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Birdman of Alcatraz
Twilight Time
Savant Blu-ray Review

Birdman of Alcatraz
Twilight Time
Limited Edition

1962 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 149 min. / Street Date November 11, 2014 / available through Screen Archives Entertainment / 29.95
Starring Burt Lancaster, Betty Field, Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter, Edmond O'Brien, Telly Savalas, Neville Brand, Hugh Marlowe, Whit Bissell.
Cinematography Burnett Guffey
Art Direction Fernando Carrere
Film Editor Edward Mann
Original MusicElmer Bernstein
Written by Guy Trosper From the book by Thomas E. Gaddis
Produced by Stuart Millar, Guy Trosper
Directed by John Frankenheimer

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The fascinating Birdman of Alcatraz takes on the issue of prison reform and the meaning of rehabilitation. But it also might be about the effect a movie can have on public opinion. The points made in the film by John Frankenheimer, written by Guy Trosper from the book by Thomas E. Gaddis are valid, but the image it creates of the real 'birdman of Alcatraz' is deeply flawed. Even if we question the prison establishment's opinion of two-time killer Robert Stroud, the image created of him by the handsome Burt Lancaster is selective in the extreme.

Burt Lancaster split his film work between escapist adventurism and ambitious prestige roles in the kind of movies that attract Oscar attention. He won for Elmer Gantry, but that barn-shaking performance is on a completely different plane than his take as Robert Stroud, the most famous federal prisoner of the 20th century who was not a gangster. Filmed by Frankenheimer with his usual sensitivity and visual precision, there's not a wasted minute in the two and a half-hour picture; the time goes by like a shot.

Birdman of Alcatraz presents a vision of a life spent behind bars. Convicted murderer Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster) is so bitterly anti-social that he kills a guard, earning himself a life sentence. Even the progressive warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden) carries a grudge against Stroud, whose mother Elizabeth (Thelma Ritter) saves him from the gallows by appealing directly to the First Lady (Adrienne Marden) for a commutation from President Wilson. Stroud's life changes when he rescues a sparrow chick from a fallen nest and raises it. When Stroud obtains official permission from a new warden to keep the bird, precedent is established and Stroud is soon taking care of other inmate's canaries. With more indulgences he starts an aviary in his cell; when the birds get sick he tries remedies, studies books and confers with Leavenworth's doctor (Whit Bissell). His interest turns into serious science, he publishes a book of bird cures and attracts the attention of a bird fancier, widow Stella Johnson (Betty Field). She starts a business selling his bird remedies. When yet another warden (Hugh Marlowe) tries to stop Stroud with new federal rules seemingly written with him in mind, Stroud, Johnson and his mother harness public opinion. Stroud marries Stella by proxy, a move that allows him to take advantage of an arcane law. The authorities allow him to keep his birds, only for him to be transferred on a minutes' notice to the new prison at Alcatraz. At that much stricter prison, Stroud's bird days come to an end.

This synopsis covers only a little more than half of the movie, which continues with some action scenes involving a prison riot, and extends the film's argument to wider issues. Public opinion was always on Stroud's side, as people love pet birds. As it's difficult to reconcile the police view of Stroud with his public image as a pioneer of medical research, he's remained a poster boy for prison reform. Leavenworth's doctor proclaims that the brilliant Stroud should be freed to conduct medical research for humans. The prison administration sees him as a known psychopath and a cold-blooded killer. Prison politics is involved as well. Stroud writes an exposé of prison corruption and cruelty, which Warden Shoemaker confiscates and suppresses. In Shoemaker's view Stroud has been taking outrageous advantage of his celebrity status for special privileges, staining the image of the system. Stroud counters forcefully that Shoemaker doesn't understand rehabilitation at all -- the system takes away all human dignity.

With Lancaster in the starring role, the movie makes it seem that Stroud has no business being in jail, let alone suffering as he does. Even the killing of the guard has an emotional 'reason'. Not only is Stroud given a scene where he learns the importance of being civil to those around him, most every scene in the movie shows him being rehabilitated, or at least socialized. He's so tender with the birds, who would not call him a new man?

The movie barely visits the reasons why the law can't take that view, in which any prisoner that minded his P's & Q's would qualify for leniency. And if the account in Wikipedia of Robert Stroud's crimes is anywhere near accurate, it's not difficult to conclude that he was a cynical manipulator of the prison system, reportedly loathed and feared by guards and fellow inmates alike. According to Wiki, his transfer from Leavenworth to Alcatraz was not a retaliatory move by the authorities, but a response to being caught using his state-bought lab facilities to make alcohol. The confiscated manuscript of Stroud's exposeé was later published. The fact that Stroud's keepers did not 'accidentally' lose a document criticizing the system would seem to speak to their integrity. From the record, it looks as if Stroud had lawyers battling with the prison system on different issues for a couple of decades.

The issue for filmmakers and viewer is, does Birdman of Alcatraz have the right to influence public opinion by fictionalizing a man's life in this way? I'd have to say yes, if movies are to be given the same rights of free speech as newspaper editorials or TV 'news' advocacy pieces. Trosper and Gaddis have Stroud acting as a soulful battlefield doctor during the prison riot, offering nuggets of wisdom about the value of life. That's certainly artistic license, yet it gets us to think about how we waste much of our lives whether we're in prison or out walking free.

The movie uses a docu-drama opening and closing with author 'Tom Gaddis' (Edmond O'Brien) waiting to see Stroud when he's finally transferred from Alcatraz to a different prison, in 1959. They have a pleasant meet and greet. In reality, Stroud had been in poor health for several years, which was the reason for the transfer. As he gets into a prison car, we see that a seagull has defecated on the car's fender. I wonder if that was a personal joke by the filmmakers.

Burt Lancaster beautifully modulates his performance, communicating emotions with very fine changes in facial expression. In concert with the subject matter, sentimental moments are carefully spaced out. Thelma Ritter is terrific as a loving mother who later turns cruelly against her son for refusing to dump Stella, his wife. Ritter is so associated with sweet-hearted comedy characters that her character seems especially harsh. Her rejection suggests that she may have been an influence on Stroud's 'going bad' as a teenager. Betty Field makes a fine impression as the prisoner's wife and business partner. It's a fine relationship handled without regard to prison movie conventions, especially when Stroud finally sends her away. The real emotional content is saved for Lancaster, his prisoner friend Feto Gomez (Telly Savalas) and a faithful guard, Bull Ransom (Neville Brand). Both are tough-guy actors that eventually crossed over to more sentimental roles, yet they made their strongest filmic impressions when themselves playing extreme psychopaths.

The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Birdman of Alcatraz is a picture-perfect transfer of this carefully filmed show. It's not easy to spend so much time in various jail cells without boring us to death, and veteran cameraman Burnett Guffey keeps the film alive at all times. Although possibly filmed by a special unit, the close-up footage of Lancaster tending the tiny, all-mouth baby sparrow is exceptionally good; we don't even mind close-up shots of bugs being killed and mushed-up to feed the little chick. A major prison riot did occur during Stroud's tenure at Alcatraz, giving Guffey a chance at some stronger dramatic scenes of tear gas canisters smashing through iron-barred windows.

Elmer Bernstein's music provides an appropriate gentle accompaniment during much of the film, with a couple of bursts of action music that remind us of his scores for westerns. The disc allows the music to be audited on an Isolated Score Track. In addition to an original trailer, TT's Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo welcome author Paul Seydor to their casual and informative commentary. They also contrast the filmic Stroud with the offical record.

Julie Kirgo's insert pamphlet liner notes this time out are very good, digging deep into the film's personalities and production. Director Charles Crichton was fired and replaced early on... gee, do you think he might have clashed with good ol' Burt?   Ms. Kirgo also reports that after seeing a first assembly, director Frankenheimer re-scripted and re-shot the film's entire first half, condensing the story to a reasonable length. That's an extraordinary move, then or now.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Birdman of Alcatraz Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent English 1.0 DTS-HD MA
Supplements: Isolated Score Track / Audio Commentary with Film Historians Julie Kirgo, Paul Seydor, and Nick Redman / Original Theatrical Trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 30, 2014

Text © Copyright 2014 Glenn Erickson

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