It’s hard to imagine a time in recent history when so many filmmakers were churning out popular, crowd-pleasing material that would be considered art house fare today. Much has been written about 1939 and 1941 as banner years in Hollywood, but 1962 was the nexus of extraordinary filmmaking pulling in audiences in record numbers.
The year that brought us The Miracle Worker, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Longest Day and Lawrence of Arabia, not to mention a treasure trove of foreign offerings, also ushered in a veritable hat-trick by upstart director John Frankenheimer (who’d been cutting his teeth on TV dramas throughout the 50s) gave us All Fall Down, The Manchurian Candidate and Birdman of Alcatraz. Any single one of those films could arguably be the highpoint for a director, let alone released in a single year. But Frankenheimer was no ordinary director. Never an Academy Award winner, he is still considered one of our mid-century’s greatest film artists.
The Manchurian Candidate has since been heralded as the Cold War, paranoid and satirical masterpiece, but at the time, it was Birdman that brought in the crowds, and was the critical and financial darling.
I grew up with my parents and other adults raving about the true story of the convicted killer, serving out a life sentence, who was also the world’s leading expert on Ornithology. I didn’t actually see the film until ten years after its release, and even then, it was truncated and hacked up between commercials for KTEL Records and the Ginsu knife. Still and all, the story and Burt Lancaster’s sensitive performance always stayed with me, made more impactful when I was able to enjoy it uncut in a theatre.
What always fascinated me on a subconscious level, and not fully realized until a recent viewing of the Twilight Time Blu-ray release, is how quiet and meditative Birdman of Alcatraz actually is. For a story set exclusively behind bars, almost always within a cramped prison cell, the usual violence, mayhem and dramatics that are part-and-parcel with prison films is noticeably absent. Save for the early scenes that reveal some of Birdman Robert Stroud’s brutal behavior, and a prison riot, quelled by Stroud mid-way through, the bulk of the film is delivered in a muted and hushed style. In fact, it was one of the first times I remember complaining on watching it on commercial TV that I had to turn the volume down every time a clamorous commercial would air, and turn it back up once the movie returned to hear the whispered dialogue and quietly precise Elmer Bernstein soundtrack.
Although great dramatic license was taken with the script, the character of Stroud as less a psychopath and more like an un-molded piece of clay yearning for direction, Birdman of Alcatraz still finds great storytelling devices to reveal the potential for sensitivity and rehabilitation in all of us.
It’s 1909 and Stroud is bound for Leavenworth prison aboard a train with other convicts. Charged with manslaughter, he is a seething nerve of hostility. He breaks a window in the train car to get some fresh air, adding time to his already lengthy sentence. From there, he uses every opportunity to injure, maim and kill fellow inmates and a guard, assuring him both solitary confinement and the death penalty. His mother (Thelma Ritter – great as always) petitions to commute his sentence to life. Getting all the way to President and Mrs. Wilson, she’s victorious. But the warden (a feisty and stubborn Karl Malden) is able to keep Lancaster’s Stroud in solitary for life due to a loophole. Now eating, sleeping and living with only the voices of other inmates on either side of his cell for companionship, and a quietly efficient guard, Stroud broods. One day, while pacing the small yard for his one hour of exercise, he finds a baby sparrow in a knocked over nest. He gently cups the tiny bird in his massive, calloused hands and carries it back to his cell. Crushing a cockroach, mixing it deftly in his tin cup with bread and water, he feeds the baby using the tip of a matchstick.
Soon the sparrow is growing and thriving in the small cell. Belligerently asking for little things; pieces of wood, a medicine dropper, glue, he fashions a cage and methods for feeding his bird. Word spreads of his adopted pet, and soon he is brokering adoptions for canaries both for himself and the other convicts in his block. What was once a humorous diversion catches the attention of Warden Malden, but not before he is promoted and a new warden comes in, much more focused on public opinion and supportive of Stroud’s hobby.
Before long, Stroud’s cell is jam packed, literally from floor to rafters with birds and birdcages. When a strange illness starts killing off his and next door cell neighbor Telly Savalas’ birds, he goes into deep research mode and through constant mixing of chemicals discovers the cure for the enigmatic disease; septicemia. After publishing his findings, he receives hundreds of letters with questions, comments and requests for bird help. But the long arm of Warden Harvey Shoemaker (Malden), now an elected official, swipes away at Stroud’s jail-made aviary by changing the penal code to disallow all convicts from owning pets and running businesses.
However, his cottage industry brings in bird lover Stella Johnson, who mounts a campaign to allow Stroud special privileges. In fact, the two become more than acquaintances, and in order to run his burgeoning bird flu remedy business, he asks Johnson to marry him and helm the business in her name.
There’s no question Stroud is a shrewd businessman and politician, but with “another woman” in the picture, his mother backs away from supporting her son, and in fact, lobbies against his attempts to win parole. Working in tandem with Mother Stroud, Shoemaker moves the “Birdman” to Alcatraz, where all his birds and paraphernalia are disallowed. Without his passion, Stroud focuses instead on writing a negative history of the American Penal system, which Shoemaker suppresses. The two men form an unusual bond of distaste, but respect for one another, resulting in a prison rebellion that the now elderly Stroud is able to put down.
Birdman of Alcatraz is a glorious example of a story that’s at its finest in the way it tells the tale. The camera is always finding new and interesting ways to frame Lancaster to accentuate his isolation at first, and later the claustrophobia of the world of birds he creates. A director of groundbreaking action sequences, here, Frankenheimer shows restraint in revealing moments of sensitivity and calm within the chaotic world of the prison. His handling of the tenuous relationship between Malden’s Shoemaker and Lancaster’s Stroud is mature, believable and nuanced. Most of all, the original source material and the film offer a stirring argument for rehabilitation rather than pure incarceration. If a murderous psychopath (as Stroud was later diagnosed) could focus his energies to the betterment of mankind, what other misguided souls might become enlightened, thanks to charity and opportunity?
As poignant and powerful today as it was upon initial release, Birdman of Alcatraz offers yet another example of 1962’s incredible year in cinema. And Twilight Time’s beautiful Blu-ray transfer reveals the visual subtlety and audio complexity that was just a part of a great director’s toolkit.
Birdman of Alcatraz is available through Screen Archives’ Twilight Time label as a limited edition Blu-ray