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Birdman of Alcatraz
No person can be judged as being one thing or the other, especially when it comes to their moral compass. Even the worst of us can engage in acts that can surprise us. Look at the real life story of Robert Stroud, by all means a murderer and quite a psychopath who spent a majority of his life behind bars, in solitary confinement no less. Perhaps spurred by his crushing loneliness, perhaps as a blip in his psyche pushing him towards some sense of redemption, Stroud made it his mission in life to raise birds and study their anatomy, to a point where he became the leading authority on bird diseases. He became so famous, that Thomas E. Gaddis wrote a bestselling book about him, which in turn was adapted into a tender but a bit bloated drama directed by the great John Frankenheimer.
The real Stroud was one bad cookie, apart from his fascination with bird anatomy. Apparently he was such a violent figure, even by maximum-security prison standards, that he was always kept apart from other prisoners. After the film's release, spurred by Burt Lancaster's sympathetic portrayal of Stroud in the film, audiences demanded Stroud's release, only to be met with a response from the Justice Department that there were very credible reasons to believe Stroud would have molested children if he were to rejoin the general population. Of course the inherent dichotomy of such a troubling figure being glorified for his one admittedly impressive positive quality would have been hard to dramatize in a major Hollywood drama in the early '60s, so a lighter approach to Stroud's character was employed, led mostly by Lancaster's touching, determined, and melancholic performance.
As much as the film essentially whitewashes the real Stroud, Frankenheimer doesn't completely shy away from showing what a bitter maniac Stroud was before he got into birds. The first act is awash with murderous behavior Stroud committed in prison, while not trying to justify any of them during the rest of the narrative. After Stroud is given a life sentence in solitary confinement due to murdering an innocent guard who wouldn't let him see his mother (The Freudian issues with Stroud rivals those of Normal Bates'), Frankenheimer meticulously examines how he gradually goes from having a passing interest in raising birds due to abject boredom, all the way to making his study of their anatomy his entire life purpose. Ever the efficient technician, Frankenheimer uses cutting between same angles and camera moves to depict the passage of time, superimposes long shots and close-ups of Stroud to imply his trapped psyche, and overall creates an engaging visual style for a film that primarily takes place inside a tiny cell.
The choice of casting an intimate and immediately relatable actor like Lancaster might go against the theme regarding the possibility of redemption in even the worst of people, but he communicates Stroud's inner conflict in a superbly layered manner. The meat of the story is about Stroud's evolution into a medical genius, which primarily takes place during his time spent in Leavenworth prison. Once he is transferred to Alcatraz, the birds are gone, and we're left with a third act that strips the story away from what made it interesting in the first place. I guess Birdman of Leavenworth wasn't a catchy enough title. The film's complete reinvention of the facts surrounding the infamous prisoner revolt in Alcatraz in order to give Stroud an unearned heroic stance also doesn't sit well. Frankenheimer could have easily cut his two and a half hour film down by at least half an hour. That being said, Birdman of Alcatraz still works well as an old school Hollywood character drama made for an adult audience, the kind we don't get much from studio filmmaking anymore.
Olive is an important distributor in ways that they present otherwise forgotten titles in HD, with a lower price tag than most other boutique Blu-ray labels to boot, but those familiar with the company should know by now not to expect Criterion-level restorations and clarity from their transfers. The 1080p transfer here is clean for the most part, and has a healthy amount of grain, but it's also full of dirt and scratches. It's the best home video release of the film you'll find, but don't expect perfection.
The DTS-HD mono presentation is a 2.0 track, which is a small pet peeve of mine. I prefer a healthy 1.0 from the center channel, the way mono is supposed to be presented. The transfer is a bit tinny, and the dynamic range is a bit too wide, which might prompt viewers to have the volume button handy between dialogue and music. Otherwise, it gets the job done, and there aren't any glaring faults.
Audio Commentary: This commentary by Lancaster expert Kate Bufford is not only informative about Lancaster's career, but about the real Stroud and the prison system that kept him behind bars.
We also get a Trailer.
Not the best film out of Frankenheimer's early '60s golden period, Birdman of Alcatraz is nevertheless a compelling biographical drama that gets a lot of mileage out of its taut direction and tender performances.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com