A Movie A Day: BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (1962) You ain’t a man, Kramer! You are dog puke!
Published at: Nov. 21, 2008, 12:43 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day.
[For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection or from my DVR and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.]
Growing up in the bay area I spent a lot of time in the San Francisco area, usually on school trips, so I was well aware of the infamous Birdman of Alcatraz. I took the Alcatraz tour, headphones and all, and heard about Robert Stroud, but nothing in-depth. Those tours were more interested with the famous gangsters like Al Capone and the big prisoner uprising story.
So, while I was aware of the Birdman, this film was my first exposure to his story.
We follow director John Frankenheimer from yesterday’s ‘80s thriller THE HOLCROFT COVENANT and while I found I surprisingly enjoyed HOLCROFT this is bay leaps and bounds a better film.
I groaned a little bit when I pulled the DVD from my shelf and saw it had a runtime of 2 ½ hours. Don’t get me wrong, I like long movies, but this week has been crazy… I’ve had to clear way for a new TV, completely rearranging my house in the process, I have the Star Wars contest still pending, a big, big final Bolt piece to write, the Holiday Shopping Guide running… I would have loved to hit a run of 70 minute movies this week is all I’m saying.
I was much relieved when the movie not only turned out to be good, but that it didn’t drag at all. I didn’t feel the time pass, so I wasn’t distracted on everything I have to do.
The primary reason for that is an incredible performance by Burt Lancaster as the title character, Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz. When we first meet him, he’s only up for 9 years and a fairly young man, but he has a temper on him that would make the Hulk go, “Dude, take a chill pill. Relax, man… jeez…”
Karl Malden plays the new warden at this smaller prison who puts faith into Lancaster, assuring a pessimistic guard that he should be taken out of solitary and put back in the regular prison population. When this guard is a dick to Lancaster, barring him from a visit with his mother, who he has an incredibly strong emotional connection to, the dude ends up with a shiv sticking out of his chest and Lancaster gets a death sentence.
Long story short, his mother works tirelessly to get his sentence reduced, ultimately ending up in Washington where she’s able to secure a meeting with the First Lady which resulted in President Wilson commuting his sentence back to life.
Malden at this point is completely changed. His optimism was murdered along with that guard and he turns into a man obsessed with punishment. He’s going to make sure that Stroud is punished as severely as he can be, which means life in solitary.
That’s actually not all that bad for this guy, who is definitely not a people person. He gets to walk around the exercise yard (by himself) every once in a while, so it’s not like COOL HAND LUKE’s teeny tiny box or any of the PAPILLON cells.
On one of these nights a storm sweeps in and blows down a tree limb into the yard. Stroud hears a chirping of a baby bird in a destroyed little nest and takes the little thing back in with him. He nurtures it, occupying his time with the bird, teaching it tricks and trying to teach it to fly.
Malden ends up being replaced by another Warden who taked immediately to the bird tricks and encourages Lancaster’s avian hobby… as Malden sits in the corner, stewing.
I was frankly surprised how much of the movie takes place outside of Alcatraz. Leavenworth, in Kansas, is where 2 hours of the 2 ½ hour long movie takes place and when Lancaster actually gets to Alcatraz he goes without his birds. Malden is the Warden there and specifically asked for his transfer to get him back under his thumb.
Lancaster really is spectacular here, giving an incredibly nuanced and subtle performance. He’s scary at the beginning when he is rage incarnate and not too bright, but once he starts taking an interest in birds his life is turned around. He finds his humanity a little bit, starts building friendships with the guards and his immediate next door neighor, played by Telly Savalas, who is likewise awesome.
Lancaster’s bird research and care spread and soon everybody else is getting birds, finding a little joy and hope.
There’s a big statement in this movie about rehabilitation. It’s clear that Stroud’s anger issues are gone and he’s devoting himself to doing a lot of good. He studies science when his birds start dying, first to diagnose it and then to try and find a cure… which he amazingly does.
But Malden makes it clear later on that only his definition of rehabilitation counts, so it doesn’t matter the good that Stroud has done or the good that he could do if he applied this same determination to human sciences.
Savalas is probably what balances out the feel-good drama of the movie… one, it’s weird to see him with hair, even the little bit he has here… but more importantly, he’s just fucking funny. The way he worries about his canary (having fallen in with the rest of the inmates in wanting birds) is hilarious because he’s this tough guy, a punk and here he is fretting over a little birdy.
There’s a great scene where his bird, which is found out to be a “broad” is given over to Stroud to keep… And when he does, it mates and lays eggs… as they get close to hatching Savalas is seen pacing his cell like an expecting father, calling out for updates every few seconds.
What’s really fascinating to me is that this film came out a year before the real Robert Stroud died, still in prison. I wonder if he ever saw it?
Final Thoughts: The film is very well shot, the black and white photography really stunning, well directed and incredibly well acted. I almost don’t want to label it as a “feel-good movie,” but it definitely is so. I’m sure it’s a very, very romanticized look at someone who in real life was probably a cold-blooded killer, but that doesn’t keep it from being a very emotional movie. So, it is very much a feel-good movie. Also, keep an ear out for a great score by Elmer Bernstein!
Here’s what we have lined up for the next week:
Friday, November 21st: WHITE HEAT (1949)
Saturday, November 22nd: MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES (1957)
Sunday, November 23rd: EACH DAWN I DIE (1938)
Monday, November 24th: THE BRIDE CAME C.O.D. (1941)
Tuesday, November 25th: THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936)
Wednesday, November 26th: BULLETS OR BALLOTS (1936)
Thursday, November 27th: THE CINCINNATI KID (1965)
A big gangster run coming up… Lots of Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, so I should be in hog heaven. I’ve loved all the Cagney and Robinson I’ve seen so far.
Tomorrow I will be receiving my new TV, a nice LED LCD HDTV… so this will be my final non-upconvert 480p AMAD. See you tomorrow for a full upconverted WHITE HEAT, followed Edmond O’Brien over from this flick!