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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Birdman of Alcatraz (Blu-ray)
Birdman of Alcatraz (Blu-ray)
Twilight Time // Unrated // November 11, 2014 // Region Free
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted December 11, 2014 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
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P R I N T
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Back in the good old days when local TV stations used to run movies in the afternoon, Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) was frequently aired. Maybe it was its four Academy Award nominations or the fact that, back in the ‘70s anyway, it was new compared to ‘30s Warner Bros. and RKO titles always airing. Maybe it was because its running time neatly fit a three-hour time slot. But I think the main reason might have to do with the fact that Birdman of Alcatraz is one of those movies that's instantly compelling no matter where one starts watching it.

The picture is beguiling like a magic act. Superficially, the black-and-white movie resembles ordinary episodic television from that same era. In a sense, not much happens over the course of its 143 minutes, and most of that within the confines of lifer Robert Stroud's tiny jail cell, and yet director John Frankenheimer and star Burt Lancaster almost instantly suck the viewer into its intimate, largely internalized story. It lacks the flashiness of Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (also 1962) and Seconds (1966), or even The Train (1964), which reunited the red-hot filmmaker with Lancaster. But it's as well directed as those movies and deviates in interesting ways from the usual "inspirational" biopic.


The movie is based on the same-named 1955 bestseller by Thomas E. Gaddis, played in the movie by Edmond O'Brien, who also narrates. The movie is very accurate and wildly fictional at once. The facts about Robert Stroud's (Lancaster) criminal past, incarceration record, and many tiny details about his self-taught ornithology are largely true. Conversely, where in the movie Stroud undergoes a kind of spiritual awakening and general humanizing through his interests in birds, the real Stroud was at best self-absorbed, manipulative, demanding, and unpleasantly antisocial, and at worst a dangerous psychopath, despite his obvious intellect. Stroud also was apparently homosexual, and possibly segregated from the general prison population for that reason. Reportedly, he was extremely aggressive toward other prisoners in this regard. In the movie, Stroud's sexual identity plays no role at all. (Reader Sergei Hasenecz points to Michael Palin's chat with Stroud's prison-mates here.)

The movie's title is misleading. Stroud's "birdman" years were exclusively spent during the 22 years he was in Leavenworth, not Alcatraz. In December 1942 Stroud was transferred to Alcatraz but not allowed to keep birds or any other animals in his cell, so he pursued other interests, including writing Looking Outward: A History of the U.S. Prison System from Colonial Times to the Formation of the Bureau of Prisons, a manuscript suppressed for decades and only published for the first time this year. Gaddis's book was published while Stroud was still on Alcatraz Island, but Stroud was transferred soon after, several years before the movie came out. He never saw the film, though Burt Lancaster met him shortly before Stroud's death in 1963, the day before Kennedy was assassinated.

In the movie, as in Gaddis's book, Stroud is depicted as the poster boy for rehabilitation, a concept still fairly new and not widely accepted in 1962. Much of the drama hinges on a fundamental conflict between hardheaded Stroud and (fictional) Warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden). Stroud opposes Shoemaker's methods, arguing that rehabilitation doesn't work when somebody else's concepts of morality are imposed, tending to do exactly the opposite of restoring one's dignity.

According to Julie Kirgo's liner notes, the film's first act, with Stroud at his most unpleasant and violent, was completely reworked and at least partly reshot. Even so, these early scenes remain by far the film's weakest and least interesting. I hadn't seen Birdman of Alcatraz in at least 30 years, and was surprised by how ordinary and perfunctory they played. Yet, the moment Stroud rescues a baby sparrow from an exercise yard, more out of boredom than genuine interest, the film immediately springs to life and is never less than totally engrossing until the end credits.

The picture was unquestionably a major influence on the overrated The Green Mile, less so Michael Jeter's relationship with a mouse in that film versus the birds Stroud and other Leavenworth prisoners keep for companionship, than in Stroud's relationship with prison guard Bull Ransom (Neville Brand). Lancaster, Telly Savalas (as a slightly unhinged fellow prisoner), and Thelma Ritter (as Stroud's mother)* were all nominated for Academy Awards, but Brand should have joined them. It was ingenious casting. Brand, with his gravelly voice and coarse features usually was cast as hardened villains including, several times, Al Capone. In Birdman of Alcatraz he plays what at first appears to be a similar role, a no-nonsense, humorless guard. He endures Stroud's demanding, selfish behavior for years, Stroud never once appreciating Ransom for his occasional kindnesses and, finally, he's emotionally wounded. He verbally lashes out at Stroud, who finally begins to see the light, though he remains emotionally circumspect throughout the film. Lancaster is excellent in this scene, but Brand is even better. It was, probably, his finest performance.

Frankenheimer's greatest accomplishment with Birdman of Alcatraz is easy to miss. It's the way the picture studies its characters between the lines. Throughout are long shots of Stroud subtly reacting to various pieces of good and bad news, and little discoveries and crises concerning the birds. The movie takes its time so that the audience can study Stroud's non-verbalized emotions, as well as the emotions of other characters. The movie plays to Lancaster's strengths; few actors could be so expressive without saying anything.

An example of this comes late in the film with Stella Johnson (Betty Field), a fellow bird-lover who becomes Stroud's business partner and, later, his devoted wife. Field is terrific and the writing is just as good. A middle-aged woman when she meets Stroud for the first time, she has no illusions about his violent past, or of the realities of their life as a married but physically separated married couple. In their last scene together Frankenheimer focuses on her reaction to something Stroud says, and her emotionally complex range of emotions, eventually registering great strength and resolve, engenders much admiration from the audience toward this very strong woman.

Video & Audio

Twilight Time's Blu-ray of Birdman of Alcatraz, in 1080p/1.66:1 widescreen, is generally good, though not nearly up to the level of its concurrently released Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), which also features Lancaster. It looks like a composite of various film elements was sourced. The first reel or so, and then again around the 1:29 mark and elsewhere appear extremely soft, almost as if heavy filters were used, while other scenes are razor sharp. Regardless, it doubtlessly improves upon MGM's 2001 DVD, presumably in unenhanced widescreen. The DTS-HD MA mono audio is fine, and English subtitles are available.

Extra Features

Supplements are limited to the label's usual isolated music track, this time featuring the score by Elmer Bernstein; an audio commentary track with Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo, and author Paul Seydor; a trailer; and Kirgo's typically fine liner notes.

Parting Thoughts

Still immensely satisfying, Birdman of Alcatraz and this new high-definition release come Highly Recommended.


* Both are cast against type. Ritter performs the role minus her signature thick New York accent (her character in Birdman apparently hailing from Alaska), while Savalas wears what was left of a wispy head of black hair, visually a far cry from the exotically suave persona with the shaved dome he'd create within a few years.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His credits include film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features.

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