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Tuesday, February 27, 2018

BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ -- Blu-ray Review by Porfle



Whenever I used to see a picture of a wizened, bespectacled Burt Lancaster gently tending his birds in a jail cell in the 1962 classic BIRDMAN OF ALCATARAZ (Olive Films), I got the impression that watching it would be a bit like seeing an episode of "Mr. Rogers' Cell Block."

Well, Mr. Rogers this guy ain't.  The real-life Robert Stroud was a killer of two men, one a prison guard, and he barely escaped the hangman's noose only to find himself in perpetual solitary confinement for most of the rest of his life.

The film based on his experiences isn't entirely a sweet stroll down Memory Lane either, although the grittier, more hardcore "prison thriller" scenes are confined to two passages: one, Stroud's early confinement in which he is a bundle of violent anger, and two, a deadly prison riot in which the older, wearier Stroud loathes to participate. 


In between, the eternal loner finds a wounded sparrow during his daily stroll in the prison yard and decides to nurse it back to health in his cell, partly for something to do and partly for some simple company. This is the beginning of a long journey of research and discovery that will eventually result in his becoming the foremost expert of birds and bird diseases. 

But that comes later, and Lancaster brilliantly expresses Stroud's growing empathy and love for these creatures he so patiently cares for until they're ready to do what he cannot, which is to fly away to freedom.

Stroud's evolution from almost Cody Jarrett-level instability (like Cagney's character he's a mama's boy, probably because she's the only one in his life who can tolerate him) to a caring, nurturing soul is subtly convincing, thanks both to Lancaster's sensitive performance and a delicately-wrought screenplay brought elegantly to life by director John Frankenheimer (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, SECONDS, THE TRAIN). 


"The Birdman", as he becomes known, is seen amassing a veritable aviary in his cell over the years, meticulously crafting cages from scrap material and scouring books from the prison library to aid in his quest to cure avian diseases.  But despite a genius I.Q., his simmering rebelliousness keeps him at odds with the prison system except for a sympathetic guard solidly played by the great Neville Brand. 

Telly Savalas (complete with black side-hair) is a joy as Stroud's cell neighbor Feto Gomez, who inherits his interest for birds to such an extent that we're touched by the big lug's clumsy efforts to love and care for his own feathered friends. 

As Stroud's clinging mother, Thelma Ritter ably conveys the singleminded obsession for her son's well-being that will later turn to spiteful jealousy when he forms a business partnership with Betty Field (OF MICE AND MEN) that will result in a more intimate relationship. 

Karl Malden is fine as the spiteful warden who vows to make life difficult for Stroud however he can.  The ever-stalwart Whit Bissell, Edmond O'Brien, and Hugh Marlowe also get to shine in brief but choice roles. 


In addition to being one of the 60s' leading stylists in starkly exquisite black-and-white photography--which nobody should ever even dare to think of colorizing--Frankenheimer's direction is so sensitive at times that the film takes on almost the same heartrendingly evocative tone as TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (which also benefits from a beautiful score by Elmer Bernstein) and we find ourselves siding with Stroud as he fights the system or strives to gain parole. 

It's all a bit morally ambiguous, and I suspect the real convict on which the story is based might not have been quite as sympathetic as Burt Lancaster's gentle soul (I had to keep reminding myself that he was a double murderer). By the end, however, none of this matters as the film works its sentimental magic and earns our emotional investment. 

We wonder whether or not Stroud will remain neutral during the big climactic riot and attempted breakout that occurs after he's been transferred to "The Rock." But I can't imagine being neutral toward BIRDMAN OF ALCATARAZ, a richly rewarding viewing experience of great intelligence, sensitivity, and depth.


Order the Blu-ray or DVD from Olive Films

Rated: NR (not rated)
Subtitles: English (optional)
Video: 1.66:1 aspect ratio; b&w
Runtime: 149 minutes
Bonus features: commentary by Kate Buford, author of "Burt Lancaster: An American Life", trailer





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