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Birdman of Alcatraz

Posted by martinteller on May 30, 2013

Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster) was convicted of manslaughter (for killing a man who mistreated a prostitute “friend”) at the age of 19 and sentenced to 12 years in prison.  While serving his time in Leavenworth, he commits a minor infraction and is reported for it, denying him the chance to see his “mother” (Thelma Ritter) who has traveled thousands of miles to visit.  He stabs and kills the guard responsible, and is sentenced to death.  His mother takes her appeal all the way to the White House, and Stroud’s sentence is commuted to life in prison by Woodrow Wilson himself.  But grumpy warden “Harvey Shoemaker” (Karl Malden) chooses to interpret the sentence as life in solitary confinement.  One day, while doing his solo exercise in the yard, he discovers “a” baby sparrow and nurses it to adulthood.  Soon Stroud is raising scores of birds, and in treating their ailments, discovers new cures for avian diseases.  He attracts attention in the field, including the that of ornithologist “Stella Johnson” (Betty Field).  Stella and Bob start a business selling his medicines, and the two even married.  As Stroud’s business grows and he publishes a book on his findings, he’s given lab equipment and even an extra cell to raise his birds.  But here comes big bad “Harvey” again, who transfers the sweet, gentle Stroud to mean old Alcatraz.

As you might have guessed from the tone of the previous paragraph and the quotation marks, there’s a lot of sugar-coating going on in this film.  Enough to give you a cavity.  By most accounts, Stroud was pimping for his prostitute “friend” and the man he killed hadn’t paid her for her services.  Stroud was actually waiting for a visit from his brother, but the film goes to great lengths to paint him as a mama’s boy… presumably both to give him a soft side and to play up the drama when a rift comes between them later.  There were actually three baby sparrows, but one makes for a more touching bond.  Don’t ask me why they changed Della Mae Jones’s name, I would guess to protect her identity, which may not have been public knowledge at the time.  And “Harvey Shoemaker” is an amalgam of several different wardens, to give Lancaster a meaty antagonist to work with.  Oh, also… Stroud was a huge dick according to other inmates, and a violent psychotic who reportedly told the parole board he should be released because “I still have people I need to kill.”

But of course it’s all about this wonderful genius who discovers his calling in prison and has such a kind disposition with the little birdies.  Who cares if some facts were changed?  Isn’t it still a nice and compelling story, regardless of how true it is?  Yes, it is.  You pretty much expect biopics to stretch and distort things for dramatic effect.  It comes with the territory… it’s not a documentary.  But there’s something offensive about glorifying someone who brutally took the lives of two people for petty reasons, assaulted at least two others, was known for constantly making threats, and in his spare time wrote pornographic stories about molesting children.  There’s stretching the truth and then there’s abusing it.  And besides, isn’t a story about an awful, vicious creep who loves birds and makes a name for himself in the field of ornithology a much more interesting tale?

Okay okay, enough already… what about the movie itself?  It’s okay.  I actually watched it for Thelma Ritter, and was somewhat disappointed that she’s only in a few scenes, but I guess I should have expected that.  It’s not the usual witty, lovable performance from her, which was also kind of a disappointment, but she’s good and shows she’s got some range.  Lancaster is pretty good, and to his credit (and the writer’s) the character is a bit of a jerk.  Malden and Field are both fine as well, and there’s an enjoyable turn by Telly Savalas as a fellow inmate.  Edmond O’Brien plays the author of the book the movie was based on and he provides narration, but it’s weirdly sporadic and comes as an awkward jolt when it suddenly returns.  The most interesting part of the film — the solitary confinement in Leavenworth and the whole bird thing — serves as the bulk of the running time.  The buildup to it and the Alcatraz aftermath are weaker, although there are good bits here and there.

There are certainly wonderful moments in the film… the first flight of his baby sparrow is beautifully triumphant without being overplayed, and there’s a marvelous scene with a guard played by Neville Brand.  Stroud’s devotion to the birds — which was apparently genuine, although he did also use them for profit — is definitely touching at times.  And Burnett Guffey’s cinematography, with uncredited assistance from the masterful John Alton, is terrific as always (Elmer Bernstein’s score, on the other hand, is not one of his best).  I just wish the film had stuck closer to the truth, as Stroud’s violent and sociopathic nature would have made for a complex and compelling counterpoint to his affection for his avian friends.  Rating: Fair (66)


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