The “Prison Movie” belongs to an undefined genre. Everybody has seen a movie that would fall within its flexible parameters of definition, and yet the concept is a little unnerving.

The genre, I believe, is misunderstood and suffers from an overall apathy or misinterpretation of prison realities. ‘Captivity’ – a necessary requisite of prison – has other discomforting associations such as bondage, unequal power relations, psychological violence, abuse & coercion, constant tension, artificial alliances, survival instincts, homosexuality, rape and exploitation to name a few.

Prison movies, because of their (perceived) content are rarely dinner table conversation. To acknowledge a genre is to acknowledge the common problems that arise when one set of humans puts another set of humans in cages.

A prior guest blogger recommended the work of Paul Mason to help me through this quandary. In his excellent introduction to defining the genre, Men, Machines And The Mincer: The Prison Movie, Mason discusses major themes and audience motivations for viewing. Mason sets the tone for discussion with two truisms;

Two dilemmas exist concerning prison movies: first, hardly any research has been undertaken in the area and secondly, there has been little attempt to define the prison movie. Paradoxically, whilst the genre may not be instantly recognisable, there are many prison movies that stick in the memory.

Mason references a multitude of titles including: Brute Force (1947), Riot In Cell Block Eleven (1954), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), Cool Hand Luke (1962), Papillon (1973), The Mean Machine (1974), Lock Up (1989), Chained Heat (1992), In The Name Of The Father (1994), Murder In The First (1994), A Man For All Seasons, The Count Of Monte Cristo, There Was A Crooked Man, Silent Scream (1990) We’re No Angels (1955), Breakout (1975), Sleepers (1996), The Hoose Gow (1929), Jailhouse Rock (1957), Porridge (1978), Prison Break (1938), Crashout (1955), Breakout (1975), Midnight Express (1978), McVicar (1980), Scum (1983) Lock Up (1989), The Shawshank Redemption (1995), The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner (1962), Numbered Men (1930), The Criminal Code (1931), San Quentin (1937), Men Without Souls (1940), Dead Man Walking (1995), The Shawshank Redemption (1995),  I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), San Quentin (1937), Wedlock (1990), Two Way Stretch (1960), The Ladies They Talk About (1933), Road Gang (1936), Hell’s Highway (1932), Blackwell’s Island (1939), The Pot Carriers (1962), The Big Doll’s House (1971), The Big Bird Cage (1972), Women In Cages (1972).

Mason elaborates:

The term ‘prison movie’ is both a nebulous and problematic one. It is not a term used in everyday discourse like ‘gangster film’, ‘musical’ or ‘western’ is used and yet most of us would describe Midnight Express, Birdman of Alcatraz and Papillon as ‘prison movies’. Only Querry (1973), Nellis & Hale (1981) and Crowther (1989) have written about the prison movie and none of them attempts to define the genre. It is perhaps the difficulty in definition which explains why so little has been written about the prison film despite over three hundred having been made since 1910.

Mason’s paper was written just over 10 years ago now and if I were to bring the debate up to speed, I’d talk about the many independent documentaries and activist films that have sprouted particularly in response the political landscape of American incarceration since the late nineties – Mr. Big, Up the Ridge, Making the River, Prison Town, Gray Days, In Prison My Whole Life and A Hard Straight are just a few examples.

I’d be eager to hear reader’s favourite, memorable or simply known prison movies.

Bringing us full circle to our medium of choice, this discussion leads me to the difficult task of defining the genre of prison photography which I intend to do in the near future …