The film begins in the then-present day with narration from the deep-voiced Tom Gaddis, who wrote the novel based on the real-life criminal depicted in the film, Robert Franklin Stroud (Burt Lancaster). The narrator is revealed to be the author, as he talks about it being the day that the convict is about to exit from Alcatraz, and at first, I found this fascinating as I don’t think I’ve ever seen an author so involved before… until I realised that’s not the author at all, but actor Edmond O’Brien playing him. I think they missed a trick, there.
Apart from suffering 1986’s Tough Guys, I don’t think I’ve ever watched a film with Burt Lancaster in it before. I know that admission could result in me being thrown out into the Cursed Earth, but that said, I’ve never seen an Elizabeth Taylor film, either.
Okay, now, while I wait for them to let me back in, I’ll say how much I enjoyed Burt’s performance, including his seemingly early act of defiance as he breaks a window on the train that’s taking him to Leavenworth prison, but purely so all the other prisoners on the train can breathe. He’s only gone there on one conviction, but an early altercation with a guard leads to him spending forever indoors, and in due course, coming across an injured bird in the exercise yard, hence the title, although since he did all his bird-related activities at Leavenworth, surely ‘Birdman of Leavenworth’ is a more accurate title?
It’s interesting how he catches bugs to feed his new avian friend, all of them resulting in a quick death for the creatures with way too many legs – such as whacking them with his shoe as they crawl along his prison wall, but these days, all the Bug Rights groups would be up in arms, so if it were remade today, both them and the bird would have to be CGI.
And when birds start hatching, it’s like watching an episode of Springwatch!
so don’t worry – the film has NOT been colourised!
There’s some great direction such as close-up shots pulling out to reveal whole rooms, and superb dialogue such as when Stroud grabs guard Kramer by his jacket, through the prison cell door, who replies, “You ain’t got much, but you keep subtracting from it!”
Since this film was shot in 1962, I see elements which were later used as OTT tropes in other films, such as Karl Malden’s warden, Harvey Shoemaker – an evil man who plans to make Stroud’s life hell, which has been a staple in many prison films since, such as 1994’s No Escape with Ray Liotta going up against warden Michael Lerner.
In a way, it does seem ridiculous that for a mwn who’s supposed to be in solitary forever, he gets to chat with other prisoners in nearby cells regularly (including Feto Gomez, portrayed by Telly Savalas), as well as looking after canaries aplenty whilst obtaining the means to build birdcages, but… it’s based on a true story. If it wasn’t true, I wouldn’t believe it.
That said – a couple of things I thought were true, but weren’t: (a) As I’ve said, it’s not the real Tom Gaddis being the narrator and talking to the camera at the start, but an actor playing him. That’s a shame as it would’ve been so cool to mix movie with reality in that way. Also, (b) Shoemaker is a composite of several wardens that Stroud came across, so while the Shoemaker at Alcatraz is based on the original federal director of the bureau of prisons, James V Bennett, it does rather lessen the effect of the earlier scenes when you know there’s rather some artistic licence going on, as he wasn’t always about to harrass Stroud in the same way.
As he spends several decades in prison, the way he ages is fantastic and superbly acted. The film just gets quite slow in the second act as Stroud and Shoemaker are separated by circumstance, but then they’re brought back together. The film certainly excels when Lancaster and Malden are onscreen together.
In addition, I miss films like this which finish the story and then just END. No ten minutes of credits before there may or may not be a post-credits scene. It just ends. And that time saved spent not watching end credits will also allow me to check out more of Karl Malden’s output, as he’s brilliant, too.
One thing the film doesn’t make clear when he transfers to Alcatraz, in 1942 (and I’ll put a spoiler header around it, as I wasn’t aware of how the plot unfolds before I watched it, even though it’s a 56-year-old film):
The film is presented in the original theatrical widescreen ratio of 1.66:1 and, for a film that’s almost 60 years old, I’m incredibly impressed about how clean the print looks. Sure, there’s a little bit of what looks like slight grain occasionally, but that’s down to the source material, and there’s nothing at fault down to the remastering, so that’s why I’m giving it a 10 with that slight advisory.
Like Eureka’s recent The Defiant Ones, it’s amazing how films that old can look so good, yet some from around 20 years ago can’t manage that good a look!
As you’d expect for a film from 1962, the sound is in mono, and the dialogue is crisp and clear.
The extras are as follows:
- Illusion of Freedom (28:26): Cinematographer Richard H Kline talks about the movie. At 91, he’s a lot more eloquently spoken than most people half his age!
- Interview with Sheldon Hall (35:30): The film historian talks about the film’s origins, and what the film means to him. Between him and Kline, both give a lot of interesting information, but both also do ramble on a little bit. The segments are certainly worth a watch, however.
And if you think Justice League had a lot of reshoots, this film had the initial three weeks’ worth of footage scrapped after they changed director from Charles Crichton to John Frankenheimer, then they shot the film, and then re-shot the first third to tighten it up before the birds come along, otherwise it would’ve been well over an hour before they appeared.
- Original Theatrical Trailer (3:04): In the original 1.66:1 widescreen ratio.
- Audio commentary: with film historian and editor Paul Seydor, moderated by Twilight Time’s Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman.
I just received the disc alone for this film, and I can only review what I receive, but those who buy this will also receive a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Travis Crawford, as well as a selection of archival imagery from the film’s production.
For a Special Edition, repeating an old joke in the film, someone decided that making a decent Blu-ray menu was for the birds: It’s silent with just a static shot showing part of the cover. Subtitles are in English only, and Quality Control clearly took a day off when it came to the chaptering, as the film runs for 149 minutes (as long as Avengers: Infinity War) and there was NINE chapters!
Running time: 148 minutes
Cat no.: EKA70304BD
Released: August 6th 2018
Picture: 1080p High Definition
Sound: 1.0 DTS HD Master Audio
Subtitles: English SDH
Widescreen: 1.66:1 (35mm)
Disc Format: BD50 and DVD9
Director: John Frankenheimer, Charles Crichton (uncredited: quit; footage scrapped)
Screenplay: Guy Trosper
Producers: Stuart Millar and Guy Trosper
Novel: Thomas E Gaddis
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Robert Franklin Stroud: Burt Lancaster
Harvey Shoemaker: Karl Malden
Elizabeth Stroud: Thelma Ritter
Bull Ransom: Neville Brand
Stella Johnson: Betty Field
Feto Gomez: Telly Savalas
Tom Gaddis: Edmond O’Brien
Albert Comstock: Hugh Marlowe
Dr. Ellis: Whit Bissell
Kramer: Crahan Denton
Jess Younger: James Westerfield
Reviewer of movies, videogames and music since 1994. Aortic valve operation survivor from the same year. Running DVDfever.co.uk since 2000. Nobel Peace Prize winner 2021.