After watching 27 prison movies, Blake Yelavich was able to reaffirm the greatness of a few films generally held to be classics of the genre:
The Green Mile (D: Frank Darabont, 1999): "By far the best prison movie out there."
The Shawshank Redemption (D: Frank Darabont, 1994)
Cool Hand Luke (D: Stuart Rosenberg, 1967)
The Great Escape (D: John Sturges, 1963)
The Bridge on the River Kwai (D: David Lean, 1957)
But he discovered a couple of films that deserve greater attention:
Hell's Highway (D: Rowland Brown, 1932): "Beautiful black-and-white movie about a chain gang but made before the production code. The warden had a really nelly cook-maid, a prisoner who would iron his clothes, and he would never be in his cell. And they only used the black prisoners to sing between the scenes with the white people. It was so wrong. But it was a great movie."
Bad Boys (D: Rick Rosenthal, 1983): "Great. Sean Penn before he became Sean Penn. It had all the clichés, but I never felt like I was watching just another prison movie."
And recommended with qualifications:
The Big Doll House (D: Jack Hill, 1971) and The Big Bird Cage (D: Jack Hill, 1972): "Women in cages – definitely exploitation. Those were kind of okay for that early. I felt like I was watching something that could have been made now, like Jackie Brown and Boogie Nights."