Watching the classic Birdman of Alcatraz thanks to a new Blu-ray edition from the good people at Olive Films, I found myself wonder what is a movie’s obligation to the truth when telling a true story. I mean, we all accept that any movie based upon a true story will take dramatic license, bending the facts for dramatic effect, but we still expect a movie to retain the spirit of its real life inspiration. Birdman of Alcatraz tells the partially fictionalized story of Robert Stroud, a felon who spend more than 50 years behind bars and during his incarceration became interested in ornithology, the study of birds.
In the film, the great Burt Lancaster plays Robert Stroud as a kindler, gentler inmate. It’s one of Lancaster’s finest performances and earned him an Oscar nomination. But whether or not director John Frankenheimer’s cinematic adaptation of the non-fiction book by Thomas E. Gaddis is too kinds to its subject is a matter of debate, one that continues for more than 50 years since the film’s debut. By many accounts, Stroud was most certainly an intelligent person, quite possibly a genius. By many accounts as well, Stroud was a violent psychopath. Does Birdman of Alcatraz actually lionize its protagonist? Was the film too kind to a convicted killer?
Luckily for Frankenheimer and screenwriter Guy Trosper, the tone of the film didn’t result in an ethical debate as to whether or not Robert Stroud was rehabilitated and worthy of release, as Stroud passed away behind bars only a year after the film’s release. However, the film’s kindly portrayal of Stroud did result in a movement to release Stroud (something the book’s author Gaddis most certainly intended), though it failed to gain much traction.
Ethical questions about the nature of truth in cinema aside, Birdman of Alcatraz represents the start of one of the finest runs any director has ever had. In the ‘60s, John Frankenheimer had a nearly unparalleled run in quality, including such classics as The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and Seconds. It all started with Birdman of Alcatraz. The 1962 prison drama was nominated for four Academy Awards gets a lush transfer in the new Olive Films edition, one that highlights the amazing black and white cinematography of Burnett Guffey, who secured one of the film’s nominations.
Burt Lancaster gives a tender as the famed felon Stroud. Starting in 1912, as Robert Stroud is entering Leavenworth Prison for murder, the convict is greeted to his new life behind bars by Warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden), an authority figure who will play a large role Stroud’s incarcerated life. As a character, Shoemaker is an amalgam of various figures that Stroud interacted with in his life behind bars. Eventually, Stroud’s sentence is expanded when he kills a guard upon hearing that his beloved mother (played by Thelma Ritter) was turned away. Now Stroud is sent to solitary confinement, and it is within that caged solitude that he discovers his love of birds, eventually collecting hundreds of caged creatures that line the confined space of the eponymous caged creature.
Three out of four of Birdman of Alcatraz’s Oscar nominations were for acting, and each nomination was earned as the film is populated with great actors delivering stellar performances. Burt Lancaster gives one of the finest performances of his storied career as Robert Stroud, and it’s not the actor’s fault that the screenplay focuses much more on the quiet and tender side of Stroud as opposed to his violent, menacing streak. Thelma Ritter was nominated for her role as Stroud’s mother, bringing a sense of maternal love that persists despite the crimes of her son. She’s dogged in her pursuit of clemency for her convict son, and her efforts are successful in getting her off death row. The final actor in Birdman of Alcatraz to secure an Oscar nod was the great Telly Savalas as Feto Gomez, Stroud’s neighbor in solitary confinement in Levanworth and eventually a fellow resident of Alcatraz. Savalas brings a manic energy to his inmate, which provides a nice balance to Lancaster’s stoic and contemplative Stroud. Karl Malden didn’t earn a nomination for his performance as Shoemaker, but he brings a veteran’s sturdy presence to the film, the beacon of law and order struggling to maintain control as attitudes towards inmates change over time.
John Frankenheimer would later be known for his work in action films, such as The French Connection II and the (fairly) modern classic Ronin. Birdman of Alcatraz isn’t much of an action film, but Frankenheimer is able to pull out one stellar action sequence towards the end of the film. Two inmates in a failed escape attempt secure guns and a riot breaks out on Alcatraz. Frankenheimer and Guffey’s camera tilts in many of these sequences, giving an off-kilter feel to the chaos unleashed in the cellblock. It’s as if all this quiet tension that builds over the course of the film is unleashed in this visceral scene that teases what Frankenheimer will accomplish later in his illustrious career.
Birdman of Alcatraz is a quiet, contemplative work by a great director just as he’s starting to work at the top of his game. It features some of the era’s best black and white cinematography and a career-best performance by a screen legend. It does, however, stick with a one-sided portrayal of its troubled protagonist which creates a series of questions about the nature of truth in cinema. Regardless, this classic now is on Blu-ray with a great, pristine transfer of a masterfully crafted drama with a great cast working at the top of their game.