Birdman of Alcatraz gets you in the shoes of an inmate

Birdman of Alcatraz

Released July 4, 1962.

CONNOISSEUR’S CHOICE.  That 1994 prison movie called The Shawshank Redemption seemed to take from the book of the film under review here, the 1962 prison drama Birdman of Alcatraz. The similarities between the films are striking. Both films have a sadistic head of prison, and the key inmate (played by Tim Robbins in the Shawshank film) has a redemption of a sort. This is where the similarities end. Birdman of Alcatraz is the true story of inmate Robert Stroud (played by the Hollywood actor Burt Lancaster) who discovers his individuality and self-respect while in prison when he becomes an authority on bird life.

A few things at the start of the film don’t put Stroud in a good light, but when Stroud sees a baby bird in its nest, abandoned in the courtyard of the prison, he takes the bird into his cell, feeds it, and watches it grow into an adult bird. Against the odds, but with a great amount of natural intelligence and determination, Stroud researches the ins and outs of birds, their anatomy, what kind of diseases they can get – when one of his birds he keeps in his cell dies from an unknown disease he becomes curious about the kinds of bird diseases – and writes about the subject.

While that is the main thread of the movie, his relationships are integral as well. Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter, Betty Field, Neville Brand, and Telly Savalas feature in supporting roles as head of prison, mother, wife and business partner, prison guard, and fellow inmate respectively. They are all very, very good.

Burt Lancaster and Neville Brand.

For a prison movie you would expect there to be a prison (stranger things may have happened in cinema where a prison movie is not set in a prison) and in this film there surely is a strong prison setting. It is occasionally referred to as Alcatraz and the black and white photography contributes to  create an Alcatraz effect – gritty, unsheened, down to earth and lived in. But the film is not defined by a layer of grit. Lancaster brings his distinguished qualities to bear. Memorable is the grace he demonstrates with his superior – a steely, flinty Karl Malden as the superintendent – when he should have been angry. There was tension between the inmate and Malden’s authority figure, but later on, Stroud’s poise and confidence is exemplary and not surprising as he succeeded as an inmate where others dare not try.

Although the film is long, one of the beauties of keeping Birdman of Alcatraz interesting is the psychological drama throughout – of which the mother-son-other woman scenario is one example. There are also themes of providence, new birth, and the gift of life prevailing. The film is handsomely produced, with fine cinematography and direction. Its values and humanity are top notch. Some violence and rough language are present, but it is hardly explicit.

With the right amount of distance and involvement, one feels one has walked in the shoes of Lancaster’s Stroud.

His redemption began by accepting life rather than defeat when he took the bird into his cell to feed and look after it. I wondered why the bird happened to be there and I understood that more than a co-incidence and physical reality. I understood that as a grace for that man offering him a new start.

Reviewed by Peter Veugelaers. Published 2022, thewritemix.blog

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