• Birdman of Alcatraz



    Released by: Twilight Time
    Released on: November 11, 2014
    Director: John Frankenheimer
    Cast: Burt Lancaster, Thelma Ritter, Karl Malden, Telly Savalas, Neville Brand, Edmund O’Brien
    Year: 1962
    Purchase From Screen Archives

    The Movie:

    After having shot to death the john who beat up his prostitute girlfriend, Robert Stroud is convicted of murder and sentenced to prison. While incarcerated in the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, he commits a second murder, this time of a guard who refuses to allow him visitation rights on a technicality. He is tried and sentenced to be executed by hanging; but, as he watches the gallows being built outside his cell, his mother begs President Woodrow Wilson’s wife for a commutation of his sentence. The First Lady petitions her husband, and he agrees, leaving Stroud to spend the remainder of his life in solitary confinement. One evening during a freak thunderstorm, a bird’s nest containing a recent hatchling is blown into the prison courtyard. Stroud nurses the baby bird back to health, a compassionate act that leads to an obsession with animals of the avian variety. Soon, Stroud is not only raising his own birds but also performing veterinarian services for birds belonging to his fellow inmates. After writing a book on the subject and developing a cure for septicemia among birds, he is visited by a fellow amateur ornithologist, who proposes a business venture. Before long, Stroud is recognized far and wide as an expert on birds. His fame raises the ire of a former warden, who transfers Stroud to Alcatraz, forcing him to give up his feathered friends.

    Birdman of Alcatraz (a misleading title given that Stroud only kept birds while in Leavenworth) is based on a 1955 biography by journalist Thomas E. Gaddis, who also wrote a bestselling biography about homosexual serial killer Carl Panzram. Gaddis soft-pedaled the Stroud story, presenting him as mild-mannered and misunderstood, an ornithological genius deserving of parole. In fact, the real-life Stroud was a violent criminal who committed innumerable stabbings between the time of his first and second murders. A year after Stroud was transferred to Alcatraz, a prominent psychiatrist, Romney M. Ritchey, diagnosed him as both highly intelligent (he had an I.Q. of 134) and dangerously psychopathic. He was known to guards and fellow inmates as a “wolf,” prison slang for a predatory homosexual with violent tendencies. Some scholars have suggested that Stroud’s homosexuality was one of the reasons he was denied parole, a contention Stroud himself expressed to Burt Lancaster. Yet, his penchant for violence and the fact that he had used chemicals intended for bird medicine to distill alcohol in his cell suggest that Ritchey’s initial diagnosis was correct.

    Despite its whitewashing of historical fact, Birdman of Alcatraz is largely successful. Until its last half hour, there isn’t a wasted moment. Each scene is judiciously structured to add impact to the story (and to tug at the heartstrings). Director John Frankenheimer, known for gritty, often brutal crime dramas, has no problem transitioning from Stroud’s early years as an angry, vicious thug to his later years as a wizened old man focused on bettering his lot in life. It may not be accurate, but it is engaging, illustrating that even with a lack of education (Stroud ran away from home at the age of 13 and never made it past third grade), people can be self-taught geniuses if they can find the appropriate impetus for learning. Unfortunately, the film loses its way in the last half hour, concluding with a prison riot that has little to do with who Stroud is or how he’s changed. The purpose is doubtless to provide the film with an exciting climax, but if feels artificial and stagey. Even with this major misstep, however, the film is of value for people interested in the cinema of transformation. Frankenheimer’s direction here may not be quite as good or as gritty as it is for The Manchurian Candidate or Seconds, but it has an inspirational quality not generally associated with his later work. And there is one striking, visionary sequence when cinematographer Burnett Guffey’s camera films the hatching of a bird in (mostly) real time.

    A consummate helmsman, one of Frankenheimer’s strongest assets was his ability to coax terrific performances from his actors. Nowhere is that ability more on display than in Birdman of Alcatraz, where he’s given a number of notable performers with whom to work. Front and center is Lancaster’s Robert Stroud, who presents the greatest character arc in the film. He begins the movie as a moody and temperamental killer but ends it as a humble and thoughtful man of science. Just as powerful is Thelma Ritter as his mother, a Norma Bates-type who is so obsessed with her son that, once he gets married, she forsakes him and does everything in her power to block his parole. Savalas stands out as the prisoner who inhabits the cell next to Stroud’s, and Malden is pitch perfect as the inhumane warden who is more interested in control than in rehabilitation. The film was well received upon release. Lancaster, Ritter, and Savalas were nominated for Academy Awards, as was Guffey’s black and white cinematography. Stroud never lived to see it; he died in 1963, a year after it was released.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Twilight Time has released Birdman of Alcatraz on Blu-ray in a limited edition of 3,000 copies. Framed in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1, the film features an MPEG-4 AVC codec with a resolution of 1080p. Despite a lack of extras, the film has been placed on a BD50, a smart move considering the length of the film (it runs just shy of two and a half hours). Stock footage fares poorly in comparison to the rest of the picture, which is entirely understandable. There is an abundance of detail when compared to MGM’s 2001 DVD release, which was non-anamorphic and soft. TT’s BD is not soft, thankfully, though it does suffer from weak black levels and contrast that is a little too low, resulting in a pronounced grain structure. None of this changes the fact that the BD is a vast improvement over the DVD. People interested in a more filmic experience will have no problem with the excess grain.

    The presentation features two audio options, including a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio of the film’s original mono. Purists will be thankful, as the sound is crisp without sounding artificial. There is also a music-only track, which is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. It is the perfect showcase for Elmer Bernstein’s alternately exciting and poignant score. The sound effects are not included, allowing the score to be enjoyed without distraction. English-speaking viewers who are deaf or hard of hearing can access the subtitle option. And finally, an audio commentary is included; Nick Redman hosts filmmaker and historian Julie Kirgo and editor and film historian Paul Seydor. The trio have a lively discussion about the real-life Stroud as well as about the film, most of it accurate (though the period Stroud spent in Alcatraz was approximately twenty years, not thirty as is mistakenly claimed). The trio shy away from no topic concerning Stroud or the film’s truthfulness, and they make it clear that to enjoy the film, one has to dispense with the facts. Overall, Redman has little to say, other than occasionally steering the conversation one way or another. It’s Kirgo and Seydor’s show all the way, with Seydor being most predominant.

    As usual with Twilight Time releases, extras are minimal. In addition to a three-minute trailer for the film—which focuses on Stroud without saying much about his work with birds (though it does point out that he was able to master half a dozen languages while in prison, something not mentioned in the film itself)—there is also a trailer celebrating MGM’s 90th birthday. This trailer is included on other TT releases of MGM films as well. Both trailers are in 1080p, though the former displays the usual signs of wear and tear due to its age. A Twilight Time catalogue allows viewers to step through a list of each of the company’s releases, noting just which ones (at the time of this disc’s release) have sold out. As with most TT releases, the disc contains 12 chapter stops, with a 13th that takes the viewer back to the menu screen. A booklet about the film, written by Kirgo, is included as an insert.

    The Final Word:

    Birdman of Alcatraz is not a perfect film, but for its first two hours it is an exceptional one. The performances are never less than amazing, and Frankenheimer’s direction keeps the ball rolling until it gets derailed by an attempt to up the action ante. Lancaster, Ritter, Malden, and Savalas are all standouts. The film is far from an accurate portrayal of the real-life Robert Stroud, but it doesn’t have to be. The story about one man’s transformation from violent criminal to mild-mannered scientist is meant to be inspirational, and as such, it works. Twilight Time’s BD release may have an issue with contrast, but the increase in detail and sharpness over the previously released DVD is well worth this small tradeoff.

    Note: Though the film’s poster by Saul Bass flags the title as Bird Man of Alcatraz, the onscreen title lists it as Birdman of Alcatraz.


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    Comments 2 Comments
    1. Mark Tolch's Avatar
      Mark Tolch -
      Great review, Chris!
    1. C.D. Workman's Avatar
      C.D. Workman -
      Thanks, Mark!