In 1912, the notorious and violent prisoner Robert Franklin Stroud is transferred to the Leavenworth Prison convicted for murdering a man. When a guard cancels the visit of his mother Elizabeth Stroud due to a violation of the internal rules, he stabs and kills the guard and goes to trial three times. He is sentenced to be executed by the gallows, but his mother appeals to President Woodrow Wilson that commutes his sentence to life imprisonment. However, the warden Harvey Shoemaker decides to keep Stroud in the solitary for the rest of his life. One day, Stroud finds a sparrow that has fallen from the nest on the yard and he raises the bird until it is strong enough to fly.
Robert Stroud was certainly no saint. He killed two people, viciously attacked several others, and never expressed any remorse for his unconscionable crimes. He began serving time in 1909 at the tender age of 19, and spent the rest of his life - more than a half century - behind bars. Most shocking of all, he endured 43 years in solitary confinement. Yet somehow Stroud never collapsed under the strain and never lost his will to live, no matter how bleak the circumstances or severe the abuse. On the contrary, the convicted murderer found ways to thrive. He stimulated his substantial yet underdeveloped intellect and funneled his energies into the study of birds, becoming one of the country's foremost ornithological experts and developing cures for rare aviary diseases, all within the confines of a maximum security prison.
As a young man, Stroud was uneducated, belligerent, shamelessly defiant, sullen, and violent, but he evolved over time and transformed himself into a scholar, writing two acclaimed books and earning the admiration of many in the outside world who ceaselessly campaigned for his release. The pleas, however, fell on deaf ears. Ironically, the system that vociferously and continually proclaimed its commitment to rehabilitation resented Stroud's spirit and individualism and vanquished him at every turn. The hypocrisy was stunning, but it inspired Stroud to continually strive to better himself and contribute as much as he could to society from within his cell's cramped confines.
'Birdman of Alcatraz' tells Stroud's story with insight and sensitivity. Yes, it sugarcoats some facts, omits others, and plays up Stroud's attributes to suit its humanistic agenda, but the screenplay by Guy Trosper, adapted from the book by Thomas E. Gaddis (who's portrayed by Edmond O'Brien in the movie), and a restrained, heartfelt performance by Burt Lancaster in the title role combine to present a balanced portrait of a complex man who learned to conquer his personal demons and forge a purposeful life. What Stroud withstood for all those decades is difficult to comprehend, and director John Frankenheimer doesn't depict the full weight of it, concentrating more fully on Stroud's development, introspection, and his relationships with a neighboring cell mate (Telly Savalas), sympathetic guard (Neville Brand), vindictive warden (Karl Malden), and two influential women - his protective and domineering mother (Thelma Ritter) and a fellow bird enthusiast (Betty Field) who develops a friendship and business partnership with Stroud after reading his ornithological tome.
Though it preaches prison reform and touts the indomitable nature of the human spirit, 'Birdman of Alcatraz' is first and foremost a finely etched character study and searing portrait of an incarcerated man. Like the birds he cultivates, Stroud lives his life in a cage, dependent on nourishment and care from others and allowed only fleeting moments of "freedom." The film's deliberate, some might say slow, pacing serves an essential purpose, providing a taste of the drudgery Stroud faced on a daily basis and the interminable nature of his sentence. In a prison environment, time is slow, and Frankenheimer masterfully details Stroud's fanatical devotion to study, experimentation, and innovative problem solving.
When we first meet him, Stroud is the typical angry young man who refuses to bow to authority and thumbs his nose at the severe punishments doled out to him. His insolent behavior and inability to interact with his fellow inmates soon lands him in solitary, and one rainy evening while taking his exercise in the prison yard, he makes a discovery that will forever alter his life. A wounded sparrow catches his eye, and he impulsively brings it back to his cell, sheltering and nurturing it until it regains its health. The creature fascinates him, and soon Stroud begins collecting and studying birds, turning his cell into a virtual aviary. He builds his own birdcages, begins breeding birds, and when a strange flu threatens to wipe out his flock, he experiments with various chemicals and ultimately concocts a cure.
Interestingly, all of the ornithological episodes in Stroud's life occurred at Leavenworth prison in Kansas, not at Alcatraz. When Stroud was transferred to "The Rock" in the early 1940s, where he stayed for 17 years, he was not allowed to bring his birds along and ceased studying the species. Also, the movie's Alcatraz sequences only comprise a relatively brief portion of its running time, making the title 'Birdman of Alcatraz' somewhat disingenuous. Nevertheless, Frankenheimer - much like Sidney Lumet before him in '12 Angry Men' - manages the tight spaces and confined quarters quite well, fashioning stimulating images that keep the viewer involved. A lengthy shot of a baby bird struggling to emerge from an egg and break free from the cocoon that constrains him represents Stroud's bound body and spirit, and stands as one of the movie's most powerful and symbolic scenes. And like the rest of the picture, its understatement is admirable.
Lancaster, at age 49, looks too old to play the young, brash Stroud early on, but grows into the role as the character matures and files one of his finest and most identifiable performances. Thankfully, the famous megawatt Lancaster grin is nowhere to be seen, and the actor nicely suppresses the mannerisms and unabashed bravado that often hamper his other portrayals. Always restrained, often soft-spoken, and exuding a heartfelt sincerity that resonates as Stroud ages, Lancaster is a riveting presence, and his intuitive, subtle work honors his character and carries the film. If Gregory Peck didn't happen to play Atticus Finch in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' the same year, Lancaster probably would have won the Best Actor Oscar for his excellent turn.
Nominations also went to Ritter for her change-of-pace performance as Stroud's steely, manipulative mother and Savalas as the colorful cellmate who shares Stroud's affinity for birds. Those who only know Savalas as his 1970s TV alter ego Kojak will find his work here a revelation, and well deserving of the accolades it received. Malden and Brand also shine, but it's the under-appreciated Betty Field in one of her last film roles who really stands out, crafting a warm, natural, often luminous portrait of a lonely woman who can never have the man she loves.
Though it drags in spots, 'Birdman of Alcatraz' remains a deeply affecting, fascinating, and well-produced message film that champions the strength of the human spirit and its limitless capacity for change. Discovering one's individuality and humanity in a collective, inhuman atmosphere is an almost impossible task, yet Stroud, through sheer strength of will, managed to accomplish that feat, and ended up achieving far more behind bars than many of us do out in the open. The prison system may be loath to admit it, but he's the poster child for rehabilitation, and this excellent film provides some small hope that others, if treated with dignity and compassion, can also change and thrive.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Birdman of Alcatraz' arrives on Blu-ray in a limited to 3,000 edition packaged in a standard case. An eight-page booklet, which features an essay by Twilight Time's resident film historian Julie Kirgo, as well as a selection of black-and-white scene shots and a color reproduction of the movie's poster art, is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Prisons are cold, desolate, dreary places, and the Oscar-nominated black-and-white cinematography of Burnett Guffey, who also photographed such classics as 'All the King's Men,' 'From Here to Eternity,' and 'Bonnie and Clyde,' hurls us into that harsh atmosphere. Angular shadows of bars and cages often dominate interior shots, and Twilight Time's above average 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer beautifully captures all the lines, shadings, and fine details. Though occasional speckles dot the print, the source material is largely clean and sports a pleasing grain structure that adds essential grit to Stroud's environment. Blacks are rich and deep, contrast levels waver a bit over the film's lengthy course (some scenes look a little washed out), and a nicely varied gray scale heightens the aura of claustrophobia. Close-ups are sharp and revealing, especially a couple of extreme shots in which pores, facial marks, and individual eyebrow hairs are strikingly visible. Even Thelma Ritter's age makeup appears fairly natural. No noise creeps into the image even during dark sequences, and no artificial enhancements seem to have been applied. Though far from perfect, this is a very watchable presentation that suits the material and themes quite well.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track supplies clear, well-modulated sound with no distortion or age-related surface noise, pops, or crackles. Subtleties, such as the delicate chirping of birds and shuffling of feet, are nicely rendered, while sonic accents like gunfire, thunder, and the slamming of cell doors provide some welcome weight to the track. Elmer Bernstein's robust score fills the room with ease, and all the soft-spoken dialogue is easy to comprehend. 'Birdman of Alcatraz' is a quiet film, but the silences are clean and there's an elegant resonance to this understated track that's quite effective.
Just a couple of supplements round out the disc.
Audio Commentary - Twilight Time stalwarts Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman sit down with film editor Paul Seydor for a lively and engaging commentary filled with spirited interaction, enlightening information, and interesting bits of trivia. Seydor talks at length about the life of Robert Stroud and the myriad liberties the filmmakers took with it, bringing to light Stroud's predatory homosexuality, intensely violent personal history, and how other prisoners lived in perpetual fear of him. We also learn Lancaster actively campaigned for Stroud's release in the 1950s and transformed his own personality much like Stroud did during his incarceration. Kirgo discusses the disturbing treatment of the birds during shooting and the difficulties the crew faced working with them, and how the first half of the film was reshot after Lancaster completed 'Judgment at Nuremberg.' In addition, she notes Stroud's story was originally planned as a TV drama, and a famous scene in the James Cagney gangster flick 'White Heat' may have been based on an episode in Stroud's life. Though the dialogue loses some steam toward the end (not surprising, considering the picture's lengthy running time), there's enough substance and enthusiasm on display to make this a worthwhile listen for both film fans and history buffs.
Isolated Score Track - Elmer Bernstein's beautifully integrated and complementary music can be fully enjoyed in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 on this isolated track.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview completes the extras package.
Many films have focused on prison reform, but 'Birdman of Alcatraz' tackles the time-honored issue with both understated eloquence and a fierce commitment. Burt Lancaster files one of his finest portrayals as Robert Stroud, who rises above deplorable conditions and myriad injustices as he struggles to improve his intellect, influence society, and forge a worthwhile life behind bars. Though supplements are few, Twilight Time's Blu-ray presentation features above average video and audio, both of which help immerse us in this stark, troubling, yet inspirational character study that's impeccably directed by John Frankenheimer. Highly recommended.