system within prison by showing us as inmates trudge along huge steel landings, climb up and down staircases, and march into exercise yards and mess halls. These scenes can be found in movies of the 1930s and '40s, such as Numbered Men (1930), The Criminal Code (1931), San Quentin (1937), Men Without Souls (1940) and Brute Force (1947), as well as recent movies, such as Dead Man Walking (1995) and The Shawshank Redemption (1995).

"Rows of cell doors open simultaneously and hundreds of prisoners tramp in unison to the yard. In the cavernous mess hall, they sit down to eat the mass-produced fodder their keepers call food. The camera tracks along a row of prisoners to reveal faces mainly individuated by the manner in which they express their revulsion at the meal." (Roffman & Purdy (1981, p.26) on a scene from The Big House )

The Big House

View an animated GIF of the prisoners moving in unison (20 frames, 176KB).

One of the most memorable examples of mechanized behavior came in the Mervyn LeRoy directed I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), based on the true story of a man sentenced to six to ten years on a South Georgia chain gang. After his first night's sleep in the camp, James Allen (played by Paul Muni) awakes as the chains (which bind the inmates together) are pulled along the bunks and out of the dormitory. With heads bowed and their legs dangling over the edges of their bunks, the inmates wait for the chains to disappear, after which they stand up and march out of the dorm and onto trucks. As the chains rattle, the guards shout abuse at the men.

Many prison films continually repeat shots of inmates doing the same tasks. This repetition serves both as a link between scenes and as a reminder to the audience of the mundane regime of prison. In San Quentin (1937), for example, we are regularly shown the massive exercise yard filled with inmates; in The Pot Carriers (1961) inmates are frequently seen lining up to collect food; and in McVicar (1981) many of the conversations take place as prisoners walk either up or down stairwells or from their cells. This uniformity in movement not only underlines the highly structured routine of the prison but extends the machinery image further. The motion of inmates, in contrast to the solid silence of the prison walls, mirrors the workings of a machine: prisoners are the cogs that drive forward the huge mechanism of punishment.

Indeed, in some films the camera pans round the prison interior, dwelling on landings, stairwells, iron bars, and cell doors, stressing the quasi-industrial nature of the prison. In Wedlock (1990), the camera follows new inmate Magenta (Rutger Hauer) around a high-tech maximum security prison. The camera sweeps around dripping pipes, huge fans, and metal columns, accompanied by an insistent, omnipresent hum. Two Way Stretch (1960), Midnight Express (1978), and Silent Scream (1990) also feature lengthy internal shots of the prison. While prison movies that feature Alcatraz -- Alcatraz Island (1937), The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Escape From Alcatraz (1979) and two TV movies Alcatraz: the Whole Shocking Story (1980) and Six Against The Rock (1987) -- all dwell on the grim surroundings.

As well as its physical presence, the prison film shows the inflexible rules of the machine:

"I know 'em. They're the same in all Pens. They tell you when to eat, when to sleep, when to go to the privy." (From The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962))

Prison action with Barbara Stanwyck (center) as a
rebellious inmate in
Ladies They Talk About.

Although used primarily to illustrate injustice, the hard and fast prison rules serve to emphasise the penal system's unyielding process. This is expressed through seemingly trivial regulations, such as the rule in The Ladies They Talk About (1933) that no inmate may touch the prison radio; the rules forbidding talk among prisoners during hard labor in Road Gang (1936), Papillon (1973), and Scum (1983); the rules that inmates must refer to each other only by their prison names in Wedlock (1990); and so on. Breach of such regulations is often punished by long periods of solitary confinement, a penalty often represented as harsh given the original offense (Papillon (1973) and Murder In The First (1995), for example).

Some films carried political messages about the injustices suffered by inmates. This was particularly true of films made in the 1930s with prison represented as a symbol of "the system" -- the cause of the despair and recession in America of the 1930s. Films such as Hell's Highway (1932) and Blackwell's Island (1939) show prison as "the ultimate metaphor of social entrapment" (Roffman & Purdy 1981, p.26) with an emphasis on how the brutality of prisons and chain gangs robs men of their individuality:

"The evil in the men's prisons appears to have been transformed into some larger entity. More often than not, that larger entity takes the form of a political or big city 'machine.' The effect of this was to encourage the audience to ... vent whatever animosity they might be able to muster on ... the 'system' that seemed, to the thirties audience, to control the very life of every honest, hard working (or unemployed) man in America." (Querry 1976, p.159)

The representation of the prison as a machine in cinema is fundamental to the prison movie, for it is from this idea that the other themes flow: escape from the machine, riot against the machine, the role of the machine in processing and rehabilitating inmates, and the effect of entering the machine on new inmates.

page 3 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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