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Prisoners of the Rock

For decades, Hollywood has found Alcatraz an irresistible setting, most recently with 'The Rock.' What is it about the isolated island that lends itself to film? Hint: It's not the weather.

June 02, 1996|Steven Smith | Steven Smith is an occasional contributor to Calendar

"The idea of being alone in the middle of a bay--there's something incredibly scary about that. It's a sort of perversion. People think about escaping onto a desert island--how wonderful. This is the nightmare version of that."

--Nicolas Cage

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Since its modern history began in 1934--and legendary gangsters such as Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelly paced their lives away in solitary--moviegoers have had little chance to escape from Alcatraz.

Clint Eastwood did battle with America's most infamous prison twice on screen: first as Dirty Harry, fighting Alcatraz-camped gunmen in 1976's "The Enforcer," then as Frank Morris, the real-life prisoner depicted in 1979's "Escape From Alcatraz." Lee Marvin played a crook who's gunned down at the abandoned prison in 1967's "Point Blank"--the first film actually to shoot at Alcatraz, after its closure in 1963. And decades earlier, the forbidding site inspired such B-movie quickies as 1942's "Seven Miles From Alcatraz" and the Ann Sheridan programmer "Alcatraz Island" (shrieked the poster: "They'd even bust out of Alcatraz to get a dame like her!").

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Now, the penitentiary once known for its tomblike silence gets its most speaker-shaking treatment to date, in "The Rock."

The action thriller, which opens Friday, marks the last teaming of the late producer Don Simpson and his former partner, Jerry Bruckheimer. Sean Connery stars as a (fictitious) Alcatraz escapee who teams with chemicals expert Nicolas Cage after a crazed general (Ed Harris) takes over the island and threatens to wipe out San Francisco. "The Rock's" high-speed, action-driven tone is markedly different from most previous Alcatraz movies, with their sober, claustrophobic depictions of the prison's brutality and isolation.

"The more time you spend on the island, the more you realize it's not a safe place to make a movie," says Cage, whose fellow crew members spent nine weeks on the site. "There are cliffs that appear out of nowhere hundreds of feet tall. You could fall off and land on four tons of rusting steel. I used to call it Tetanus World."

But as more than a million tourists discover each year, Alcatraz is also fertile ground for high-concept movie plots--from tales of sadistic prison abuse, like the one dramatized in last year's "Murder in the First," to stories of personal triumph, such as killer-turned-bird expert Robert Stroud in "The Birdman of Alcatraz." (Never mind that Stroud wasn't allowed to have birds when transferred to Alcatraz; Birdman of Leavenworth might not have earned Burt Lancaster a best actor award at the Venice Film Festival.)

"Alcatraz has something deep and monolithic," says Connery. "It's quite sinister and depressing. All the cell doors looked out onto a wall. With the cement concrete there's dead silence. You can't honestly believe anybody really escaped from there."

"I found out that prisoners never used to like to go out to the exercise yard. They could hear kids' voices playing that came from across San Francisco Bay. It was too painful."

Michael Bay director, "The Rock"

In the mid-1970s, Richard Tuggle was just another Alcatraz tourist when he visited the island (open to the public since 1974) and was inspired to write the screenplay--his first--for "Escape From Alcatraz." It became the most successful film about the prison to date.

Tuggle learned how in 1962 three inmates dug out of their cells, paddled into San Francisco Bay and vanished. Four years later, he wrote the script on spec, "but at first no one was interested," he recalls. "People said it had no romance or sex, it was all about bad guys, it had an ambiguous ending."

Tuggle got the script to director Don Siegel ("Dirty Harry"), whose fascination with Alcatraz dated to a 1954 trip he made to the prison--then in operation--to research his thriller "Riot in Cell Block 11." In 1966, Siegel had also written a movie treatment about the 1962 Alcatraz escape (which had a catchy title: "The Rock").

For "Escape," Paramount spent a reported $500,000 restoring the decaying prison to its 1962 state. (A prop from the movie is still on display for tourists.)

What filmmakers couldn't buy then--or now--was heat. Eastwood, who played one scene in the buff, said the shoot was "like working in a meat locker." Nearly 20 years later, Bruckheimer agrees.

"Fortunately, I didn't have to take my clothes off like Clint did. But the chill goes right through you--it's damp, wet, foggy. . . . I'm sure it was hard for the actors to do their lines without shivering."

Weather is still a continuity nightmare. Recalls Connery: "As an actor, I work very much on where I've come from to where I'm going in a scene. The problem was, once we started in Alcatraz, you could do part of an entrance and the weather would change. You'd have to go over to the other side [of the island] and try to do something else. Then you start to paint yourself into a corner because your options become fewer and fewer."

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