Top Ten Prison Movies

There's a prison picture for every mood and inclination, from trashy romps to hard-hitting exposes. Are you craving a little sleazy, teasey WIP (that's "women in prison," newbies) action? Feel the need to get your blood boiling with a fact-based story of justice denied? How about a lavish musical set behind bars? There's something on this list for everyone,

cagedheat-125.jpg10. Caged Heat (1974)
The quintessential "chicks in the slammer" movie, whose poster really did say it all, promising: "Women's Prison U.S.A. - Rape, Riot & Revenge!" 1970s exploitation starlets Erica Gavin, Roberta Collins, Rainbeaux Smith and Desiree Cousteau play mad, bad and under-clad inmates (the only way to better this line-up would be to add Pam Grier), and cult icon Barbara Steele is the wicked, wicked warden who eventually gets what's coming to her. 

turkey-shoot-125.jpg9. Turkey Shoot/Escape 2000/Blood Camp Thatcher (1981)
This quintessential slice of shameless Ozploitation unfolds in a dystopian future where "social deviants" are shipped off to prison camps for attitude adjustment. And if they're really lucky, they get sent to Warden Thatcher's hellhole, where a select few are given the opportunity to win their freedom by volunteering for a Most Dangerous Game-style hunt. All they have to do is elude a bunch of wealthy, heavily armed sadists, thrill seekers and nut jobs.

redford-brubaker-125.jpg8. Brubaker (1980)
Robert Redford plays progressive warden Henry Brubaker, who pisses off the establishment by cleaning up Wakefield Prison Farm, an Arkansas hellhole so contemptuous of its inmates that it doesn't even have guards -- who needs 'em when you can just arm the trusties? Though technically not a '70s movie, this is such a '70s message movie. But the cast is great and Redford's at his prime.

shawshank-redemption-125.jpg7. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
Frank Darabont's adaptation of Stephen King's short story chronicles the unlikely friendship between a rich boy (Tim Robbins) who continues to swear he didn't kill his wife even after he's been convicted of double murder, and the sage lifer (Morgan Freeman, back in the slammer once again) who teaches him to navigate the brutal rules of prison engagement while holding on to his humanity.

jailhouse-rock-125.jpg6. Jailhouse Rock (1957)
Ex-con Elvis Presley gets thrown back into jail (unfairly, as it happens) and finds a life-changing mentor in a guy who teaches him to play guitar. It's a lavish, old-school musical that features the young, hunky Presley and a bunch of dancers gyrating around a cellblock set to lyrics like these: "You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see/I sure would be delighted you're your company."

escape-from-alcatraz-125.jpg5. Escape from Alcatraz (1979)
Clint Eastwood does his whispery, sinewy, coiled-bundle-of-potential-violence thing as Frank Morris, the real-life prisoner who in 1962 masterminded an elaborate escape from the "The Rock." He and his two partners might -- just might -- have been the only escapees to survive both the breakout and the treacherous waters of San Francisco Bay.

birdman-alcatraz-125.jpg4. The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
Inspired by the story of Robert Stroud, a hardened lifer with an unlikely love of birds, John Frankenheimer's movie is bad history and great drama. The real-life Stroud may have been a thug, but Burt Lancaster's portrayal of an angry man who discovers a humanity he never imagined he possessed is mesmerizing. Watch it back to back with Brute Force (No.1) and marvel at Lancaster's versatility.

midnight-express-125.jpg3. Midnight Express (1978)
Yet another fact-based movie that plays fast and loose with those pesky facts, Midnight Express is also an uber-cautionary tale. American tourist Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) is caught smuggling hashish out of Turkey and winds up in a prison that makes Alcatraz look like a luxury spa. It was written by Oliver Stone and directed by Alan Parker, so don't expect subtly -- but it sure is intense.

cool-hand-luke-125.jpg2. Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Stuart Rosenberg directed Paul Newman in the role of knee-jerk authority hater Luk, whose antics just don't fly in the deep south, circa 1948. He ends up in a prison campe, where, between alpha inmate George Kennedy and sadistic guard Strother ("What we've got here is failure to communicate") Martin, he gets beat to hell more times than a junkyard dog. And he's still so sexy it hurts.

brute-force-125.jpg1. Brute Force (1947)
Hell is called Westgate Penitentiary in Jules Dassin's bleak, nihilistic story. Burt Lancaster plays Joe Collins, a career criminal  who's locked in a war of wills with the sadistic Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). Much of the movie's reputation rests on the no-holds-barred riot sequence -- it may be 60-plus years old, but that retribution by blowtorch/industrial press scene is still a shocker, especially since it's the good guys dishing out the pain.

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