Jan. 23, 2008

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
Grade: 46/100

Director: John Frankenheimer
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter

What it's about. A Hollywood biography of Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster), better known as "The Birdman of Alcatraz." Stroud was sent to Federal prison at Leavenworth in 1912 after killing a man. Within a few years, he murdered a prison guard and was sentenced to hang. Stroud's humorless and determined mother (Thelma Ritter), somehow manages to see Edith Bolling Wilson, the powerful wife of stroke-paralyzed Woodrow Wilson.

The President commutes Stroud's sentence to life, much to the displeasure of Leavenworth's warden, Karl Malden. Malden is a good man, but he is obsessed with order, regulations, and hygiene. Malden puts Stroud in isolation, with guard Neville Brand as his only human contact.

Malden is kicked upstairs to Washington, and the new warden is liberal. He allows the prisoners to have pet birds. Stroud acquires one, then two, and finally hundreds of canaries. They suffer illnesses, much to the consternation of Stroud and his fellow prisoner friend, Telly Savalas. Stroud reads textbooks and plays with his chemistry set, and after much drama and canary demise, Stroud finds a cure for the canary disease. He publishes his findings in bird journals and books, and becomes famous in aviary circles.

Karl Malden returns to the film as an author of new Federal prison regulations, which take away Stroud's right to own birds or run a business from prison. Stroud retaliates by generating publicity, which includes marriage to bird-lover Betty Field.

Malden finally wins by transferring Stroud to Alcatraz, where Malden is the warden. There, Stroud cannot have birds, but keeps busy writing a book condemning the Federal prison system. Malden suppresses it. A prison riot breaks out, and the now-pacifist Stroud helps restore order. At film's end, the aging Stroud is sent to a lower security prison, where he finally gets to meet his biographer, Tom Gaddis (Edmond O'Brien).

How others will see it. Birdman of Alcatraz was well received, and garnered several Oscar nominations. The film has many name actors (Lancaster, Malden, Ritter, Savalas, O'Brien) and its director, John Frankenheimer, is highly respected for The Manchurian Candidate, also released in 1962. Just for its cast, reputation, and direction, then, the film is of interest to classic movie fans.

Reformers, who would like to believe a convicted murderer can make good, may buy the story, despite the inevitable sweetening that Hollywood adds. There are many inaccuracies in the film, most of which are designed to make Stroud into more of a hero than he actually was. For example, Stroud was a pimp for the prostitute whose honor he defended by killing his first man. Stroud used his makeshift still on more than one occasion, which is why he lost his bird privileges at Leavenworth. And you don't really believe Telly Savalas smoked a cigarette with the pride of a new father upon the birth of a baby canary?

How I felt about it. The most bogus moment for me comes when Lancaster asks guard Brand for his apple box, which he plans to transform into a birdcage. Brand won't give Lancaster the box. Why not? Because Lancaster had murdered a fellow guard? No, because Lancaster didn't ask Brand with sufficient humility, and this hurt Brand's feelings. Aww.

One also could quarrel with the marketers who came up with the title. It should have been Birdman of Leavenworth, since Stroud was unable to keep birds at Alcatraz. But accuracy and marketing have only minor correlation. The name Alcatraz has more resonance, and sells more books and movie tickets.