June 11, 2018  (Web Review)

Birdman of Alcatraz

Olive, 149 min., not rated, DVD: $24.95, Blu-ray: $29.95

Reviewer rating: 3.5/4

The second of five collaborations between Burt Lancaster and director John Frankenheimer, Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) is one of their best, with Lancaster delivering an angry, brooding performance as real-life criminal Robert Stroud, a violent killer who became an internationally recognized authority on birds and their diseases while serving a life term in solitary confinement. Based on the 1955 book by Thomas E. Gaddis, Frankenheimer creates a portrait of a withdrawn, anti-social prisoner who discovers his own potential after reluctantly rescuing a wounded sparrow from a storm and nursing it back to health. Lancaster’s quiet portrayal comes through his eyes and restrained body language and it earned him his second Oscar nomination. Costars Telly Savalas (as the talkative “neighbor” from the cell next door) and Thelma Ritter (as his controlling mother) were also nominated, but Frankenheimer’s sensitive direction draws equally fine performances from Neville Brand, playing against type as the prison guard who slowly befriends Stroud, and Karl Malden as the tough warden whose ideas of confinement and punishment prompted Stroud to follow-up his studies of birds with a treatise on prison reform. Although in actuality Stroud never had birds at Alcatraz (he did at Leavenworth Penitentiary), this somber, subdued tale presents a powerful portrait of one man’s efforts to earn back his dignity and respect in the worst of conditions. Extras include audio commentary by Lancaster biographer Kate Buford. Highly recommended. (S. Axmaker)