The Jailhouse Sucks for Celebrities, but Rocks for Cinema

In honor of America's attention being directed to the national prison system and a certain, unnamed celebrity who is availing herself of it, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity for me to expound on one of my favorite genres out there: the prison film. So here's a (by no means definitive) list of my 10 favorites.

10) Caged Heat

Easily the trashiest of the lot, this makes the list for being the example I always use when talking about directors who take on genre films. This was directed by none other than Jonathon Demme (Silence of the Lambs) who Roger Corman hired to make yet another trashy sexy prison romp in the vein of Woman in Cages and Black Mama, White Mama. Demme took the challenge and set out to make the raunchiest, most sexually charged prison movie ever. And no one has ever topped him. This is the definative women in prison movie.

9) American History X

The only half-prison film I've put on the list. This is the story of a neo-nazi (Edward Norton) who is convicted of killing a man only to have his life saved in prison by a black man. That man becomes his closest friend and he learns everything he's been taught is wrong. Once released he tries to change his ways only to discover that his little brother has taken his place in the neo-nazi organization. Powerful, amazing performances backed by a rock solid story. But only half about prison, so it ranks in at 9.

8) American Me
If there's a more disturbing, arresting film about gang culture and prison life, I haven't seen it.

7) Papillion
Dustin Hoffman? Steve McQueen? In one of the best prison escape movies of all time? Yeah. It's that good.

6) Cool Hand Luke
You know all those stereotypes of southern prisons you see in practically every prison film set in the south? They're all borrowing or ripping off this movie. I once watched a man try to duplicate the egg-eating scene from this. It didn't work out so well.

5) The Last Castle
This under-seen, under-appreciated 2001 military prison movie is absolutely fantastic and worth a look if you've never seen it. Robert Redford versus James Gandolfini in the ultimate prisoner versus warden film. Truly one of my deep-fried favorites.

4) Midnight Express
Not that I watch this very often (once was enough), but it really is so damned good that it ranks really high. The disturbing story, although reportedly full of falsehoods, will scare any drug runner straight out of Turkey

3) The Longest Yard
Now we're down to the movies I will watch wherever, whenever. Not only is this classic Burt Reynolds football film one of the best prison movies ever made, but it's also one of the greatest sports comedies ever made. It's been remade a couple of times but never quite as good as the original.

2) Stalag 17
The greatest prisoner of war film ever made, this WWII drama about intrigue and survival in a German POW camp still thrills to this day. A wonderfully enthralling film that inspired the much beloved television series Hogan's Heroes.

1) Shawshank Redemption
Not just one of the best prison films ever, one of the very best films ever. And you know it, probably by heart, like I do. Truly one of the epics of the video age, no one, and I mean no one, saw this in the theatre. Released, then re-released twice, it was ignored by almost all. But just try to find someone who hasn't seen it now. I'll bet you can't.

C. Robert Cargill - - - Email Me


Austin-based Cargill, who not only loves but owns The Cutting Edge, writes on movies and DVD five times a week.