By now you’re thinking about escape. You’re thinking about how it relates to you-what you’d like to escape from. Before you quit your job, leave your lover or buy a new driver’s license from a street vendor, check out one of these classic films about escape. These movies capture the essence, and sometimes the actual facts of real-life escape-escape from prison, escape from a game where the cards are all stacked against you or escape from a future too grim to endure. With genre-defining directors and all-star casts in career-making performances, these films will please both the escape-seeker and the serious aficionado of cinematic art.
Bonnie and Clyde (1967)
Produced by Warren Beatty for Warner Brothers Pictures
Directed by Arthur Penn. USA, color, 111 minutes
Starring: Faye Dunaway, Warren Beatty, Michael J. Pollard, Gene Hackman
In the film’s first scene, Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) meets Clyde Barrow (Warren Beatty) as he is about to steal her elderly mother’s car. Feeling trapped in her rural Texas town, Bonnie escapes with Clyde after he holds up a store at gun point to impress her. The film plays down Clyde’s real-life bisexuality but instead offers a glimpse into the soul of a sexually troubled man who tries to overcome his difficulties with the help of a frustrated-but-patient Bonnie. Their poignant love scenes balance the movie’s violent getaway scenes, which culminate in the duo’s ultimate bloody escape from life on the run.
Bonnie and Clyde permanently changed the form and substance of popular films. Using multiple cameras and slow motion, director Arthur Penn was the first American filmmaker to capture the spastic agony of death by gunshot-breaking new ground for filmmakers from Sam Peckinpaugh in The Wild Bunch to Oliver Stone in Natural Born Killers. The natural lighting and bleak landscape in which the film is shot is an innovative departure from the Hollywood sound stage, and Penn’s inventive use of a hazy, rosy filter in Bonnie’s homecoming scene is emblematic of the kind of expressionistic use of camera that was pioneered in Bonnie and Clyde.
In the autumn of 1967 the film received criticism for its shocking bullet-ridden finale and for its blending of humor with brutality. It opened and closed quickly, then, after a period of reassessment, was re-released to critical acclaim and was nominated for ten Academy Awards. The influence of Bonnie and Clyde manifested itself in pop culture through hairstyles, hit records and gangster-retro clothing (such as double-breasted suits, berets, fedoras, and the maxi-skirt).
Bonnie and Clyde is a film that comments on universal issues such as justice and violence through a tense, shifting balance between comedy and tragedy that will keep you uncertain, yet engaged, until the last unforgettable frames.
Double Indemnity (1944)
Starring: Fred Mac Murray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson
Writing credits: James M. Cain (novel) Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler (screenplay)
Runtime: 107 min Black and White
Director: Billy Wilder
Switch from Depression-era Texas to Depression-era Glendale for Billy Wilder’s film noir classic Double Indemnity. The plot is simple but serviceable: man falls for woman; man is tempted into criminal activity by the woman; man is eventually betrayed by woman. The story is based on a crime perpetrated by a married Queens, NY woman who, seeking to escape a life of marital drudgery, persuaded her boyfriend to kill her husband after having her spouse take out a big insurance policy with a “double-indemnity” clause. Novelist James M. Cain fictionalized the event against a mordant backdrop of 1930’s LA, creating a classic of Los Angeles literature, from which Director Billy Wilder and crime novelist Raymond Chandler constructed the film’s taut script.
Double Indemnity oozes conflict from its opening frames when Glendale insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray), nursing a gunshot wound, walks into a police station to record a confession. Neff talks us through a series of flashbacks, starting with a sales call to the home of Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). When she inquires about an accident policy for her wealthy husband without his knowledge, Neff smells a rat. Seemingly intoxicated by her sexuality, he dives in anyway and becomes a party to murder and ultimately, a victim.
When this story was brought to the screen, the cinematic look featured “dark” lighting, framing and mood that took the place of the descriptive language and narrative descriptions of character motivation that gave the novel its noir aesthetic. The film also helped to define the film noir genre by telling a crime story from the point of view of those who are committing the crimes and through the cinematography of John F. Seitz who helped develop the noir style of sharp-edged shadows and shots, strange angles and lonely settings.
The Great Escape (1964)
Director: John Sturges
Runtime: 2 hours, 57 minutes
Cast: Steve McQueen, James Garner, James Coburn, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasance, David McCallum
Steve McQueen’s performance as POW loner Captain Virgil “the Cooler King” Hilts in this 1964 classic defined his signature brand of sullen machismo and vaulted him to iconic levels of fame. This true tale of Allied POWs outfoxing their German captors features an all-star multinational cast of gallant Brits and laconic Yanks practicing no-sweat heroism in what is arguably the greatest war film of all time.
The Great Escape is the story of the largest mass POW escape of World War II. The majority of the movie takes place at a German prisoner of war camp, which has been specially built for Allied airmen with previous attempts at escape. After a few days “Big X” (Richard Attenborough) calls a meeting, delivers the great line, “It is the sworn duty of all officers to try to escape,” and then puts forth a plan for the largest prison-camp break ever attempted. Tunnels are built, which themselves are engineering marvels. Civilian clothes are manufactured, IDs and travel permits are forged, maps, compasses and all manner of other supplies are either manufactured or scammed from unwitting guards by smooth-talking con artist James (“the Scrounger”) Garner.
Quentin Tarantino has called the film the shortest three hour movie he’s ever seen. In addition to telling the story of the prison break it offers commentary on the nature of heroism, friendship and manhood.
And yes, it could be considered a “guyflick” but I see it as a great intimacy-building tool. Rent the DVD and watch it with the man in your life. Point out attributes that he has in common with the archetypal heroes on the screen; your relationship will thrive and grow.