Saturday 10 November 2012

Movie Review: Birdman Of Alcatraz (1962)

The fictionalized story of Robert Stroud, a murderer who turned into a bird expert while serving a life sentence behind bars, Birdman Of Alcatraz is about the triumph of a restless but captive spirit. Burt Lancaster delivers a defining performance helping to celebrate the emergence of humanity in the face of grim austerity.

An uncompromising brute, Stroud (Lancaster) has killed a man in his home state of Alaska and is destined to spend a life in prison. His only relationship is with his mother Elizabeth (Thelma Ritter), a woman both dedicated to her son and obsessed with him. Eventually transferred to Leavenworth, Stroud quickly runs afoul of the strict rules of warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden). He kills a guard and is sentenced to death.

Elizabeth intervenes on behalf of her son and the sentence is commuted to a life of solitary confinement. While on a break in the prison yard, Stroud picks up an ailing sparrow and nurses the bird to health. One bird leads to many, and Stroud takes an interest in bird health and experiments with medications to treat their diseases. Through scientific publications his stature in the bird community grows, and he eventually meets and marries bird lover Stella Johnson (Betty Field). But Stroud's troubles continue as he is transferred to Alcatraz prison and an unwelcome reunion with Shoemaker.

A character study and a story of fledgling redemption, much of Birdman Of Alcatraz takes place in confined cells with tiny barred windows providing the only source of light. Director John Frankenheimer and his cinematographer Burnett Guffey use the black and white photography to highlight the bleakness of Stroud's life and the harshness of eternal incarceration. Within the overwhelming darkness no one is satisfied: not the guards, not the warden, and of course, not the prisoners. The captors are as depressed as their captives, and on the island of Alcatraz, even the guards' families are stranded on the same rock as the country's most hardened criminals.

Although Stroud gradually softens with age, he remains unromantacized and possessive of his jagged edges, angry and largely antisocial, a survivor achieving scientific recognition almost despite himself. Guy Trosper's screenplay offers some background exposition by hinting at a troubled childhood supervised by a frightfully domineering mother.

The fictional Shoemaker represents a formidable foe and the wall of authority that Stroud's life repeatedly crashes against. The warden carries all the morality and attachment to rules and regulations despised by Stroud, and the two men occupy different worlds cramped into the same miserable space.

Lancaster dominates the role physically and emotionally in a performance filled with passion and power, Malden countering with the circumspect arrogance of the person holding all the cards. Despite a running length of more than 140 minutes, there are surprisingly few other supporting characters surrounding Stroud's life. Ritter is icily determined as his mother, and she makes it easy to imagine the kind of upbringing that shaped his life. Betty Field as Stella offers a counterpoint positive influence. Telly Savalas as a fellow inmate at Leavenworth and Edmond O'Brien as the author Tom Gaddis, who wrote the book that popularized Stroud's story, round out the cast.

The men may be in literal or proverbial cells, but sometimes all it takes is a small helpless creature to unlock positive potential in the crustiest of hearts.

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