The 15 Best Prison Movies

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Joint. Clink. Hoosgow. Pen. Big House. Whatever you call it, filmmakers have long had a fascination with prison. Lock a guy up for all or part of a flick and you’ve got all kinds of inherent drama just waiting to bust out. The fear of confinement exists in all of us. Preying on that fear has produced a host of memorable films over the years. Be it intense drama, thrilling action, dark science fiction or ribald comedy, a trip to the pokey rarely disappoints. Here are the fifteen very best prison movies.


Alien 3 – 1992
Dir. David Fincher

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Director Favid Fincher took a lot of grief for ruining the Alien franchise with his big screen debut. That seems a bit harsh. The third chapter, set on a dark, desolate prison planet, looks fantastic. It could have used a major script overhaul, but that wasn’t Fincher’s fault. Far from perfect, it has its moments.


Kiss of the Spider Woman – 1985
Dir. Hector Babenco

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William Hurt snagged himself an Oscar playing a homosexual movie buff in love with his cell mate, a political activist imprisoned for his attempts to topple a corrupt government. Since the majority of the narrative takes place inside a cramped cell, it perfectly depicts the loneliness and isolation of incarceration.


The Hurricane – 1999
Dir. Norman Jewison

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The emotional story of middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s twenty-year imprisonment and subsequent release for a 1966 triple murder. A swarm of controversy surrounded glaring inaccuracies portrayed in the film, but that doesn’t take away from it being a quality prison flick.


American History X – 1998
Dir. Tony Kaye

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Edward Norton pumped some serious iron to play a violent neo-Nazi in this riveting drama. The scenes behind bars are both eye-opening and chilling. No punches are pulled by director Tony Kaye and writer David McKenna. If you’re thinking about pursuing a life of crime, watch this first.


The Green Mile – 1999
Dir. Frank Darabont

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Adapted from a Stephen King novel, The Green Mile unfolds the life of a 1930s death row corrections officer played by Tom Hanks, and his relationship with gentle giant John Coffey — a man who possesses strange healing powers. The plot often drifts toward melodrama, but it still contains several powerful scenes.


Brubaker – 1980
Dir. Stuart Rosenberg

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If you thought American History X was a nightmare, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Robert Redford plays a warden who goes undercover in his own prison to reveal sexual abuse and torture among inmates, and rampant corruption and murder among prison officials. Easily one of the most frightening fictional institutions ever put to film.


Papillon – 1973
Dir. Franklin J. Schaffner

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Steve McQueen stars as real life French thief Henri Charriere, aka “Papillon,” who was sentenced to life in the notorious Devil’s Island penal colony off the coast of French Guiana. Based on a novel written by Charriere, the plot recounts he and pal Louis Dega’s daring escape, which may or may not be true. Whatever the case, it makes for a thrilling conclusion.


Dead Man Walking – 1995
Dir. Tim Robbins

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Sean Penn should have scored Oscar gold as death row inmate Matthew Poncelet. Raw and emotional, this riveting film dives head first into the issue of capital punishment. Politics aside, it’s hard not to be impressed by Tim Robbins’ brilliant work behind the camera.


Bad Boys – 1983
Dir. Rick Rosenthal

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Sean Penn again. Shortly after portraying everyone’s favorite surfer dude Jeff Spicoli, Penn signed up to play a teen hood sent to a rough and tumble juvenile detention center reserved for the baddest of the bad. Gritty and brutal, this movie is not for the faint of heart.


The Longest Yard – 1974
Dir. Robert Aldrich

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There is no better place to stage a football game than behind prison walls; violent and unstable men looking to hit something aren’t in short supply. Burt Reynolds delivers the goods as washed-up former football star turned convict, Paul Crewe. The climactic guards versus inmates gridiron showdown is classic.


Midnight Express – 1978
Dir. Alan Parker

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Note to self: never try to smuggle hash out of a foreign country. Especially if that country is Turkey. Although not classified in the horror genre, it would be easy to call this a horror movie after witnessing the inhumane torture subjected on young Billy Hayes. If any fictional account can scare a person straight, it would be Midnight Express.


Escape From Alcatraz – 1979
Dir. Don Siegel

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Whether or not Frank Morris and the Anglin brothers successfully escaped from Alcatraz isn’t important. Seeing how they devised and executed their ingenious plan is what makes this flick memorable. Clint Eastwood was the perfect choice to play the enigmatic Morris.


The Great Escape – 1963
Dir. John Sturges

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Steve McQueen again. This World Ward II epic details the planned escape by a group of Allied prisoners from a German POW camp. It’s famous for catchy theme music and McQueen’s iconic performance as “The Cooler King.” If you have a spare three hours, be sure to check out this highly entertaining prison romp.


The Shawshank Redemption – 1994
Dir. Frank Darabont

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One of the best films of the ’90s, Shawshank is a tour de force in storytelling and acting. A circumspect banker named Andy Dufresne is handed two life sentences for murdering his wife, even though the evidence is circumstantial. What happens after his arrival at Shawshank State Penitentiary is cinema at its finest.


Cool Hand Luke – 1967
Dir. Stuart Rosenberg

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“I can eat fifty eggs.” Immortal words from the incomparable Paul Newman. It’s a travesty Newman didn’t win Best Actor for the role of Luke Jackson. Unwilling to bend to institutional conformity, Luke would become one of the big screen’s greatest tragic heroes. This film never ceases to amaze.

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