• Birdman Of Alcatraz, The

    Released by: Olive Films
    Released on: February 27th, 2018.
    Director: John Frankenheimer
    Cast: Burt Lancaster, Thelma Ritter, Karl Malden, Telly Savalas, Neville Brand, Edmund O’Brien
    Year: 1962
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    The Movie:

    When Birdman Of Alcatraz was released on Blu-ray by Twilight Time Releasing in 2014 (reviewed here), now out of print, Chris Workman had this to say about the film:

    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.


    Olive Films presents the feature on a 50GB disc with the feature taking up almost 40GBs of space. The feature is framed at 1.66.1 widescreen and presented in AVC encoded 1080p high definition (puzzlingly the opening credits are framed differently at 1.45.1). Contrast is less than perfect in spots which results in black levels suffering a bit and the image looking noisier than maybe it should, but the good outweighs the bad. Detail is pretty strong and there’s a reasonable amount of depth and texture here. There are no noticeable compression artifacts and the image is free of obvious noise reduction or edge enhancement.

    The only audio option for the feature is an English language DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track. Dialogue is clean and clear and the track is free of any noticeable hiss or distortion. Levels are properly balanced throughout. Elmer Bernstein’s score sounds quite good here. There are no alternate language options here but removable subtitles are available in English.

    The main extra on the Olive Films Blu-ray release is a new audio commentary by Kate Buford, author of Burt Lancaster: An American Life. Not surprisingly, the focus leans heavily on Lancaster’s performance as Buford provides interesting insight and details into his work here as well as where he was at on both a personal and professional level when he starred in this film. The commentary also covers Frankenheimer’s directing, details of the story and locations, the supporting cast and lots more.

    Additionally, the disc contains the film’s original theatrical trailer, menus and chapter selection.

    The Final Word:

    The Birdman Of Alcatraz holds up well, thanks to strong directing, some genuinely great performances and a strong story. Olive Films’ Blu-ray release mirrors the out of print Twilight Time disc in terms of presentation and includes an interesting commentary track as its main supplement. Recommended!

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!