I’m an Alcaholic

What I mean is I’m a fan of Nick Millard’s prison drama Alcatraz Breakout. Like any remaining clues to the fate of real-life escapees John Anglin, his brother Clarence, and Frank Morris, this movie is so far under the radar you have to use sonar to find it. It’s a truly obscure piece of media. The first mention I found of it was a listing in a copyright database in the mid-2010s. At the time, it was absent from IMDb. Millard later told me the film premiered at the St. Francis Theatre in San Francisco in 1979. I had it down as “lost” since I couldn’t confirm if it ever made it to home video. Now I’m seeing it did. It received a clamshell VHS release by World Video Pictures in 1980. The back cover reads:

Alcatraz, America’s most feared prison. The nation’s toughest gangsters, such men as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and Alvin Karpis, have been broken there, and no man has escaped from “The Rock”. Alcatraz and its impregnable walls, escape-proof, until inmate 1313-0 proved it wasn’t!

Credit: Amazon

A VHS rip was uploaded to YouTube in May of 2021, though I only noticed around Halloween of last year. I watched it, loved it, and ordered a copy from Amazon of all places for $15. I might display it in my office when it gets here, provided it’s not too banged up. I’m glad the movie is available to watch and buy all of a sudden. An IMDb page was finally created sometime after I published my “missing filmography” post and gives the year as 1975. It’s possible that it was filmed in ’75 and not released until ’79, however, I’m leaning toward it having been filmed in ’79 to capitalize on the success of the Clint Eastwood classic Escape From Alcatraz. Whereas that one recounts the infamous 1962 escape, this one follows the fictional character John Robert Grant.

As the movie begins, Grant (Marland Proctor as “Marland Stewart” on the box) is being ferried to Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary on what is obviously a tourist boat that reads “Harbor Tours”. The exteriors and a few of the interiors were shot on the actual island, which was a short drive from Millard’s Pacifica, California home, likely without permits or even a verbal agreement. Grant is briefly dressed down by the warden (Barrett Cooper, the cop from Satan’s Black Wedding), filling us in on his prior convictions. Ten years for bank robbery. Three years for escape. Five additional years for a second escape. He sends the warden this blank look. Emoting wasn’t Stewart’s strong suit.

We soon learn that Grant is a good man at heart who abstains from hurting people while carrying out his crimes. According to him, he only robbed the bank in the first place to pay for his family’s horse farm in Arizona, and did so with a roll of quarters pressed against his coat pocket instead of a gun. If family is so important to him, he should have downsized. He’d still be with them. Grant’s mugshot is taken by a fellow prisoner played by the detective from Butcher Knife AKA Dr. Bloodbath. His inmate number is 1313-0.

“Hey, you’re the bad luck man.” the photographer notes. “Double 13s. You got the worst number a man can get.”

Grant is taken to his cell by the default antagonist, Bill Hager. The inmates call Hager a sadist, but nothing he says or does is that awful. You’ll notice the characters barely interact with the prison. The bulk of the movie was made elsewhere. The cells were a set. Millard had them built to the same specifications as the real ones — 5 feet by 9 feet. We never see more than two at once, leading me to believe there were only two. The recreation yard is a plain cement wall. Half the shots are in close-up to conceal how small the sets were, giving the film an appropriately claustrophobic feel.

Grant’s neighbor George Frasier (Ray Myles, the vampire pastor from Satan’s Black Wedding) welcomes him. He’s another nonviolent criminal in for counterfeiting. Across from them is an inmate named Hill. The first time I watched this I thought it was Bill. I questioned why there were only ten or eleven speaking roles and two of them were named Bill. Grant is kept awake the first night by a fog horn. It’s just some kids ding-dong-ditching the Addams family.

The next day in the recreation yard, Grant asks Frasier how high the wall is. He’s already plotting his third escape. Frasier doesn’t want him getting his hopes up. “Twenty feet.” he responds. “When they built the wall, before the cement on top had dried, they took hundreds of broken bottles and embedded the jagged edges into the cement. So, if the wire doesn’t tear you to shreds, the broken glass will.” I don’t think that’s true, but it paints a cool picture in my head. I was hurried through the Alcatraz East Crime Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee by my kids, so I’m practically an expert on the subject. “There’s no way out…” Frasier adds. “Put your mind at rest and do your time.”

Grant takes that as a challenge. He says nothing will separate him from his wife and daughter. Cut to Nick Millard’s wife Irmgard and one of his daughters getting off a Greyhound bus. They walk to a hotel as haunting piano music from Satan’s Black Wedding plays. Recycling stuff from previous movies was a trademark of Millard’s. Irmgard calls the prison to set up visitation with Grant.

Meanwhile, the alpha male of our species, Albert Eskinazi, pushes a cart full of books down the corridor. It’s weird seeing him this young. “You’re entitled to check out books from the prison library.” he says to Grant. “Anything in particular you want?”

Grant requests a book on structural engineering and tunneling. Why would that even be allowed? Eskinazi tells him he’ll put him on the waiting list. Frasier springs up from his cot to inform Grant that Eskinazi is “Shotgun” Roy Harding. Grant reacts like he’s heard of him. I get the impression he’s a dangerous loose cannon.

Afterward, Grant is summoned by the warden. Hager escorts Grant past the two cells twice to give the illusion of four cells. The warden has an awkward conversation with Grant about cacti. Millard often lingered on the mundane to fill time, resulting in many funny moments. This is one of them. The warden tells Grant because of his experience owning a ranch in Arizona, he’s been chosen to plant a cactus garden on the west side of the island. Grant turns his head quizzically. The warden explains how he wants to beautify the island for sightseers, and cacti are hardy. Grant nods along. He looks like he’s trying to stay awake in some shots, not cough in others. This is such a dumb way to get him outside. I love it.

The warden goes on. “Saguaro, ocotillo, barrel, cholla.” He’s never seen a cactus firsthand, but can recite all the different varieties. His knowledge of prickly plant life is second only to Grant’s. I find it hard to believe that he never laid eyes on a cactus at a friend’s house or a store.

I asked a buddy in Palo Alto — coincidentally, where my copy is shipping from — if it’s possible to live there without chancing upon the occasional succulent and this was his reply: “Depends on where you are. Around me, basically none — just the cactus garden on Stanford campus. Travel a bit south, though, and it is basically a desert, so you’ll see some there.”

Any more Californians care to weigh in? I clipped the scene for your viewing pleasure. Let me know if I’m tripping, or if it’s hilarious.

Hager brings Grant to a sloped area — the same hillside Gordon Mortley buries his victims on in Death Nurse, I’ll bet — and says what we’re all thinking. “This is the craziest goddamn thing I’ve ever heard of.” While jotting down notes, Grant notices two soldiers surveying the land for a laundromat (?). Frasier tells him the soldiers arrive on a shuttle that runs every hour. Grant formulates a plan and does a lot of smoking in preparation of his escape.

On the big day, Grant purposely nicks himself with a hoe he was given to hack at weeds. While getting bandaged up by a doctor who’s only shown from behind and sounds like Millard, he palms a bottle of chloroform. Back on the hill, his bandage unwinds. He douses it with the anesthetic. Then, he lures Hager over by saying the bleeding has resumed. Once Hager is within striking distance, Grant holds the cloth to his face, knocking him out. He rolls Hager over and ties his hands to his rifle behind his back. Instead of grabbing the gun, he grabs the hoe, shoves it into a soldier’s back, and pretends it’s a gun. He knocks them both out as well. Finally, he puts on one of their uniforms and boards the tour boat from earlier.

Hager comes to and alerts the warden before it can dock. The expression on his face is that of a child whose mother just yelled their full name. The warden phones the San Francisco FBI office. Grant looks around nervously as the boat slowly heads back to town. The scene is accompanied by a simple thumping, like the beating of a heart. Grant is apprehended as soon as the shuttle docks and is given nine months of solitary confinement. The nine months is a shot of him shedding a tear in the dark and flashbacks of him playing with his daughter, petting a horse, and being told to move the calves to the north pasture.

After he gets out, he’s visited by his wife. She tells him she wants to hire a lawyer. Grant says she needs to save all the money she can. He’s guilty, and that’s that. He’s on year four now. He immediately sets to work on his next plan.

One morning while getting out of bed, he steps in a puddle of blood. He follows the trail across the corridor to Hill’s cell and sees that he slashed his wrists with a razor blade. As usual, Millard brushed the actor with blood, but declined to apply any prosthetic effects. Another constant throughout his career. Grant asks Frasier how Hill got ahold of a razor. Frasier says the guards don’t bother “picking them up” because suicide is encouraged, without answering where they come from.

As nonchalantly as ripping off a hangnail, Grant lifts his cot and bashes himself in the mouth, loosening a tooth. I winced at this. Few sights make me do that. Grant wiggles the tooth free and uses it to saw at his cell. It takes him four teeth and a lot of hard work just to get through a single bar. Why not use one of the complimentary razors? Or Eskinazi’s chin? Or literally anything else?

Harding delivers the book on tunneling. Grant never uses it. “Checkhov’s gun” states that every detail in a story must serve a purpose, but all the book does is introduce Harding. Millard may have felt he had to address the obvious tunneling angle and included the book as a “false gun” to subvert expectation knowing he couldn’t pull that off. It would have been difficult to construct a tunnel on such a low budget. Or maybe Millard forgot about that part. Harding tells Grant he heard him chiseling and wants in. Grant has no intention of teaming with Harding.

He breaks the bar off one night, and slides out. Frasier helps him time the guard above them in the gun gallery. Grant brings the bar with him to incapacitate Hager. As he makes his way down the corridor, Harding asks him to “rack” (or open) his cell. When Grant refuses, Harding yells “Rack my cell, you son of a bitch!” alerting the guards, who sound the alarm.

Grant is placed in solitary again for God knows how long. His final plan is the worst and most desperate one yet. While attempting it, a memory of his daughter flashes before his eyes. The end.

The credits are full of European pseudonyms. Millard is “Jan Anders”. “Scénario” (the script) is credited to “Gunnel Kjellin”. I think Millard added this to sound French, as he loved foreign art movies. Maybe he thought Europeans would be taken more seriously.

I need to know if the warden ever planted his cactus garden.

Either I’m getting soft in my old age, or my standards are too low, or both, but the ending is sad and tugs at my heartstrings. I find myself wondering what I’d do in Grant’s situation. Probably the same thing, besides knocking my teeth out. I can’t imagine missing eighteen years of my daughter’s life. Even if I did escape and started over with her in a faraway country, as many theorize the Anglins did, I’d be looking over my shoulder every moment of every day, and that’s no way to live.

I dreamt that I killed people once. I didn’t see myself do it, just knew that I had at some point in my past. I turned on my TV and watched as police recovered my victims from the woods. I can’t describe the crushing anxiety it gave me. I awoke in a sweat, my pulse pounding. It took minutes for the feeling to dissipate.

My dream made me realize that I take my freedom for granted. The desire to be free is a powerful emotion and Millard taps into it here. This is the most ambitious and effective movie I’ve seen by him. Does that make it good? Does “Baker Street” have the grooviest saxophone riff? Is Bret Hart the best there is, the best there was, the best there ever will be in the world of professional wrestling? A thousand times hell yes! I strongly disagree with the sole review on IMDb calling it “an absolute chore to sit through”. That was aloe move……… cactus.

But hey, decide for yourself.

RIP, big man! Thanks for the entertainment!


7 comments on “I’m an Alcaholic

  1. Beau Montana says:

    Hell, it sounds like Ol Nick did a solid job on the script. I suppose it’s a maxim in screenwriting that when you set something up, it must pay off. Sure, Millard completely forgot about the book on tunneling, but it sounds like the theme of suicide was properly set up and he knocked it down. I guess that underscores the theme of the movie: despite all your futile attempts, suicide is the only way out. So when you think about it, Nick Millard is actually a genius.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bert says:

    I wrote that IMDB review and I’m NOT sorry 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

Your Thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s