Birdman of Alcatraz
Reviewed in August 2006
Director: John Frankenheimer. Cast: Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Neville Brand, Betty Field, Telly Savalas, Thelma Ritter, Edmond O'Brien, Whit Bissell, Hugh Marlowe, Adrienne Marden, George Mitchell. Screenplay: Guy Trosper (based on the book by Thomas Gaddis).

Photo © 1962 United Artists
The same year that John Frankenheimer made his most lasting impression with the nervy, paranoid Manchurian Candidate, he landed another hit with the comparatively soft-spoken biopic Birdman of Alcatraz. Based on Thomas Gaddis' book, the film tells the story Robert Stroud, a convicted double-murderer whose five decades of imprisonment—the great majority of it spent in solitary confinement—ironically afforded him the time and focused attention to reveal his patient, almost polymorphous genius. According to Guy Trosper's screenplay, Stroud's formal education ceased after the third grade, but in jail he reveals passionate, punctilious knacks for carpentry, legal and historical research, language acquisition, medicine, and, most famously, an exhaustive and progressive study of ornithology. It's a major fault of the picture that, despite a 149-minute running time, much of this information only arrives to us in expository dialogue; the structuring device whereby Edmond O'Brien narrates and intermittently appears as Gaddis is clunky and intrusive without being truly informative. We can't even tell how Gaddis learns as much about Stroud as he must have in order to write his book, or why the film declines to portray the full extent of Stroud's polymath abilities. His fascination with birds arrives as a sort of accident and quickly escalates into a life's work, but the film backs away from the processes and contexts through which this hobby announced itself as something like a calling.

Still, even with its limping screenplay and a general drift toward competence rather than excellence, Birdman does pull us well enough into its fistful of compelling characters and into the nascent ideas and recognitions that unite them. Lancaster, the center of almost every scene, follows his Judgment at Nuremberg performance with yet another atypical plunge into taciturnity. It's a relief to see him relinquish the exhausting kinetics of his "life force" performances from the mid-1950s, and he ably represents the introspection, the patience, and the intelligence of his character. Even his anger, dialed steadily down from the early scenes, never flickers all the way out, and yet the character functions best in dialogue with other people. Birdman comes alive most fully in two scenes. In one, Stroud must take his lumps from Bull Ransom (Neville Brand), a prison guard who demands some respect after years of pliancy and decency with his wards; in the other, it is Stroud who uncorks a righteous indignation, upbraiding warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden) for tinkering with the protocols of his inmates' occupations without ever giving a thought to the inveterate flaws of the larger penal system. Brand and Malden are both excellent in their roles, as is Telly Savalas as a fellow lifer in Stroud's cell-block. I'd wager, however, that these actors also come across as well as they do because they allow Frankenheimer to tap certain gifts of characterization and scene construction that he is curiously avoiding through most of the movie. Given the director's propensity toward stories of menace, shifting motives, and outright conspiracy—not just in The Manchurian Candidate but in such projects as All Fall Down, Seven Days in May, and The Iceman Cometh—he seems to achieve his best formal and thematic footing in scenes of dialogue and conflict. When the last act of the picture explodes into a prison riot, the script seems flustered to accommodate it, but Frankenheimer and cinematographer Burnett Guffey (Bonnie and Clyde) look like they're finally having a good time. Like his star, then, Frankenheimer seems to be fighting or at least testing his more florid inclinations and trying his hand at a quieter movie. In both cases, the laudable expansions of the actor's and director's range may veer them too far away from their real talents, and you ultimately question Birdman's emphasis on individual psychology, especially in such isolated circumstances, when the whole movie seems so hungry to ask bigger sociological questions and to dig around the ecosystem of the prison, not just crouch inside one of its cells. Kudos to Frankenheimer and Guffey for not pushing the birdcage/clinker analogies any further than they do, but the movie itself, for all its diverting pleasures and accomplishments, often feels a little incarcerated by its own self-imposed limitations. C+


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actor: Burt Lancaster
Best Supporting Actress: Thelma Ritter
Best Supporting Actor: Telly Savalas
Best Cinematography (Black & White): Burnett Guffey

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actor (Drama): Burt Lancaster
Best Supporting Actor: Telly Savalas

Other Awards:
Venice Film Festival: Best Actor (Lancaster)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Foreign Actor (Lancaster)

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