BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ, 1962
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter, Edmund O’Brien
A surly convicted murderer held in permanent isolation redeems himself when he becomes a renowned bird expert.
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An absorbing and captivating biopic, Birdman of Alcatraz explores the notion of the human spirit in the form of a dangerous man who finds meaning and purpose in life via birds. Burt Lancaster gives one of his most memorable performances since playing Elmer Gantry. The character is based on real life criminal Robert Stroud who spent life in prison after committing murder. However his infamy was overshadowed by his more tender side which was reflected in his admiration of birds. His interest in the feathered creatures led to the name Birdman of Alcatraz where he helped to care and treat birds, learning about them while in prison.
Stroud became an expert on the subject and wrote a few books, each one providing an insight that scholars today deem invaluable. Frankenheimer does a wonderful of capturing the story of this individual, although many who knew the prisoner in real life claim that the character Lancaster played was unlike the real man. Whether accurate or not is irrelevant because the message the director convey is a universal message about the human spirit relates to everyone.
Lancaster had been known as one the greatest actors after being nominated for several awards including winning an Oscar for his role as Elmer Gantry. Birdman of Alcatraz brought him even more notoriety as his performance is a testament to his talent and skill as an actor.
Lancaster effectively creates a rather unlikable character, one you’re not really suppose to root for yet Lancaster draws you over time into caring for him. You sympathize with Stroud, known killer who seems indifferent about the thought of committing such an act. When he’s denied visitation rights to see his mother after a guard denies him the chance, Lancaster snaps.
His ruthless retribution is quick and fatal, leading to solitary confinement. He’s not sorry for his actions only saddened by the idea of no longer seeing his mother. Stroud however finds solace and comfort when he comes across an injured bird in the court yard unable to fly. He takes it in and cares for it until it gets better. It’s an act that works more as a distraction from the loneliness that later evolves into a hobby than eventually one of personal interest.
This personal interest brings hope to Stroud, who now finds a purpose, and it’s that purpose that inspires the inmates around him now having birds of their own to treat, only to later discover it’s harder than expected. They eventually pass their birds onto Stroud who gladly watches over them. But Stroud time in not without its challenges which comes from his nemesis warden Harvey Shoemaker played by veteran Karl Malden. Their scenes together provide some of the gripping moments in the film as the two go back and forth. The dialogue and writing is sharp and witty, and both actors do an excellent job in their performances. Birdman of Alcatraz is nothing short of a masterpiece and one I highly recommend for the those who are fans on Lancaster, or great films in general.