Director: John Frankenheimer, Charles Crichton (uncredited)
Screenplay: Guy Trosper
Based on a Book by: Thomas E. Gaddis
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter, Neville Brand, Betty Field, Telly Savalas, Edmond O’Brien, Hugh Marlowe
Running Time: 147 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Birdman of Alcatraz was the second of five collaborations between actor Burt Lancaster and director John Frankenheimer, which included the excellent The Train and Seven Days in May. The pair weren’t originally set to work together on Birdman of Alcatraz though. British director Charles Crichton (A Fish Called Wanda, The Lavender Hill Mob, Dead of Night) was the first choice, but he clashed with Lancaster, who had a huge amount of sway at the time, and because Lancaster was impressed by Frankenheimer’s work on their first collaboration, The Young Savages, he was brought on as a replacement. Production had started at that point, but Frankenheimer scrapped all the footage Crichton shot and started afresh. When the shoot had finished, the film was far too long though, particularly the lead up to anything to do with birds, so the crew went back and reshot the first half again.
It sounds like a messy shoot that would lead to a mess of a film, but it’s anything but and Birdman of Alcatraz when on to become a reasonable commercial success and received a handful of Oscar nominations too. The critics were a little divided, but largely positive, and over time the film has become somewhat of a classic. It’s favoured enough for Eureka to add it to their prestigious Masters of Cinema series in this new dual format edition so I locked myself up in solitary to give the film a whirl, having not seen it before.
Birdman of Alcatraz, if the title and my poor pun earlier didn’t make clear, is a prison movie. Funnily enough it’s only partially set in Alcatraz though. It tells the true (-ish by the sounds of things) story of Robert Stroud (Lancaster), a man sent to prison for murder who gets his sentence upped to execution after killing a prison guard in front of thousands of inmates during lunch. His doting mother (Thelma Ritter) speaks to the First Lady though and gets his death sentence revoked and turned to life in prison. The warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden) is not happy with this, so chooses to punish Stroud by retaining the original clause that he would be kept in solitary confinement during his time in prison. So Stroud finds himself alone in prison for the rest of his long life.
One day, he finds an injured sparrow in the prison yard, takes it in and nurses it back to health. Stroud is drawn to the bird and talks the new warden into letting him keep it as a pet and get seed and such. This allowance is discovered by other prisoners, who also want bird pets. Many get bored with the creatures though, or the birds become sick and Stroud finds himself looking after dozens of them, which he is more than happy to do. When they all contract a fatal and thought to be incurable virus though, he takes things further by spending his time researching bird biology and chemistry in order to prevent the deaths of his beloved pets. He manages it and goes on to write one of the foremost books on bird health at the time. Soon after, Stella Johnson (Betty Field), an admirer of his work, approaches him and they become business partners in selling his bird remedies, before later marrying. Circumstances eventually change though and he is transferred to the maximum security prison of Alcatraz where he is no longer allowed to keep birds or run a business and Stroud is forced to spend the latter years of his life alone with his thoughts.
It’s a fascinating story, which is all the more interesting when you realise it actually happened. Delving deeper into the special features included here you realise a lot of liberties have been taken and aspects of Stroud’s life not mentioned though. He was a more violent and disturbed individual than he is portrayed here for one and was a known homosexual with predatory tendencies towards his fellow inmates. These were believed to be two of the main reasons behind him being kept in solitary for so long, rather than a personal vendetta with a warden.
True or not, the story portrayed here is engrossing though. It’s told very effectively through the watchful eye of the ever trustworthy Frankenheimer. With cinematographer Burnett Guffey (Bonnie and Clyde, From Here to Eternity, In a Lonely Place) shooting in high contrast, moody black and white and making the most of the confined surroundings, the film looks fantastic. Elmer Bernstein’s surprisingly low-key score, with echoes of lonely birdcalls, is beautiful and fitting too.
So it’s a finely crafted film in most aspects, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. For one it’s very po-faced. Yes, spending life in solitary confinement is hardly going to be shown as a jolly experience, but the totally humourless approach saps any life out of the picture so I didn’t get all that emotionally attached to it. The tough exterior of the film often hides a rather sentimental side, but this is kept back due to the tone. Perhaps that’s for the best as it could have been quite melodramatic though.
The filmmakers are also clearly out to make a statement about the failures of the penal system and call for rehabilitation over punishment. I’m all for that, but it means the film contains a small handful of preachy monologues about the subjects that don’t always settle well. That said, the reason these few moments don’t settle is because the rest of the film is largely quite subtle. The strongest scenes come from some of the more intimate exchanges. The scenes with the birds are wonderful for instance, helped by the fact it’s all done for real on screen. You even get to see the slowly unfolding emergence of one baby bird from its egg, in one beautiful, largely unbroken shot (seemingly so at least). I also found the relationship with Bull (Neville Brand), one of Stroud’s regular guards, the most touching in the film. Brand was unjustly snubbed when it came to Oscar nominations for his supporting role, where the more over the top (but still effective) Ritter and Telly Savalas both received noms. This might be because the character’s story is dealt with more subtly.
Lancaster got recognised by the Academy and rightfully so (although he lost out on the award to Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird). He tones down his famously physical strengths to deliver an understated performance which keeps much hidden behind the hard shell of his character.
Overall, Birdman of Alcatraz is rather long and slowly paced perhaps and the worthy, occasionally preachy tone means it’s not a film I’m desperate to watch again, but there’s much to admire in the filmmaking on screen. It’s a compelling story too, even if its accuracy is dubious. So it still receives a strong recommendation from me.
Birdman of Alcatraz is out on 6th August on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The transfer looks and sounds fantastic.
You get a decent selection of special features too:
– Audio commentary with film historian and editor Paul Seydor, moderated by Twilight Time’s Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman
– Illusion of Freedom: Richard H. Kline on John Frankenheimer’s Birdman of Alcatraz (29 mins) a new video piece on the film
– An exclusive new video interview with film historian Sheldon Hall
– Original theatrical trailer
– A collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Travis Crawford, as well as a selection of archival imagery from the film s production
The commentary is excellent with some friendly disagreements leading to interesting conversations about the film. They’ve all done their research too so there’s loads of interesting facts about the production as well as the true story of Stroud’s life. Similarly the Hall interview is illuminating too, although he treads on a lot of similar ground to the commentary. The Kline piece offers a first hand account of the shoot, so all bases are covered. Plus you get the usual Eureka booklet which are always worth a read. An excellent package all round.