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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
(Blu-Ray & DVD Dual Format)


Starring: Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter, Neville Brand and Edmond O'Brien
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £19.99 (Blu-Ray & DVD Dual Format)
Certificate: PG
Release Date: 06 August 2018

When Robert Stroud is imprisoned for murder his rebellious nature puts him at odds with the rigid prison system. Always at loggerheads with the warden of Levenworth his sentence is commuted to death when he kills a guard for refusing to allow him to see his mother. Although his death sentence is commuted to life it is on the understanding that he will serve the whole of his sentence in solitary confinement. Alone in his cell Stroud nurses an orphaned sparrow into adulthood. Through his love of ornithology Stroud becomes an expert in the field contributing many innovations into the field of study…

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962. 2 hrs, 28 min, 28 sec) is a highly fictionalised autobiographical film directed by John Frankenheimer. The film was based on the original novel by Thomas Gaddis.

While the film is certainly an impressive product and undoubtably provided Burt Lancaster with one of his best roles, it glosses over a lot of the reality of Stroud’s life to provide a story of redemption which hardly happened in real life. The film presents Stroud as primarily a sympathetic character, a man who will not allow his individuality to be ground down by the machine of the prison system. To this end he remains stoic in the face of what the audience is led to believe is unfair and harsh treatment from a system personified by Levenworth's warden, played by Karl Malden.

This idea that you can so alter the reality of a man’s life to turn him into a form of antihero who, presumably, the audience is supposed to root for was also used in Bronson (2008), with both films relying heavily on the charismatic performance of the lead actor. There is no denying that Lancaster does imbue his character with intelligence and thoughtfulness. Given that most of the film takes place in a single prison cell, it is Lancaster who keeps the audience interested while the background lacks variation.

We see chunks of Stroud’s life played out, picking up some of the most important aspects. The story quickly skips over his two, rather brutal murders, to concentrate on his growing menagerie of birds and his increasingly important contributions to ornithology.

Lancaster does have several other actors to play against including Thelma Ritter who plays his mother. Interestingly, her desire for him to remain in prison is portrayed as some form of controlling desire on her part, whereas if the film had been more sympathetic to her character we might have started to question how Stroud is being portrayed. You could think that actually she knows how dangerous her son is so feels he is less of a danger locked up forever, but by that point of the film Frankenheimer has portrayed Stroud as a mostly sympathetic character.

In another good performance, Telly Savalas plays Stroud’s cell neighbour, Feto Gomez, a hardened criminal whose life attains a little ray of freedom and companionship when he buys one of Stroud’s sparrows. Feto provides both a sounding board and an oft times object of irritation.

Betty Field is good in the role of Stella Johnson who meet Stroud through their love of birds. In both the film and real life, she married the lifer when Stroud attempted to stop a planned transfer.

It never really struck me until I watched the film again that the title is somewhat odd. Stroud had his birds when he was at Levenworth and made money by selling them. When the prison authorities move him to Alcatraz they decline to allow him to keep the birds, so isn’t he really the birdman of Levenworth?

The DVD arrives with a LPCN 2.0 audio track as well as a DD 2.0, although this is not a particularly dynamic film it does provide for clear speech and the overall quality is good. You can play the film with English subtitles and there is a full-length commentary by Nick Redman, Paul Seydor and Julie Kirgo.

Illusions of Freedom: Richard H.Kline on John Frankenheimer's 'Birdman of Alcatraz' (28 min, 25 sec) has camera operator for the film discussing Lancaster and speaking of his work with the cinematographer.

Interview with Sheldon Hall (35 min, 28 sec) discusses both Lancaster, the genesis of the film and the real-life Stroud. Lastly you get the original trailer (3 min, 04 sec).

In the end the film is a much more politicised polemic against the justice system than it is an accurate portrayal of Stroud or his life. Taken on its own merits it remains a powerful film with impressive central performances.


Charles Packer

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