After directing over 140 television shows for CBS during the 1950’s, and receiving mixed reviews for his first two films, 1962 proved to be a pivotal year for John Frankenheimer. Both The Manchurian Candidate, and The Birdman of Alcatraz earned him nominations for Best Director from the Director’s Guild of America. Known for creating “psychological dilemmas” for his male protagonists, Birdman of Alcatraz concerns one man’s surprising evolution to a kind of redemption.
Shot largely in the claustrophobic space of a prison cell by cinematographer Burnett Guffey (From Here to Eternity, Bonnie and Clyde), Birdman of Alcatraz maintains a quiet intensity throughout its 149 minute runtime. Based on Thomas Gaddis’ book, the film tells the story Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster), a convicted double-murderer whose five decades of imprisonment—much of it spent in solitary confinement, results in him becoming the world’s foremost authority on bird diseases.
Despite the film’s title, Stroud was not allowed to keep birds during his time at Alcatraz. All of his studies had come before, during his thirty years at Leavenworth. Such as it is, Stroud’s somewhat fictionalized (and some would say highly sanitized), life story serves as a shining example of acting in its purist form. Lacking the explosive action of most modern prison dramas, Burt Lancaster’s performance a miscellany of pent up emotions, is the unquestionable draw.
Convicted of murder, Robert Stroud is a menacing presence. Sent to Leavenworth Prison on a crowded, overheated train, Stroud breaks open the window to allow the suffocating inmates to breathe. His unruly attitude immediately puts him at odds with Leavenworth warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden). Determined to straighten him out, Shoemaker sentences Stroud to his first of many stretches in isolation.
Unimpressed an unbroken, back in general population, Stroud kills a guard when he learns that his disobedient behavior will cost him a visit with his mother, Elizabeth (Thelma Ritter). Initially sentenced to hang, Determined, and devoid of much outward emotion, Elizabeth sets about saving her son’s life, even getting a meeting with Edith Bolling Wilson, the powerful wife of the stroke-laden President Woodrow Wilson. While his death sentence is commuted to life, the terms of his sentence require that he be kept in solitary confinement for the rest of his days. Warden Shoemaker becomes Stroud’s lifelong nemesis, telling Stroud, “If I can find a way to punish you further, I will.” Stroud replies, “A man isn’t broken until he quits.”
One day, a baby bird drops into the exercise yard during a driving rain storm. Who knows what impulse causes Stroud to rescue the bird and carry it inside—the tiny spot in his heart that holds love for his mother? Stroud hand feeds the bird, catches bugs for it, and eventually teaches it to fly. Meanwhile, Malden leaves Leavenworth for Washington to head the new Bureau of Federal Prisons, a move that will have huge consequences for Stroud later on.
The new, liberal warden allows the prisoners to have birds, and many of them acquire canaries. It’s not long before many of them tire of the responsibility, and give their pets to Stroud. And thus begins what seems to be a total transformation, as Stroud cares for the birds, and watches the birth of chicks. His affection for birds—the perfect the parallel for his life as a human being—develops into a real passion when the birds mysteriously get sick, and start dying in great numbers. Determined to devise a cure, Stroud reads everything he can on the subject, and experimenting with various chemicals sent at his request, from his mother. He publishes articles about his cures in bird magazines; readers unaware that he’s a prisoner.
His self-taught expertise leads Stroud to start a small mail order business selling his bird cures, with a lonely widow (Betty Field), which eventually leads to a rupture in his relationship with his mother. From there, several twists and turns change Stroud’s life exponentially, but he seems to take it all in stride. As he ages, he seems to find piece within himself. During a riot, he tells a young inmate, “you’re just a kid, you got your whole future ahead of you, how dare you lie there and talk about dying at your age.”… “life is a precious gift,” and that, no matter your outward circumstances, it’s still possible to “soar like a bird.” Arrogance, and a bit of defiance are indications of a determination that can accomplish positive things when channeled appropriately.
The screenplay by co-producer Guy Trosper doesn’t claim to be a faithful retelling of Robert Stroud’s life. However, the story effectively draws viewers into the narrative, and allows Burt Lancaster to deliver a perfectly modulated performance that earned him an Oscar nomination. Thelma Ritter (one of film history’s most underrated character actors), also earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Stroud’s adoring mother (perhaps, a bit too adoring). Ritter shows off a sharp edged personality that she used many times throughout her career. Perhaps most surprising, is Telly Savalas’ Oscar nominated performance as Feto Gomez, a convict who starts out tough as nails, but similar to Stroud, learns kindness through birds. The always reliable Neville Brand is terrific as a guard who demands respect, but returns the favor. Karl Malden had a long career of fine performances, and Warden Shoemaker should be near the top.
Framed at 1.66:1, Twilight Time’s 1080p presentation is a solid one. Sharpness is mostly good, with only the occasional scene appearing slightly out of focus. Grayscale is excellent throughout, and while whites pulsate slightly during the canary birth scene, dust and debris has been largely removed. Contrast is well balanced.
The DTS-HD 1.0 MA soundtrack fits this dialogue heavy film very well. Dialogue has been recorded nicely (though some moments of ADR are noticeable). The sound effects and Elmer Bernstein’s score have been expertly mixed so as to not interfere with the dialogue. While a slight hiss is apparent during occasional moments in the second half, it doesn’t interfere with the overall viewing experience.
English SDH subtitles are included.
The following extras are available:
- Audio Commentary: Newly produced, ilmmaker Nick Redman, film editor Paul Seydor, and film historian Julie Kirgo have a spirited discussion about the films positives and negatives. Like most of Twilight Time’s commentaries, this one is well worth a listen, and may leave you looking at Birdman from Alcatraz from a new perspective.
- Isolated Score Track: Elmer Bernstein’s background score is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo.
- Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3:03)
- MGM 90th Anniversary Trailer (HD, 2:06)
- Six-Page Booklet: In her essay, Julie Kirgo explains how in 1962, a year that saw film at one of its creative highpoints, John Frankenheimer and Birdman of Alcatraz managed to break through. Still photos are also included.
There are only 3,000 copies of this Blu-ray available. Those interested should go to www.screenarchives.com to see if product is still in stock. Information about the movie can also be found via Facebook at www.facebook.com/twilighttimemovies.