Extras: Very Good
Label: Twilight Time
Released: November 11, 2015
Genre: Docu-Drama / Crime
Synopsis: Humanistic portrait of convicted murderer Robert Stroud whose time at Leavenworth Prison ultimately resulted in a praised book on bird diseases and treatment.
Special Features: Audio Commentary with film Historians Julie Kirgo and Paul Seydor, and producer Nick Redman / Isolated Mono Music Track / Original Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available Exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.
Not unlike The Train (1966), the original director of this adaptation of Thomas Gaddis’ 1955 book about lifer Robert Stroud involved a director being replaced by John Frankenheimer, and as Twilight Time commentators Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo, and Paul Seydor note in unison, the choice of Michael Crichton – best-known for the classic Ealing films Dead of Night (1945), Hue and Cry (1947), and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) – seems like an odd choice, unless Lancaster had been interested in working with another highly regarded Brit and fellow Ealing colleague, Alexander Mackendrick (The Sweet Smell of Success).
Crichton was gone within days, and Frankenheimer’s parachuting into the production probably calmed its star / executive producer, and distributor United Artists, the latter feeling Gaddis’ humanistic story with arguably little commercial appeal could be completed without further conflicts.
That wasn’t exactly the case, because half of the film was reshot before it was released, but its message of treating convicted violent offenders with humanity remains powerful today, probably because its story is derived from the surreal life of Stroud, a twice convicted killer respected for writing an authoritative text on bird ailments, Stroud’s Digest of the Diseases of Birds.
Even though Guy Trosper (The Pride of St. Louis, Jailhouse Rock, One-Eyed Jacks) took some serious dramatic license with Stroud’s real life persona – the felon was apparently abrasive, self-centered, unhygienic, and a “wolf” in prison – turning him into a nicer, more accessible figure doesn’t dilute the uniqueness of a man with a feared temper and a penchant for violence who found peace caring for birds, and discovered he possessed a high intellect that enabled him to understand the complexities of avian biology, chemistry, and modern medicine.
The film’s also a small snapshot of the pre-WWII U.S. penal system, which Stroud managed to frustrate until sufficient legislation put an end to his exploitation of legal loopholes. While in Leavenworth, where he conducted his bird rearing and research, he was able to run a business selling both his text and homemade bird medicine; he got married with his business partner and avoided being transferred out of state; and had his cell enlarged to fit his expanding bird population.
By the time he was transferred to the newly built Alcatraz State Penitentiary, Stroud’s avian research was over, and he focused on reading and self-education until the end of his life. Although he was transferred to a medium security facility in his final years, his supporters never managed to get Stroud released on humanitarian grounds, likely because at each parole hearing he flatly admitted to killing a woman and a guard, and because his possessive mother stopped fighting for his freedom when she became jealous of his wife.
Like Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), The Train (1966), and The Swimmer (1968), Birdman benefits from a low-key Lancaster performance that’s still powerful because of the macro-style cinematography Frankenheimer applies to maximize the emotional power of the actor’s bulk within a tiny cell. With the exception of a few rare external scenes, everything takes place inside a prison, and the camerawork by Burnett Guffey (From Here to Eternity, They Came to Cordura, Homicidal) often glides and uses deep depth of field to fill the screen with details, movement, and intense close-ups.
The birds are certainly supporting characters in the film – the demise of Runty, Stroud’s first bird, is really tragic – but it’s the fluidity in which Lancaster’s large hands care for the tiny birds that captures the tenderness than can exist between a human and another creature.
The film’s secondary characters aren’t treated as caricatures, making prison warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden) genuine in his desire to establish a more humane yet organized system and standard for incarcerating violent convicts; and Bull Ransom (Neville Brand), Stroud’s longtime guard at Leavenworth, as a decent guy who just wants a smidge of the respect he gives Stroud. Brand’s performance is similarly low-key, but it’s also a rare role where he’s neither a thug, crook, or lunatic. Betty Field is sympathetic as Stroud’s business partner and future wife, and Thelma Ritter also breaks her frequent casting as a wise-cracking dame (Rear Window) playing Stroud’s obsessive, jealous mother Elizabeth.
Telly Savalas adds humour to the film as Stroud’s loud and testy cell neighbour Feto, and Whit Bissell is solid in a small role as a prison doctor who characterizes Stroud’s intellect and insight into avian biology as “genius.” Edmond O’Brien plays author Gaddis in the film’s weird bookends that just aren’t necessary, but they don’t’ jumble or distract from the central story that unfolds like a chronological flashback.
Perhaps most surprising is Trosper’s dialogue, which manages to convey crude attitudes, humour, and assorted vulgarities and innuendo without using a single potty word. It’s mostly due to peppery period slang, but there’s some creative words that seem pretty daring for 1962.
Twilight Time’s commentary trio delivers a really solid, fact-heavy track, giving due attention to the every production detail, and more than a nod towards composer Elmer Bernstein, whose quiet score is featured in an isolated mono music track. Bernstein’s gentle theme plays under the gorgeous main titles designed by an uncredited Saul Bass, which features the kind of close, stark images typical in the film, combining Lancaster’s giant hands with small birds.
The included trailer naturally plays up Stroud’s violent nature, and doesn’t do justice to the careful direction that makes Birdman of Alcatraz a classic humanistic message picture for prison reform.
Dumped director Charles Crichton was ultimately unlucky in snagging further high profile feature films, spending a chunk of his later career in TV (The Avengers, The Adventures of Black Beauty, Space: 1999) before a little film called A Fish Called Wanda (1988) crowned his career, and allowed Crichton to retire on a high.
Frankenheimer, who’d worked with Lancaster on The Young Savages (1961), had actually wanted to direct Birdman but was turned down by Lancaster. Upon seeing the final edit of Savages, Frankenheimer was given Birdman, and worked with Lancaster on several more films, including Seven Days in May (1964), The Train (1964), and The Gypsy Moths (1969).
Killer: A Journal of Murder, Thomas Gaddis’ examination of serial killer Carl Panzram was filmed in 1995.
© 2015 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review