New to Blu-ray: Escape from Alcatraz and Witness (1985)

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Two minor classics bowed on Blu-ray recently, courtesy of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, the Clint Eastwood prison break drama Escape from Alcatraz (1979) and the Harrison Ford Amish mystery, Witness (1985). Sadly, neither of these catalog titles is graced with even the simplest of bonus features (you won't even find theatrical trailers here). But each has been given passable audio/visual presentations. Bruce Surtees gritty cinematography on Alcatraz is the more impressive of the two transfers, with layers of detail that had been previously crushed out on the '99 DVD edition. John Seale was Oscar-nominated for his cinematography on Witness, and it too shows marked improvement when compared to the standard definition release.

Both films excel even more in terms of audio. Each one has a lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround mix. Maurice Jarre's award-winning (and Oscar-nominated) score for Witness really soars. Alcatraz sports a far more subdued sound design overall, but it benefits from increased clarity of dialogue. Overall, the high definition upgrade has definitely improved the ability to enjoy and appreciate these two films. 
escape from alcatraz bd (296x380).jpg Escape from Alcatraz is based on true story of Alcatraz inmate Frank Morris who, in 1962, attempted to break out of the maximum security prison. This was director Don Siegel's fifth and final collaboration with star Clint Eastwood. Eastwood portrays Morris as a likable man of few words who meticulously plots his breakout. By no means is Alcatraz an action movie or thriller. This is a drama through-and-through and, much like The Shawshank Redemption, it's full of down-trodden prisoners longing for freedom. We don't learn much about Morris or even why he's in prison (well, he's in Alcatraz because no other prison can hold him). But Siegel's deliberate pacing somehow creates an almost hypnotic pull.

Not so much plot-driven as atmosphere-driven, if there's a flaw it's that the inmates in Alcatraz don't seem like bad guys. The brutish Wolf (Bruce M. Fischer) aside, this group of men is so orderly and reserved that you can't help but root for them. If we knew what kinds of crimes some of them are guilty of, including Frank's accomplices (the resourceful Anglin brothers, also based on real people, are played by Fred Ward and Jack Thibeau), the whole movie might've taken a different tone. 
witness bd (297x380).jpg Peter Weir directed Harrison Ford to a Best Actor nomination in Witness, the actor's only Academy Award recognition so far. Actually, it was the following year that Weir coaxed Ford's very best performance in the astounding (but, sadly, unpopular) The Mosquito Coast. But Ford is in fine form as Detective John Book. Book goes undercover into an Amish community after a young boy (Lucas Haas) witnesses a murder. Much of Witness's irresistible appeal centers on the gruff Book reaching a begrudging respect of the Amish traditions, not to mention his blossoming romance with the boy's widowed mother, Rachel (Kelly McGillis). 
witness lucas haas (380x254).jpg The screenplay, by Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley, won an Oscar. As well-drawn as the characters are, the plotting tips into a hard-boiled pulpiness that feels too conventional. The 'corrupt cops' angle that develops as Book gets deeper into the case gives mainstream audiences something to easily hang their expectations on. Again, the Weir-directed, Paul Schrader-scripted The Mosquito Coast is the real masterwork and hopefully Warner Bros. has plans to bring it to Blu-ray so it might finally be re-discovered.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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