UK Release Date: 6th August 2018
Runtime: 145 minutes
Director: John Frankenheimer
Writer: Guy Trosper
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Betty Field, Thelma Ritter, Telly Savalas
Synopsis: A murderer spared a spell on Death Row devotes his time to raising birds and researching the various illnesses that can affect them.
When you think of prison movies, you think of hard-edged drama with a fierce emotional heart. You think of Scum and The Green Mile… and Paddington 2. In a rather different vein, certainly to the first two of those, is Birdman of Alcatraz from 1962, which is arriving on Blu-ray in the UK for the first time courtesy of Eureka Video. It’s the tale of a man spared Death Row, who takes to raising an aviary of birds in his cell, sparking a craze for prisoner pets in the process and becoming one of the world’s premier experts in ornithology.
Unfortunately, the story is not exactly told with the vim and energy that you’d hope for. Burt Lancaster plays the titular inmate, Robert Stroud, who we meet protecting the rights of his fellow prisoners on a train by smashing open a window so they can breathe easier. He repeatedly clashes with prison warden Shoemaker (Karl Malden) and ultimately stabs a guard, leading to a death sentence. His mother (Thelma Ritter) appeals directly to the White House and earns her son a commuted sentence. Staring down the barrel of life in prison, Stroud begins to care for an injured bird he finds in the yard and soon pursues a serious interest in studying ornithology and bird illnesses.
Birdman of Alcatraz is a two and a half hour movie in which the titular prison doesn’t appear for almost two hours. Most of the story focuses on Stroud’s stay at Leavenworth Prison, where he assembles his DIY aviary and carries out his studies. The film spends a lot of time with Lancaster and his rather tedious birds, though it’s when he’s on screen with Malden or Ritter that the movie finds its purpose. Both of these characters bring out Lancaster’s righteous fury at the system he has become a part of, and that’s where the character works.
Unfortunately, there’s a nagging sense that this movie is whitewashing the history. The real Stroud was one of the most notorious prisoners in American history and was a pimp convicted for shooting dead a barman, something conveniently left out of John Frankenheimer‘s film, which portrays Stroud as an intelligent, mild-mannered man with a heart of gold. This portrayal never feels convincing within the confines of movie and it’s even less convincing if you take the time to read about the real Birdman of Alcatraz.
For all of its prestige gloss and undeniable moments of charm, The Birdman of Alcatraz is a lengthy trudge through a story that has had every rough edge smoothed by Hollywood. It’s a bloated take on a story that could easily have been condensed, helmed with little energy or invention by Frankenheimer. It feels false at every turn and fails to engage with the interesting dichotomy of a man who didn’t seem to care much for humans, but had a real love for his feathered friends.
As is to be expected from a Eureka Masters of Cinema release, there’s a solid amount of stuff to be found here. There’s a commentary with a film historian, as well as a video appreciation of the film by another film scholar, and a new documentary looking back at the movie’s production.
Pop or Poop?
Despite strong supporting performances and an intermittently strong Burt Lancaster, Birdman of Alcatraz is a dramatically inert prison movie that never grapples with the complexity of its central character, instead casting him as a fairly unambiguous good guy. It’s a betrayal of history, and a betrayal of drama.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.
Birdman of Alcatraz is available on Blu-ray in the UK from August 6, courtesy of Eureka Video.