Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) Review

If you make a list of the most memorable biopics in history, very few of them come from before 1970 (The year of "Patton"). Films like "Life of Emile Zola" "Sergeant York" "Day for Night" and even Elia Kazan's "Viva Zapata" feel rather dry despite the efforts of their actors. Perhaps it's the Hollywood code that prevents the juicy dark parts of these characters' lives from coming to the forefront in these narratives. Or perhaps Hollywood felt more comfortable with fictional characters whose lifespans they can depict like the title characters of "Johnny Belinda" or "Goodbye Mr. Chips".

"Birdman of Alcatraz" is a rare exception. It follows the entire adult lifespan of a man and remains faithful to much of his life story so that the emotional effect really feels authentic and packs punch.

The film's subject, Robert Stroud (played by the never disappointing Burt Lancaster), is a lifer at Leavenworth Penitentiary (and later Alcatraz) who transforms from an anti-social rebel to an elder statesman (within the confines of his prison walls) when three birds enter to his cell and his senses of empathy and curiosity are awakened. In caring for his birds, he begins to care and form friendships with those around him and finds a purpose to devote his time. When his birds get sick and the local veterinarian tells him it's a routine epidemic and doesn't offer a solution, he exhaustively researches and finds his own and in publishing his results, he becomes one of the leading ornithologists in the country.

The degree to which Stroud was a spiteful man or simply misunderstood (many inmates described him as psychopathic even in his "reformed" stage) is debatable, but both Burt Lancaster and the author of the film's source material, Tom Gaddis (played by Edmond O'Brien in a somewhat odd fourth-wall-breaking narration), have an affection and admiration for the man and that shines through.

Because the character of Stroud is in every frame of the film and in many of these moments, it's just him and the birds. Similar to films like "Cast Away", "All is Lost", or "Wild" the challenges on the part of Lancaster and director John Frankenheimer to make these quiet passages work are met extraordinarily.

Similarly, Telly Savalas, Karl Malden, Neville Brand, Thelma Ritter, and Betty Field do great work in supporting parts. In particular, Karl Malden makes the case for being one of the most consistently great actors of his generation with this understated role as a straight-laced prison warden is what Robert Stroud's anti-hero persona is defined against. The two share a begrudging respect for each other after spending over half their lives on opposite sides and it's a relationship with a lot of depth.

This is a film that one should see not just because Robert Stroud was a fascinating character but because Frankenheimer and Lancaster bring his story to life so well.

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