Granted, no movie is really obscure. There's a rabid audience for pretty much any thing put out there, but this list intends to shine a light on the more overlooked prison dramas... which is why films like "Cool Hand Luke", "Escape From Alcatraz", "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Papillion" are duly absent. Enjoy and feel free to add your own.
1. "The Criminal"- Joseph Losey is a cerebral filmmaker, and this 1960 film starring Stanley Baker is a calculated and cold look at a criminal who refuses to be rehabilitated. Even though only about half the film takes place inside an actual prison, all the great genre tropes are there, including a nicely composed riot and the omniscient sense of claustrophobia that haunts any career criminal whose locked away from causing malevolence in the real world. This film is out on DVD. If you haven't given the films of Losey a chance, I urge you to do so.
2. Animal Factory- The latest entry on the list, and pretty damn close to the best. I wasn't a huge fan of Steve Buscemi's directorial debut "Trees Lounge", but with this adaptation of Eddie Bunker's novel in 2000, Buscemi appears in full control. From the opening shot- a carefully composed overhead static shot of the prison yard cut in two by the prison buildings- to John Lurie's enigmatic and compulsively weird score, "Animal Factory" comes into focus as a very realistic-feeling interpretation of life behind bars. Ever wonder exactly how prisoners hide and get ahold of knives? How does one inmate run the prison? Writer Bunker (an ex-con himself, memorable for his role in "Reservoir Dogs") and director Buscemi answer all of this with wide-eyed determination. And the film features a stirring set-piece that sensibly documents how a standard prison yard dispute violently culminates into a full-on riot. "Animal Factory" alternates a vision behind bars that is frightening, weird (such as one scene which features live entertainment and a man singing) and makes me appreciate my law-abiding life. Watch out for a barely recognizable Mickey Rourke as well.
3. The Glass House- This early 70's made-for-TV movie stars Alan Alda as a mild mannered teacher sent to prison for manslaughter. Cheaply made, the film manages to score a host of 70'c character actors to add depth to the overall project. Vic Morrow co-stars as the man who runs things in the prison and the film displays some particularly nasty ideas for a film designed to play on the boob tube. Alan Alda is perfect for the role, and he makes you feel for the guy. Based on a Truman Capote story, give this one a chance.
4. Brubaker- I've heard the criticisms against this film. Redford, as the new guy sent to a rough and tough Southern prison, would never get to keep those golden sideburns and floppy hair. C'mon guys... this is 80's Hollywood and this is Robert Redford. How else do you get women to see a PRISON film? Predictable and sappy at times (especially with its liberal swipes) but still a hugely entertaining film about a new warden who decides to go undercover and see the indignities of his prison first-hand before taking control. And we get a very young Morgan Freeman as a half-insane inmate who smears shit all over the walls!
5. Bad Boys- Before Sean Penn was a marquee Academy award winner (and he went full retard), he served his time in the hard-knocks juvenile detention center in this '83 film. Strong acting and a genuine sense of danger permeate this 'teens behind bars' film and Penn, swaggering through it with his tough guy attitude, reveals a small hint of what would come later with his career. Hard-nosed supporting turns add a dash of menace as Penn struggles to stay alive after being placed in the same detention center as the fellow gang member (Esai Morales) whose brother he accidentally killed. It's an interesting conflict that director Rick Rosenthal squeezes every inch of tension out of.