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(Credit: Jim Jarmusch/Far Out)

Film

The 10 greatest prison films of all time

Prison films are a fascinating subgenre which defies conventional categorisations and often incorporate elements from other domains such as sci-fi and romance. Due to their inherent universality and their ability to resonate with audiences who have never experienced it, such films have often been used as vehicles for pernicious entertainment.

However, many mainstream depictions of the prison system fail to grasp the intrinsic problems that continue to plague the sociocultural frameworks within which we exist. The films on this list explore various aspects of the existential condition that is imprisonment, raising important philosophical questions about our society.

While most people think of popular projects such as The Shawshank Redemption and The Great Escape when the subject of prison films pops up, there are many other cinematic masterpieces that deserve more recognition. This list provides an alternative selection for those who want to go beyond the mainstream depictions of crime and criminality.

10 greatest prison films of all time:

10. Titicut Follies (Frederick Wiseman, 1967)

A documentary filmed in the direct cinema style. Titicut Follies is an essential work by Frederick Wiseman about the widespread corruption present in the government institutions that are supposed to rehabilitate those who need help.

Wiseman conducts an unflinching exploration of the striking situation at Bridgewater State Hospital, choosing to focus on the mental patients who are often abused and bullied by staff members in ways that can even make modern viewers recoil in horror.

9. Scum (Alan Clarke, 1979)

One of Alan Clarke’s finest works, Scum is an unparalleled investigation of the juvenile detention system in the UK. It showcases how such institutions transform the youth into violent survivors even though many of them still have a chance at rehabilitation.

Scum follows Carlin as he uses violence to protect himself in an extremely hostile environment after being sent to such an institution. Although the film was pulled out of broadcast due to its extreme subject matter, Scum has secured its place as a true cult classic.

8. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)

A pre-Code gem from 1932, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang revolves around a World War I veteran who struggles to adapt to civilian life. Descending into a life of poverty, he soon finds himself in a tough spot when he is apprehended by the police for a crime he didn’t commit.

Based on the highly influential autobiography of Robert Elliott Burns, the film, as well as the book, are scathing indictments of the vicious chain gang system. It was only after the film’s release that Burns and other prisoners were able to file their appeals and get their freedom.

7. Death by Hanging (Nagisa Ōshima, 1968)

A list of prison films can never be complete without the mention of a work that explores capital punishment – the most horrible conclusion of systematic imprisonment. While other works like Krzysztof Kieślowski’s A Short Film About Killing have gone down in history as definitive entries on the subject, few are as enigmatic as Death by Hanging.

Directed by Japanese New Wave master Nagisa Ōshima, the film uses an innovative approach to developing an ethical analysis of the act of capital punishment. Showing how violence can never wipe out violence, Death by Hanging is an indispensable New Wave gem.

6. Pixote (Héctor Babenco, 1981)

A coming-of-age classic from Brazil, Pixote is a quasi-documentary about juvenile delinquency in the country. Through the story of the titular figure, Babenco conducts a mind-boggling exploration of rampant corruption and violence.

The film provides revelatory insights into the completely broken system in Brazil where powerful men use helpless teenagers for their own nefarious purposes. The most telling part of Pixote’s legacy is the tragic fact that the star of the film was killed by Brazilian police himself when he was just 19.

5. Down by Law (Jim Jarmusch, 1986)

Among Jarmusch’s greatest achievements, Down by Law features the fantastic central cast of Roberto Benigni, John Lurie and Tom Waits who find themselves behind prison bars due to various bizarre circumstances. The resulting cinematic spectacle is one that you cannot look away from.

Brought together by the all-controlling hand of the law, these three cellmates embark on an odyssey of their own after escaping from prison. Jarmusch beautifully captures their physical as well as their psychological journey, marked by fear, paranoia and an undeniable friendship.

4. 13th (Ava DuVernay, 2016)

One of the most important works of the last decade, 13th is a formidable documentary about the systemic racism in the American prison system by Ava DuVernay. A deep dive into the deeply problematic prison industrial system, 13th was revisited and watched by thousands of people during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

DuVernay patiently builds her case while documenting the damning evidence against the justice system which actively disenfranchises minorities in the country while the prison system transforms them into modern slaves, a transformation that highlights the hypocrisy of the 13th amendment.

3. The Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937)

Considered to be among the most influential French films ever made, The Grand Illusion tackles the horrors of war by focusing on the trials of a group of war prisoners who dream of escaping even though the odds are completely stacked against them.

There is something very powerful about the unrelenting pursuit of freedom in The Grand Illusion, an element that was recognised and feared by the Nazi party during their regime. In fact, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels named it as “Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1” but it has endured all the censorship and has endured the test of time.

2. Le Trou (Jacques Becker, 1960)

Adapted from a book by José Giovanni, Becker’s Le Trou is an astonishing cinematic achievement which reconstructs the true events of 1947 when five inmates tries to get out of La Santé Prison after carefully planning an elaborate escape.

One of the men involved in the actual escape was cast in Le Trou, alongside other non-professional actors. Although Becker passed away soon after the filming had concluded, his legacy lives on among film fans who continue to be blown away by his creations.

1. A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson, 1956)

Based on the memoirs of a French Resistance member, there can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Bresson’s A Man Escaped is the greatest prison film ever made. Deceptively simple but with so much more philosophical weight than some of the more popular entries of the genre, A Man Escaped is filmmaking at its glorious zenith.

Since Bresson was a prisoner of war himself, his experiences proved to be crucial during the making of this film. We hold our collective breath for about 90 minutes or so, waiting to see the result of a great philosophical battle which is mostly fought in the confines of a tiny cell.