'Prison Movies' Is a Serious Attempt to Define a Genre and Identify Its Key Characteristics

by Sarah Boslaugh

10 May 2017

While some historians classify prison films as offshoots of the gangster film, Kehrwald sees the prison film as relating more closely to social problem films and melodramas.
Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke (1967) 
cover art

Prison Movies: Cinema Behind Bars

Kevin Kehrwald

(Wallflower Press)
US: Feb 2017

Prison narratives have long been a staple of the movie business, and now they’re also favorites in long-form television, as evidenced by series such as HBO’s The Night of and Orange Is the New Black on Netflix. At first glance this popularity might seem paradoxical—while gangster movies offer the thrill of the chase and the opportunity to live outside the law, vicariously, from the comfort of your couch, prison movies are about what happens after the criminal is caught, convicted, and confined to an institution, which by its very nature limits his or her movements and actions. Where’s the fun in that?

Kevin Kehrwald’s Prison Movies: Cinema Behind Bars explores the attraction of the prison movie while also defining the genre, offering an historical overview of it, and tying changes in the way prison life is portrayed on screen with changes in societal attitudes and penal law. Kehrwald suggests three main reasons for the attraction of prison movies. First, they offer a glimpse into a hidden world that few will experience. Second, the genre encourages intense identification with the inmate protagonist, resulting in heightened emotional responses to his or her experiences. Third, prison films are about survival and personal redemption in a context ruled by oppressive authority, a common human experience that can be examined and understood with clarity when presented in the extreme context of incarceration.

While some historians classify prison films as offshoots of the gangster film, another genre popular in the ‘30s, Kehrwald sees the prison film as relating more closely to social problem films and melodramas. This may explain the appeal of the prison film during the Great Depression, as film after film presented prisoners as victims of society who were then further abused in institutions that failed to deliver on their promises. As in any melodrama, the world of this type of prison film is clearly divided into good and evil, leaving no question about which the audience should be rooting for.

Kehrwald offers George W. Hill’s The Big House (1930) as a prototypical prison film, noting that many of the conventions it established may appear to be clichés today because they appear over and over again in more recent films. There’s the everyman hero with whom the audience can identify, the good cons who want to go straight, the bad cons who are happy to go on being bad, the jailhouse snitch, the loyal woman standing by her man, the sadistic guard and the ineffectual warden. The now familiar locations are there also, including the prison yard, the cafeteria, and the warden’s office. Ditto with dramatic situations (the induction of a new prisoner, the prison riot, the warden’s speech, the escape attempt) and even a stock repertoire of sounds (distant train whistles, marching feet, banging tin cups, clanking gates).

Kehrwald does his best work in the introduction and first chapter, in which he defines the gangster film and discusses its salient characteristics. Two additional chapters plus an afterword discuss women in prison movies and prison films from the ‘60s onward, but these chapters are more disappointing. They are organized around themes, and it’s not always obvious why he selected particular themes or films for discussion. In addition, too much space is spent describing films rather than analyzing them.

A chapter on women in prison will disappoint fans of the “chicks in chains” genre, as the emphasis is not on exploitation films but serious films and their relationship to societal values. Three films are analyzed at some length: Caged (John Cromwell, 1950), which is more of a social problems melodrama than the exploitation film the title would suggest, House of Women (Walter Doniger, Crane Wilbur, 1962), Women’s Prison (Lewis Seller, 1955), and I Want to Live! (Robert Wise, 1958).

A chapter devoted to prison movies from the ‘60s through the ‘90s centers on a few issues ignored or slighted in films of an earlier era. One such issue is race, treated explicitly in films like Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958) and An Innocent Man (Peter Yates, 1989). Another is prison rape, highlighted as an aspect of prison culture in films such as Escape from Alcatraz (Don Siegel, 1979), The Shawshank Redemption (Frank Darabont, 1994), and American Me (Edward James Olmos, 1992). An Innocent Man. Youthful disaffection was given a voice in Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg, 1967), whose protagonist would rather die than submit to what he considers illegitimate authority, while sports as a means to regain lost masculinity is a featured topic in The Longest Yard (Peter Segal, 2005) and Penitentiary (Jamaa Fanaka, 1979).

Social problems films, both features and documentaries, dominate Kehrwald’s discussion of prison films in the 21st century. Attica (Marvin J. Chomsky, 1980) allows the viewer to come to their own conclusions regarding the four-day-long uprising, while Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In (2012) highlights the workings of the so-called prison industrial complex (just as war is good business if you are a military contractor, so mass incarceration is great if you supply products or services to prisons). On the fictional side, Dead Man Walking (Tim Robbins, 1995) takes on capital punishment, as does Werner Herzog’s documentary Into the Abyss (2011).

Prison Movies is a serious attempt to define a genre and identify its key characteristics, and largely succeeds on those grounds. It’s less successful at providing an overview of the genre, in part because of space limitations (no genre can be covered comprehensively in 122 pages). Nevertheless, it should prove useful in sparking discussions and motivating other authors to delve more thoroughly into topics that are treated only briefly in this volume.

Prison Movies: Cinema Behind Bars

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