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USA 1962
Directed by
John Frankenheimer
147 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Birdman Of Alcatraz

Although released in 1962, John Frankenheimer’s film belongs firmly in the 1950s “humanist” tradition of American film-making characterised by such films as On the Waterfront (1954) and 12 Angry Men (1957).

It is, as an opening title tells us, “the story of a real and living man”, the man in question being Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster) who lived virtually his whole life in jail from 1912 to his death in 1964 with 43 years in solitary confinement for two murders and who became a recognized expert on bird diseases.  Based on a true story told in a book by Thomas E. Gaddis (Edmond O’Brien), Birdman Of Alcatraz is a powerful film that has a strong message about the indomitability of the human spirit and the perils of conformism, the American prison system being the sharp end of that wedge.

Lancaster gives a memorable performance as the hostile inmate whose murder of a prison guard earns him a death sentence which is eventually commuted to life  by Woodrow Wilson thanks to the doggedness of Stroud’s mother (Thelma Ritter).  From these unpromising beginnings Stroud finds dignity and purpose in his life as the result of giving succor to a fledgling sparrow who falls into his exercise yard during a storm (the sparrow gives an outstanding avian performance).

Frankenheimer, aided by Lancaster and Karl Malden as a pedantic prison governor do a fine job of eliciting out sympathies for and admiration of Stroud. So much so that one wonders why Stroud was never paroled and if something has been left out of the story particularly with respect to the relationship between Stroud and his mother which at times recalls that of Cody Jarratt and his Ma in White Heat. Indeed, according to Frank Heaney, a former prison guard (1948-51), Stroud was, though highly intelligent, a psychopath. He was also allegedly a predatory homosexual and paedophile.  Hardly the :real and living man” we see onscreen

To what extent these omissions tarnish the film is a matter for debate although they certainly could not be so flagrantly omitted today. Despite the film’s title Stroud did not keep birds in Alcatraz and in this, the final stage of the film, the film loses its dramatic tone, shifting to more a conventional prison movie (once again playing fast and loose with the facts) and in the quayside meeting between Stroud and Gaddis as the former is about to be transferred from Alcatraz to his final prison, the homilistic.  Even so, taken itself Birdman of Alcatraz is an affecting drama..

FYI: Charles Crichton, the initial director was sacked a few weeks into production and replaced by Frankenheimer.




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