Burt Lancaster commands center-screen in virtually every scene of Birdman Of Alcatraz, a 1962 biopic of real-life prison lifer Robert Stroud, who at the time of John Frankenheimer’s film was serving his 53rd year behind bars for an Alaskan murder and the subsequent killing of a prison guard. Invigorated by Frankenheimer’s typically piercing close-ups and sumptuous shadows, this black-and-white drama stands as a sterling showcase for its star, whose portrait of Stroud ranges from defiant and nasty to sympathetically mature and wise—a transformation largely fostered by his interest in birds. Softened by the discovery of a baby sparrow in the yard at Kansas’ Leavenworth Prison, Stroud slowly changes from a hard-case bastard to an inquisitive and compassionate individual through his study of birds, which soon come to populate the penitentiary once other inmates, including talkative Feto (Telly Savalas), come to see the companionship (and sense of purpose) they provide Stroud.
Adapted from Thomas E. Gaddis’ non-fiction book (and narrated by the author, who also appears as himself in awkward bookending scenes), Birdman Of Alcatraz drums up conflict via Stroud’s contentious relationship with warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden), whose desire to have all inmates conform to his rules rubs Stroud the wrong way, especially once Shoemaker goes to Washington and creates the Federal Bureau Of Prisons. Primarily, though, Frankenheimer’s well-staged film focuses on Stroud’s rehabilitation through his love of birds, which compels the convict to create groundbreaking medical treatments for avian diseases that he eventually compiles in a book. Despite being saddled with a bit too much award-baiting speechifying, Lancaster expresses his character’s personal awakening through quieter sequences of him working with his birds. His intense eyes and formidable demeanor poignantly grow more tranquil as he ages; it’s a magnetic portrait of a man who, through years of solitary confinement, slowly learns how to chip away at the figurative walls of anger and ignorance that for so long imprisoned him.
Availability: Birdman Of Alcatraz is available on Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix or your local video store, and to rent or purchase through the major digital services.