BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (U.A.,1962) b&w 149 minutes new release by OLIVE FILMS DVD. $18.99 BLU RAY $21.99
John Frankenheimer (February 19, 1930 – July 6, 2002) is one of my favorite directors of the 1960s. The New York born Frankenheimer first began filmmaking while he was in the Air Force. In 1948, he began as an assistant director at CBS, working his way up to director on the popular YOU ARE THERE series in 1954. He showed himself a fast worker who never sacrificed quality, and soon directed his first theatrical feature in 1957 (THE YOUNG STRANGER, RKO) when he was 26. He had directed the episode “Deal A Blow” for CLIMAX on which it was based two years earlier.
It was a modest success so Frankenheimer returned to television, where he excelled in live dramas. His production of “Turn Of The Screw” (STARTIME, NBC) starred Ingrid Bergman, so he was used to working with star powerhouses.
In 1961, he directed THE YOUNG SAVAGES (U.A.), starring Burt Lancaster and Telly Savalas. Producer /star Lancaster must have liked what he saw, so when he fired British director Charles Crichton from his next pet project, he brought in Frankenheimer to take over BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ.
Lancaster was a huge star, and one of the first to create his own production company (Norma Productions, for whom he had begun making films in 1948 with KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS, Universal). A perfectionist, he was a hard person to work for, as the slightest weakness he would tear into you (thus the departure of Crichton).Luckily, Frankenheimer would prove his mettle with this film, and go on to make classics like THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE(U.A. 1962 ,starring Frank Sinatra in one of the best political thrillers ever made),SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (U.A.1964 with Lancaster again), THE TRAIN (U.A.1964 again with Lancaster) and SECONDS (1966 Rock Hudson’s best performance).
All these films were shot in stunning black and white, with Frankenheimer wisely moving his camera as little as possible, letting the performances play out.
Back to BIRDMAN:
The real Robert Franklin Stroud (January 28,1890 -November 21,1963) was a murderer who in 1909 killed a bartender and took his wallet when the victim refused to pay services to a woman Stroud was pimping. Due to his violence (he stabbed an orderly), he was transferred to Leavenworth, Kansas. In 1916, when he was refused a visit by his brother, Stroud stabbed a guard to death. He was sentenced to death and put in solitary confinement while awaiting his punishment to be meted out.
His mother succeeded in convincing President Woodrow Wilson to commute the sentence to life, though remaining in solitary confinement. Over the course of 30 years in Leavenworth, he saved sick birds, and wrote books upon their treatment and care, as well as developing medicines for sale.
He married a woman though more to help him keep his birds and business than any real love on his part, as Stroud was a homosexual, and indeed was considered a violently predatory one.
When it was discovered that his medical equipment had also been used as a still, he was transferred in 1942 to Alcatraz, ironically without his birds or equipment (I guess BIRDMAN OF LEAVENWORTH has less of a ring to it). He spent 6 years in solitary and 11 in the prison hospital, then in 1959 until his death from natural causes in 1963 he remained in The Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield Missouri. He was never allowed to see the film based upon his life.
Besides the publicity generated over the years by Stroud, his wife, and mother, author Thomas Eugene Gaddis wrote a biography of Stroud, BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (Random House, NY 1955). Gaddis later wrote KILLER: A JOURNAL OF MURDER (1970) about serial killer Carl Panzram. This story too was adapted for the screen, starring James Wood (Legacy/ Republic ,1995). BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ was a nationwide best seller, which of course brought it to the attention of Hollywood.
The story of Stroud and his birds intrigued Lancaster and screenwriter Guy Trosper (JAILHOUSE ROCK, MGM,1957), who turned the violent Stroud tale into a terrible man redeemed by his love of birds, as well as a story of a little guy who took on the system and, while if he didn’t win, came out better than expected.
Lancaster was a lifelong liberal, having grown up poor, and always wanting to make the world better. In this tale, he saw a story of redemption, and indeed Lancaster campaigned unsuccessfully for years to get Stroud released, and for the rest of his life Lancaster was an advocate for prison reform.
Like many cinematic biographies, though following the central story, certain elements were altered to make the main character more likeable (i.e.-General Custer in THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON (WB,1941). In this case, Stroud is whitewashed from the sociopath who inspired the tale. The film works on its own strengths, though knowing the facts makes it harder to enjoy. It also does show the dehumanizing treatment in some prison systems, which is also an important issue.
Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster) is a troublemaker prisoner. On the train to prison for a murder that he committed in Alaska (the film dialogue makes it appear he came to the rescue of a woman’s honor, but in real life he was a pimp who killed the man who refused to pay his working girl), he breaks the window in their car, so the other prisoners can get some air.
Warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden) notes that he will be keeping a special eye upon his newest prisoner during his stay in Leavenworth Prison. He has several points against him when he is told that his mother was turned away for a visit and told to return another time (in real life it was his brother who was turned away. The brother is eliminated from the screenplay, but in real life Stroud’s mother was a major force ).
After trying to convince a guard not to revoke his visitation privileges, the guard berates him in front of everyone in the dining room and tells him to sit down. Angered, Stroud knives the guard ,who slumps to the floor, dead.
Now charged with the additional murder, he is sentenced now to be executed. While awaiting the sentence being carried out, he is placed in solitary confinement. His mother (the wonderful Thelma Ritter, who in real life was the real-life mom of John Ritter) pleads with President Wilson’s wife for mercy for her son. Amazingly, her campaign works, and his sentence is transmuted to life in solitary.
Prisoners in solitary were allowed one hour into the courtyard alone, and one day, Stroud finds a wounded bird. He takes the injured creature to his cell and begins to care for it. Soon, he has turned his cell into an aviary, and even gets a prisoner in the next cell Feto Gomez (Telly Savalas, who made his film debut in THE YOUNG SAVAGES) to also begin caring for some. He also receives some aid from his guard, Bull Ransom (Neville Brand, on the other side of the bars, after his wonderful performance in RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11,A.A.,1954)
However, they become ill, and begin dying. Frantic, Stroud scours the library of the prison, and creates a makeshift medicine that seems to cure the birds. The prison doctor (the great Whit Bissell) offers help and suggestions. He publishes a book on his findings and gains some notoriety.
One of his fans, Stella Johnson (Betty Field) goes to meet him and Stroud decides that they should go into business. Stella falls in love with Stroud, and they are married. This proves a breaking point for Stroud’s mother, who decides that he has put another woman before her. They never speak again.
Stroud gets upset and uses his lab to make some makeshift alcohol. This is what prison officials have been waiting for, and he is sent to the new maximum-security prison, Alcatraz (a federal prison from 1934-1963). Most heartbreaking, he is sent immediately with only the clothes on his back, his equipment and birds they make him leave behind.
At Alcatraz, he finds that his old warden Shoemaker is in charge there. The prison is more modern and the food better, but it is also restrictive of what is allowed. Stroud finds that Feto is also there, now as a trustee. Stroud is visited by Stella, who offers to move nearer so she can still see him, but he tells her that she should find someone else.
Years pass, and Stroud, still rebellious, even manages to help stop a 1946 prison rebellion that became known as The Battle of Alcatraz. The event began when Bernard Paul Coy and five accomplices attempted to escape. Scaling the cages that formed the gallery (known as Times Square and Michigan Ave by the prisoners), Coy also bent some bars with a crude device that he had fashioned. He was able to then get a guard’s Billy club and over power a guard (in the film he uses a gun). Soon he was distributing weapons to other prisoners and the guards were held prisoner.
Unable to escape, as one of the guards had hidden the key they most needed, Joseph Cretzer began shooting into the cell where the captured guards were held. The Coast Guard and the marines were called in.
Stroud tried to end the shootout. At 56 years old, he climbed railings and then lowered himself to the second tier, dropping to the floor of D Block. He closed doors to safeguard the wounded, and that there were no weapons now in D block but that if they kept firing the would be killing unarmed guards and wounded prisoners. In the film, he is shown tossing out the remaining weapons, but the battle raged on in another area, with the leader found dead in a guard’s uniform. In real life, two correction officers and three prisoners died, with two others executed together for the murder of a guard, while a third was given an additional 99 years to his life sentence.
It did not seem to do anything to help Stroud, however, and he stayed in Alcatraz until, due to petitions and his failing help, he was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield , Missouri in 1959 .Arriving on the mainland after decades , the handcuffed older Stroud is met by reporters who asks him how it feels to be entering a world so changed. He makes a joke after someone asks him about television (“From what I hear I m not missing much”) then shows how much he has learned, as he looks up to the sky and sees a plane, describes its make and its working specs. He even meets Thomas E Gaddis (played by Edmond O’Brien) who had written his biography. He is going to a facility which will be less restrictive, and he feels free and at peace.
The film received several Oscar nominations :
Lancaster(losing to Gregory Peck in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Universal ), Thelma Ritter(who lost to Patty Duke in THE MIRACLE WORKER,U.A.) , Telly Savalas (losing to Ed Begley in SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH,MGM) ,Burnett Guffey for cinematography (losing to Jean Bourgoin, Walter Wottiz and Henry Persin for THE LONGEST DAY, Fox) and failing to win a Best Picture or Best Director nod . The film was also not a financial success, though a critical one, which is being appreciated more as time goes on.
BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ had been released in 2014 by Twilight Time, but its 3,000-print run quickly sold out. Olive Films picked up the release to make it available to fans who missed the prior release. It is not quite the same, however, as it has some different extras.
Not having the prior version, I must say that the Olive Film releases is stunning.
The sound in 1.0 DTS-HD MA is clear and sharp and the dialog and Elmer Bernstein’s score is never overpowering but emotionally effective. 1962 was a great year for the composer, as he also wrote the understated but powerful music for TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Universal,1962). The prison riot scene I had to lower the sound a bit, but it was not overwhelming, and no fake stereo was added.
The picture quality (1080p/AVC MPEG-4) is sharp and clear, and I found it one of the best presentations of the title which I have ever seen. Some reviewers found the transfer dark, but I had no such quibble.
The optional subtitles (English only) are easy to read and follow the action and dialog precisely.
Where the Olive Film differs from Twilight Time’s release is the different extras.
There is no isolated score track, and the audio commentary is different.
The running audio commentary here is by Lancaster biographer Kate Buford (BURT LANCASTER: AN AMERICAN LIFE, Knopf,2000). Ms. Buford has a radio program on NPR, but here, she seems a bit ill at ease in front of a microphone. Studied pacing and a continuous monotone show the importance of a commentator to not only be knowledgeable but also able to transfer their excitement about the subject. This should not dissuade you from listening, as Ms. Buford delivers a wealth of information about the film as well as the real-life subjects upon whom the film is based. I also liked her opinion that BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ could have worked very well as a silent film, since the acting and direction tells us much without dialog.
The original Theatrical trailer also appears on this disc (as well as the o.o.p Twilight Time).
Extras aside, the main thing is, is this BLU RAY worth adding to my collection. I would wholeheartedly say YES, due to the quality of the film itself, as well as the audio and image quality of the disc.
HIGHLY RECOMMENDED for fans of prison pictures, true story adaptations, Burt Lancaster, Telly Savalas, and the superb supporting cast, as well as the work of John Frankenheimer.
-Kevin G Shinnick