Monday, April 12, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Birdman of Alcatraz" (1962)

Good movie, but they got the title wrong: Robert Stroud kept and studied birds for decades while imprisoned in Leavenworth. When he got transferred to Alcatraz, he was not allowed to have pets or scientific equipment. The "Birdman" spent 17 years at Alcatraz, with nary a bird to call his own.

But I guess the title "Birdman of Leavenworth" doesn't sing as sweetly.

This 1962 drama about a two-time killer who was saved from the hangman's noose to serve a life term studying birds is fairly typical of its era. The truth -- that Robert Stroud was a pretty hateful and despicable guy who also happened to be brilliant -- is rewritten and glammed up by Hollywood.

Played by Burt Lancaster, one of the most handsome men to ever grace a screen, Stroud is turned into a symbol of the nobility of man, and the wrongness of locking that away in a dank corner when he could be contributing to society.

Although, given the real-life narrative of Stroud's incarceration -- which the film follows fairly accurately -- it's pretty hypocritical to spend the first third or so of the movie in which Stroud and his mother fight to prevent him from getting the death penalty, and then spending the last two-thirds sermonizing about awful it is to deny him parole.

When Stroud stabs a prison guard to death in the cafeteria because he insists on reporting Stroud for a minor infraction, thus preventing him from seeing his mother, it's presented as a moment of supreme oppression -- against Stroud. That guard -- nay, the very penal system -- is just a big ol' meanie, so as the music soars and director John Frankenheimer sends his camera into opera-esque swoops and swoons, we're meant to see him as the hero striking back against a corrupt system.

Stroud goes on to mellow out quite a bit, becomes a leading authority on the anatomy of birds, and even ends the movie by heroically ending a prison riot, sagely advising the hot young guns that all life is precious. But never once does he express any remorse for his crimes.

Although I don't agree with the socio-political conclusions "Birdman of Alcatraz" steers its audience toward, I still enjoyed it. It's a skillfully-made film by a top-notch filmmaker who could still crank out a lean, mean thriller like "Ronin" at age 68.

There's a really nice crop of supporting performances. Karl Malden plays Harvey Shoemaker, Stroud's first and last warden, who vows to keep him locked in solitary until the end of his days. Their relationship starts out adversarial, morphs into something more or less civil, but retains a steel edge of enmity even into their old age.

A young Telly Savalas, who started and ended on television, plays Gomez, a dim-witted but amiable fellow prisoner who gets caught up in Stroud's affection for birds, and starts keeping some of his own.

Thelma Ritter plays Stroud's mother, who stood by him, even petitioning President Woodrow Wilson to commute his death sentence, but cut ties when he marries his business partner (Betty Field) to generate publicity. (Stroud sold birds and medicine that he made right in his cell.)

Neville Brand gives a really touching performance as Bull, a crotchety guard who forms a grudging respect for Stroud. On the day they come to pluck Stroud out of Leavenworth to transfer him to Alcatraz and back under Shoemaker's control, Bull shakes his hand and calls Stroud a friend. Because the film has patiently taken its time to sketch their relationship over the years, the moment feels true and right. It's the sort of thing a lot of modern filmmakers skimp on now.

Narrative film lends itself better to fiction, because facts almost never have a satisfying story arc. Real life is inconvenient. The real Robert Stroud was diagnosed as psychotic and possibly was a pedophile, and his bird-filled cell was a hygiene nightmare. But good stories need inspiration, and the life of Stroud certainly provided that.

3 stars

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