BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (1962)


A biopic about Robert Stroud, a man who, while serving a life sentence for murder, became obsessed by birds, eventually discovering cures for several avian diseases and wrote a book on ornithology (at one point, he had 400 birds in his cell). The title, as with the movie Krakatoa: East of Java, is a bit of a misnomer; Stroud never had any birds while he was interned at Alcatraz. All that happened earlier while he served time at Leavenworth (and Krakatoa is actually west of Java). It’s an earnest film; maybe a bit too earnest—the filmmakers didn’t seem to think that Stroud’s obsession was enough to make a film about, so they kept throwing in criticism of the penal industry, a tug of war that throws the film a bit out of focus. Stroud is presented here as a man with anger management problems who loves his mother a bit too much (as opposed to James Cagney in White Heat, who is a psychopath with a mother fixation); he’s more sinned against that sinning. In real life, Stroud was a sociopath who had no qualms at killing (a couple of his fellow inmates referred to the film as a comedy, Stroud’s true character was so fictionalized). Stroud was also a genius, but, hey, nobody’s perfect. In the end, the filmmakers didn’t seem to know exactly what to do with the guy or what attitude to take—how bad can we make him without losing the audience, but still be true to the original character type thing. As a result, Stroud comes across as neither fish nor fowl. This also seemed to be too much of a straight jacket for Burt Lancaster in the title role; he got an Oscar nom for it, but Stroud never really comes to life. Telly Savalas, as his next door cell neighbor who also has a bird for a pet, gives the best performance, probably because he doesn’t have to worry about the audience liking him or not; he’d sooner kill you than look at you, but is in anguish at the thought of his pet bird dying. Thelma Ritter, one of our greatest character actors, also got an Oscar nom for playing Stroud’s mom, a role that has almost no impact (she’s certainly no Margaret Wyncherly, that’s for sure); but it’s hardly her fault, there just wasn’t much there for her to work with. Guy Trosper wrote the screenplay (he also wrote Jailhouse Rock, a different kind of penal story). John Frankenheimer replaced Charles Crichton (who made his name at the famed Ealing studios) as the director. The striking black and white photography is by Burnett Guffey (also Oscar nommed). Stroud was never allowed to see the film.

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