John Frankenheimer (director)
06 August 2018 (released)
05 August 2018
This film is undoubtedly a Burt Lancaster opus with an extraordinary running time of nearly two and a half hours! At the outset one could be forgiven for thinking that a biopic about one man (Robert Stroud, the ‘Birdman’ of the title) where ALL of the action takes place in penitentiaries would be drawn out and somewhat boring but such is far from the case.
This 'epic of sorts' is never less than fascinating; Lancaster did his research thoroughly, based on Thomas F. Gaddis's (played by Edmond O' Brien in the film) biography he even went so far as to meet Stroud himself. The 'Birdman's' story is pretty well documented: the man spent fifty-three years in prison and he died there at the age of 73 (a year after this film was made). Unfortunately Stroud never got to see it; it may have been interesting to know his feelings about it. Psychiatric reports inform us that Stroud had an I.Q. of 116 and later 113, putting him a bit above average, but a 'psychopath'.
This film is, to say the least, rather sympathetic to Stroud's cause though certain liberties have been taken to substantiate certain facts, for example it wasn't Stroud's old mother who came to visit him in prison after travelling 2000 miles and being refused admittance, it was his brother. This is what initiated his stabbing to death the sadistic and unsympathetic warder that got him 'life in solitary confinement' though initially he was to receive the death penalty.
Only after a massive ‘Save my son from the gallows’ campaign led by mum Elizabeth (Thelma Ritter) is Stroud’s life spared at the last moment, much to the chagrin of reactionary prison warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden). The reason Stroud landed in Leavenworth in the first place is because he'd killed a man who'd refused to pay the prostitute he was pimping for. After months and months in solitary, Stroud finds a sparrow's nest in the prison yard and ends up nurturing an orphaned baby sparrow back to health… which in turn triggers his interest and love for birds. Over the years, his extended cell in Leavenworth (they'd given him two by this time) resembles a virtually overcrowded aviary, though fellow prisoners – most notably Feto Gomez (Telly Savalas) soon jump on the bandwagon. His love and interest for birds prompts Stroud to write a respected book on Bird Diseases and its Cures after some of the birds fall ill and die. This prompts the interest of lonely widow and fellow bird-lover Stella Johnson (Betty Field) who, soon after the first meeting, not only becomes his business partner but his wife (though possessive Mum Elizabeth seems none too happy). Other changes takes place too, for example Shoemaker takes on a new and much more authoritative position at Alcatraz, but before he leaves he makes it clear that he will “keep in touch” with Stroud. And so he does, as one day Stroud is transferred to the notorious prison island. Suffice to say he isn’t allowed to take his beloved birds with him, in fact, newly legislated prison rules soon forbid the keeping of any pets in any American prison. Never one to throw in the towel, Stroud soon embarks on writing book Nr. 2, writing a history of the U.S. penal system and why it doesn’t work, thus finding himself at loggerheads with Shoemaker once again. One of the film’s highlights is the failed Alcatraz prison rebellion of 1946, though oddly enough Stroud did not really participate in it. After the rebellion he was once again transferred, this time to a prison in Missouri, known for its more relaxed regulations and where he lived out the remainder of his life.
Lancaster, a known liberal, knew exactly what he was doing and the entire prison system still needs to be looked at from an entirely different viewpoint if there is a chance of humankind not destroying itself one way or another. The scenes with Stroud and his birds really are quite remarkable (god knows how long and how many takes this took), as is Lancaster's performance… and he's hardly ever off screen. He is ably supported by Neville Brand (he of the gravel voice) as the sympathetic guard Bull Ransom. Karl Malden adds his usual authority as the unfortunately well meaning but non-progressive backward governor of Alcatraz (probably why he got the job) and Stroud's long-time adversary. A youngish Telly Savalas also shines as fellow prisoner Feto injecting some needed and delightful pathos. Both Savalas and also Thelma Ritter were nominated for ‘Best Supporting Roles’ while Lancaster was nominated for ‘Best Leading Actor’. Another nomination went to cinematographer Burnett Guffey, and deservedly so!
Lancaster's depiction of Stroud is far from 'psychopathic' and he is seen in his later years as a fine example of humanity – a man who delivers an eloquent and damning indictment of the penal system and with the ultimate respect for the 'gift of life'. Not a sentiment that is shared by the doomed inmates who organise a riot and a jailbreak - you may share their opinion. This is a brave and confrontational film that poses a serious and still unanswered question and one that richly deserves to be seen. Lancaster sacked the original director (the Englishman Charles Crichton) who seemed an odd choice in the first place. Clearly Frankenheimer was the right man for the job.