The Birdman of Alcatraz

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Sentimental prison movie given Hollywood gloss

Image of The Birdman of Alcatraz

John Frankenheimer/ US/ 1962/ 148 mins

On dual format Blu-ray/ DVD Mon 6 Aug 2018

Based on true events, this movie has Burt Lancaster playing Robert Stroud, a man banged up in prison for murder in 1909. He has been given a life sentence and not much to lose. He doesn’t buckle down and submit to the system and is placed in “deep lock” (solitary confinement). ‘You ain’t got much, Stroud, but you keep subtracting from it,’ one of the guards warns the recalcitrant prisoner.

Fortunately for Stroud he rather prefers his own company and to alleviate boredom helps resuscitate a fledgling he finds in the nest of a fallen branch in the prison exercise yard. “You all I got, you little runt,” Lancaster tells the tiny creature. He cares for other prisoners’ birds, makes cages for them and soon has a cell full of sparrows and canaries. When a strain of septicaemia threatens to wipe out his flock he studies bird medicine and becomes an expert in avian care, writing several books over the years from his prison cell.

Stroud was clearly a highly intelligent man trapped in a troublemaker’s body.

The movie makes plain the link between the birds and the prisoners – their respective cages, their dependence that makes their ability to fly and thrive outside their prisons all the more difficult. The magnificent Lancaster plays the ageing jailbird as only the magnificent Lancaster can.  The mental battles he has with the governor (Karl Malden), guards and the guy in the cell next door (a very creepy looking Telly Savalas) are etched on his face as he ages.

It’s nicely shot by Burnett Guffey but the prison set is too silent and too clean and too cardboard. Frankenheimer (doubtless tethered by the strictures of popular film storytelling of the time) plays a sentimental hand enhanced by Elmer Bernstein’s sweeping symphonic score. The film’s story was a plea for a more understanding penal system yet is a rather hackneyed depiction of the indomitable spirit of man and all that jazz. How immeasurably improved (and realistic) the movie would have been with an actor of more nuance and menace, like Rod Steiger, in the title role.

It should be noted that Stroud was never allowed to see this sentimentalised biopic and he died not long after it was released (in 1963) having spent 53 years behind bars.  In truth Stroud was not so much a “dangerous dingbat” as depicted by Frankenheimer and Lancaster (the latter also produced the film), but a disturbing, untrustworthy psychopath.