Robert Franklin Stroud was not a man known for his patience with his fellow man, a short-tempered and violent criminal, a murderer whose difficult childhood perhaps shaped what would become his life, fifty four years of which were spent behind bars, forty two of them in solitary confinement, at Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas and at Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary off the coast of California.
It was during his time at Leavenworth that Stroud came to care for a nest of injured sparrows which he nursed back to health, eventually accumulating a collection of hundreds of birds in his cell; though forbidden to take them with him on his transfer to the island off the coast of San Francisco, it was there Stroud gained his nickname, the Birdman of Alcatraz.
The title of a 1955 book by Thomas E Gaddis, its cinematic adaptation was a troubled production on which the British director Charles Crichton was removed three weeks into filming following disagreements with star Burt Lancaster and all the footage scrapped, replaced by The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds‘ John Frankenheimer with whom Lancaster had previously worked on The Young Savages.
Released in July 1962 it was nominated for four Academy Awards, for Lancaster for Best Actor in a Leading Role, for Telly Savalas for Best Actor in a Supporting Role as inmate Feto Gomez, for Thelma Ritter for Best Actress in a Supporting Role as Stroud’s mother Elizabeth McCartney Stroud and for Burnett Guffey for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White.
Now available as a Blu-ray/DVD double disc as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema range, Birdman of Alcatraz is accompanied by two informative documentaries, an interview with camera operator Richard H Kline offereing detailed recollections of the production and an appreciation by film historian Sheldon Hall.
Kline, who later worked on The Andromeda Strain, Soylent Green and Star Trek: The Motion Picture and died earlier this month at the age of ninety one, describes it as “a great study of character,” and without doubt it is Lancaster’s film, though both Gaddis’ book and Guy Trosper’s screenplay based upon it were written without the cooperation of Stroud
Gaddis’ principal source instead Stroud’s personal correspondence on the subject of birds and the bird diseases he researched during his solitary confinement as well as the books he published on that subject, it cannot be taken to be unbiased, and while Lancaster’s portrayal of Stroud shows him to be arrogant and argumentative, his temper without filter, he is also depicted as noble and unbroken, enduring with dignity.
Human interaction alien to him, stabbing a guard for refusing a visit when he was following prison rules and making a big show of apologising to another only when he has been told it is expected of him, why do the birds move him so? Do they symbolise his captivity, caring for them in a way he feels he has been denied the only expression of empathy he can muster?
The print flawless, Kline describes the difficulty in shooting within the small space of the cell, the artistic decision to shoot in monochrome guided by the necessity of additional lighting had colour film been chosen which would have caused additional discomfort for the performers and the wildlife.
The narrative slight and obviously sanitised, the voiceover by Edmond O’Brien as Gaddis tries to give a depth to Stroud which the character is lacking through his inevitably brief interactions with other humans, among them The Cat o’ Nine Tails‘ Karl Malden as Warden Harvey Shoemaker, in reality a reformer misrepresented here as a disciplinarian.
Savalas’ lively presence a contrast to Lancaster’s Teutonic reserve and dedication, Rear Window‘s Ritter offers tough love, standing by her son in defiance of the judgement against him then turning on him when he defies her; the character who is unexplored is Betty Fields’ enigmatic Stella Johnson with whom Stroud enters into business and later marries.
Sheldon’s discussion offering insight into Lancaster’s career and the production of the film, it also shows Stroud in a very different light, Birdman of Alcatraz a well-regarded but ultimately myopic and distorted representation of a man who, despite his fondness for birds, was deemed too dangerous to be released into society and who died Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, aged seventy three.