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Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

Birdman of Alcatraz poster.jpg

This was released as the voiceover tells us in Robert Stroud’s 53rd year of incarceration. Burt Lancaster plays the man who became a world-renowned ornithologist after being sentenced to death and then solitary confinement – terminally.  He killed a man over a girl when he was 19, protecting her from the bartender who was attacking her;  and then in Leavenworth killed a prison guard in a scuffle when the guard cancelled his mother’s visit.  His mother (Thelma Ritter) pleads for his death by hanging to be commuted but she becomes proprietorial over him and her true narcissistic exhibitionism (it’s all about her, see? Some of us know this syndrome way too well…) emerges when he becomes an expert in bird diseases after tending and raising sparrows and canaries from the yard. His book is smuggled out and becomes a best seller and he befriends and marries a fellow bird lover on the outside (Betty Field) with whom he starts a business in bird medicine.  His mother then relentlessly campaigns against his parole and he is denied every single year thereafter. The warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden) hates him because of his individuality and refusal to show remorse.  He will never leave solitary confinement. His friendship with fellow inmate Feto Gomez (Telly Savalas) is sundered when Gomez is removed to Alcatraz where Shoemaker is then promoted. The new warden Albert Comstock (Hugh Marlowe) is literally insane about Stroud’s dedication to his studies behind bars. His parole hearing comes up again. And suddenly one morning he has to leave everything behind – the birds, his studies, his life in the unprecedented two-rooms he’s been allowed and he leaves for Alcatraz with only the clothes he stands up in. Malden goes bananas when Stroud’s history of the penal system doesn’t recognise his contribution to getting men to manufacture belt buckles.  When there’s a mutiny amongst the prisoners it’s Stroud who helps to quell it. And his reward?  A transfer to another prison. There are scenes with the birds and Lancaster’s care for them that will bring tears to your eyes. And Neville Brand’s playing of prison officer Bull Ransom particularly in their parting scene will unsettle you. The setting should render it claustrophobic instead it’s positively breathtaking in its sometimes deliberate focus on detail (shot by Burnett Guffey with uncredited work by John Alton). This mostly true story of Stroud’s devastating experiences and the utter villainous vengeful viciousness of people is compelling and brilliantly told, with a voiceover by Edmond O’Brien who plays Thomas Gaddis, his biographer, who met him just once on the outside during Stroud’s final prison transfer. Written by Guy Trosper and produced by Lancaster, who delivers an incredibly restrained, unsentimental performance, this was directed by John Frankenheimer after Charles Crichton and Lancaster did not see eye to eye. Stroud died one year after this was released, the day before JFK was assassinated. He never saw life outside prison after the age of 19  in a system of relentless personalised vindictive and pointless punishment. This is what can happen when people decide they dislike you. If you doubt conspiracies exist then watch this. And weep.

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About elainelennon

An occasional movie-watching diary.

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