Criterion Prediction #206: Birdman of Alcatraz, by Alexander Miller
Title: Birdman of Alcatraz
Director: John Frankenheimer
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Thelma Ritter, Karl Malden
Synopsis: Sentenced to a lifetime in solitary confinement, convicted murderer Robert Stroud (Lancaster) combats the seclusion and doldrums of isolation by caring for a stranded baby bird. Discovering a talent for bird care, Stroud finds enlightenment against the harsh environment of incarceration while feuding with the calculating warden Shoemaker (Malden).
Critique: The prison escape genre had been an ever-evolving subgenre that, for me, has been an endlessly compelling source of entertainment. If you plug in “prison escape movies” next to Papillon, The Great Escape, and The Shawshank Redemption there’s The Birdman of Alcatraz. But there’s no rogue war prisoners digging tunnels, or elaborate escape schemes in John Frankenheimer’s 1962 feature. And yet, The Birdman of Alcatraz is still considered a prison break movie. While the conceit that the protagonists work with birds becomes his “escape” might sound corny, Frankenheimer and Lancaster lend themselves to such a matter-of-fact story with unadorned and calculated execution. Bolstered by subtly engrossing framing devices The Birdman of Alcatraz is a deeply felt story where emotions are coded in the films expressive psychology.
The deliberate pace is there. Frankenheimer in his best years (1960-1970) has the taciturn atmosphere that feels in rhythm with the likes of Jean-Pierre Melville and the quiet patience that equally flatters genre conventions as well as produce an air of demure maturity. Compositions are tight, progressing with timely affection. Something as simple as watching a chick hatch from a shell, or seeing the studious Stroub tinker with formulas and medicine yield a hypnotic pull, that guides you from the dimensions of incarceration into something delicate and profound.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: After the inclusion of Seconds and The Manchurian Candidate, Criterion has been courting the work of John Frankenheimer more intimately. Movies like The Train and The Birdman of Alcatraz could easily enjoy a new generation of fans, and a Criterion release would, of course, usher that in.
Years ago I decided to check out Frankenheimer’s major works, but I always held off on this one because I’d heard the real “Birdman” was a horrible person hated by even his fellow prisoners, and that this account was held in particularly low regard by people who already knew about him.
Oh yeah? I had a feeling Lancaster’s doting bird doctor bit was a little too sweet.
If you haven’t seen The Train it’s damn near perfect, great flick.