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There's just no escaping 'The Shawshank Redemption'

Here’s a punchline that needs no set-up: “The Shawshank Redemption” can be seen this weekend on cable television.

If that nugget brought about a sly smile or a slight, under-the-breath chuckle well then, welcome to the club.

If not — as much torture as it is to go through the process of explaining a joke — I will explain.

“The Shawshank Redemption” is ALWAYS playing on some cable channel (in this instance, the acronym formerly known as American Movie Classics) over the weekend ... last weekend, this weekend, next weekend ad infinitum.

And, frankly why not? It might not be everyone’s cup of team (and the editor who first read this piece didn’t hold back his distaste), but the 1994 Frank Darabont film treatment of the 96-page Stephen King novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” is now acknowledged as a modern classic.

The prison drama has become a member of that elite class of touchstones in popular culture to resonate so deeply with audiences — through its imagery, tone and dialogue — that even those who can’t recite its screenplay verbatim will hit the brakes and watch if it flashes by while channel surfing.

AMC is just one of the 15 distinct cable networks that has telecast “Shawshank” since it became available a quarter-century ago. For a long while, it was so ubiquitous that it seemed TNT basically showed only three films — “Speed,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and “Shawshank” — occasionally interrupted by NBA games.

The story of the film’s unlikely lasting success has been well-documented over the years. Despite admiration from the critics, the movie truly didn’t register with audiences until it netted seven Oscar nominations.

It was a box office bomb upon theatrical release, not even recouping the $25 million it cost to be made. Finally given a nationwide release in its fourth week of distribution, the movie finished ninth in ticket sales.

“Pulp Fiction,” in its debut, topped the list. “Forrest Gump,” still running after being in theaters for 15 weeks, finished sixth.

But the other six films that earned more that weekend? How’s this for a rogues gallery: “The Specialist,” “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,” “The River Wild,” “Little Giants,” “Only You” and “Exit to Eden.”

“Exit to Eden” really, people? More tickets were sold to those who willingly went to see undercover cop Rosie O’Donnell decked out as a leather-clad dominatrix than chose to see an opera-loving, chess-playing, book-reading accountant serving a lifetime prison term for a pair of murders that he might (or might not) have committed.

OK, maybe that’s not the best way to sell the uninitiated on seeing the film which, basically, was the same problem those behind it faced in the mid-’90s.

In retrospect, the turn-off factors were surface-level silliness.

Consider the title — which, legend has it, was shortened after several actresses (and drag queens) answered an open casting call in hopes of snagging the apparently coveted (although non-existent) role of Rita Hayworth.

Here was a prison film, some would argue in name only, with a nearly all-male cast that was based off a story by King in the years before recognition by the general public that he wrote about things other than demonic clowns, cars and cats.

Where was the audience for such a movie?

It turns out, we were here all along; and, as television viewers tuned in and rentals of VHS tapes (ask your parents) skyrocketed, the merits of “The Shawshank Redemption” began to be appreciated.

It’s a beautifully shot film that accentuates the allegorical elements of a simple story of the meanings of freedom and friendship.

At 142 minutes, “Shawshank” takes its time developing characters at the forefront and on the fringes of its story, so that the painful or justified payoffs of those involved are steeped in heightened reality.

The performances of lead actors Tim Robbins (Andy) and Morgan Freeman (Red) are etched in memory. “Shawshank,” in fact, gave birth to an industry all its own films given gravitas if narrated by Morgan Freeman.

This was the first time he served as narrator and it is his care with the metaphorical screenplay by writer-director Darabont that many of those who cherish the film think of first when asked why it remains so special.

“I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream,” Red says while hearing an opera that Andy has played over the prison loudspeakers.

“It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away; and, for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

Most of all, though, what lifts the spirit comes from Andy’s ingenious (and has been demonstrated in scholarly papers, impossible) plan to escape to Mexico — a goal that Red brushes off as a “$#!++y pipe dream,” without realizing how on-the-nose he was in his assessment.

It’s in that moment that Andy responds with what has become the signature line from “Shawshank” — one that struck a chord for audiences since the film first hit screens and has been usurped in countless scripts and oratory since.

“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really,” he says. “Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.”

Now, I’m too much of a stickler (it comes with the territory) to overlook the oft-cited plot hole that troubles me when my own channel-surfing freezes on whichever cable network is showing “The Shawshank Redemption,” but over time I’ve decided to give the filmmakers a pass.

It’s in that moment that the film moves beyond its established reality and becomes a metaphor for the needs of humanity to outweigh the rules of logical progression.

While it’s not my favorite film, I can’t think of many that I admire more for its willingness to stretch simultaneously beyond the frame and within the soul.

And I know this, there are worse ways to spend 142 minutes Saturday night at 8 or Sunday afternoon at 5 then to see magic happen once again.

Mail Tribune news editor Robert Galvin lives in the Zihuatanejo section of rgalvin@rosebudmedia.com

Robert Galvin