Birdman of Alcatraz Blu-ray Review: The Cinematic System’s Sympathetic Psychopath

November 2014 could truly be one of the most auspiciously underestimated months in the history of home video releases. One of two significantly incredible reasons for my assessment owes to a recent Warner release that many of us never, ever thought we would see, Batman: The Complete Television Series – which not only made it to video in a form other than our terrible VHS recordings from TV, but on Blu-ray even. The second reason this month deserves an asterisk in the annals of history is warranted by the High-Def home video debut of another fellow named after a small winged creature (and which has, dissimilarly, been made available in virtually every form of commercialized home media over the years).

And while Robert Stroud, the late lifer better known to the world as the Birdman of Alcatraz would have made for one lousy crimefighter (a supervillain, yes – hell yes,in fact), he nevertheless made an amazing impact on the world of penal rehabilitation. Furthermore, his life story – slightly shortened, sanitized, and fictionalized for John Frankenheimer’s 1962 motion picture outing starring Burt Lancaster – represents a shining example of something that we simply do not see anymore in today’s over-sensationalized, exploitive films and series about life behind bars (or anywhere else, for that matter): actual bona fide acting. From actual bona fide actors even. Shocking, right?

Based on the Thomas E. Gaddis book of the same name, Birdman of Alcatraz finds the one and only Burt Lancaster delivering one of his many amazing performances as Bob Stroud. A textbook example of a psychopath, the cold, unfeeling, calculated and highly intelligent Stroud first gets tossed into the pen in the early 1900s for murder. Sent to Leavenworth via a heavily-populated and severely over-heated prisoner train, Stroud smashes a window to allow himself and his fellow prisoners a chance to breathe. This immediately rubs his new overseer, the by-the-book warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden), the wrong way – and Stroud begins one of his many long stints in isolation.

Soon after, Stroud stabs a guard to death; a second killing committed solely because his own psychopathic behavior has so far prevented him from seeing his mother (Thelma Ritter), which, of course, only makes things worse. Sentenced to life in isolation after Shoemaker’s initial attempts to execute the unruly prisoner are overturned by a petition from Stroud’s matriarch (whose disturbing dependency for the affection and admiration of her only son – nay, her only family, period – makes Stroud’s unbalanced mental state infinitely discernable), our man Bob winds up bringing in an orphaned baby sparrow from a thunderstorm, after the wind knocks the poor l’il fella’s nest down to the ground.

As the decades pass, Stroud collects, raises, and studies birds. His fascination and fondness for birds – who serve as the perfect parallel for his predicament as a caged bird of another kind – develops into something more. With only a third-grade education under his belt, the incurable low element of society becomes one the world’s foremost experts in ornithology, even developing a cure for a deadly form of sepsis avians frequently encountered at the time before being carted off to Alcatraz in 1942, four years before The Rock’s famous riot. His self-taught expertise leads him into a small mail-order business with a lonely widow (Betty Field) with one eye on those delightful small critters in the sky, and another on the mysterious man who would wind up spending over half a century hidden behind tons of concrete and steel.

Though the reported behavior of the real-life Stroud would have been perfectly at home in Heath Ledger’s place in Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed second Batman movie, Burt Lancaster’s semi-human portrayal of this dark (but ultimately beneficial) knight of the underworld is something to praise itself. As the years pass and age sets in, Lancaster’s Stroud begins to gain – and sometimes even attempt to dispense – conventional, logical wisdom amongst his fellow inmates, and even his politically-active warden who doesn’t seem to mind the fact that Stroud calls him by his first name. (Wait a second… Harvey? Birdman? D’oh!). In fact, Lancaster’s psychopath can even sympathize; not only with his winged pets, but with humans as well.

But Mr. Lancaster – the only man in film history to be able to still deliver an incredible performance even when his entire costume consists of tight blue swimming trunks – isn’t the only standout performer in Birdman of Alcatraz, which he fittingly received an Oscar nomination for. Sure, Karl Malden and the two female co-stars serve their time admirably (Ms. Ritter also earning a l’il gold statue nom). Edmond O’Brien does a fine job as the story’s narrator, a fictionalized representation of author Geddis himself. Why, Birdman of Alcatraz even sports another Academy Nominated performance from a young actor named Telly Savalas – who portrays an inmate, naturally.

No, folks, the true unsung hero of Birdman of Alcatraz is an actor who normally would have found himself being cast as an incarceree. In fact, he not only led a California prison revolt of his own in Riot in Cell Block 11, but portrayed Al Capone in the the original television series The Untouchables. (And Al Capone wound up imprisoned where, boys and girls? Very good!) I speak, of course, of Neville Brand: the character actor who made his debut as the psychopathic henchman who torments Edmond O’Brien in the film noir classic D.O.A., but who here dons a guard’s cap and baton as Stroud’s oddly-named watchman, Bull Ransom (really?).

Here, Brand sheds the usual bad guy image he is best known today for (well, for those of you who remember him, that is) who develops a form of friendship with Lancaster’s stroud as the two grow old together on opposite sides of the cell door. He not only enables Stroud to begin his earliest accomplishments in the field of ornithology, but also encourages the prisoner’s rehabilitation. Director John Frankenheimer (whom I have not referenced enough in this article thus far, and I duly apologize) wisely leaves the camera on Brand as he and Lancaster part company after twenty years just long enough to show the stocky tough-guy character actor to tear up for all to see. It’s a small, subtle moment in film that has been criminally (pun not entirely intentional) neglected over the years.

The great Whit Bissell (who was literally in every other movie made throughout the ’50s and ’60s, I’m sure of it) is on-hand here as Leavenworth’s doctor, and Hugh Marlowe (in Harold Lloyd glasses) has a small part as another warden in this compelling, acting-driven drama from Lancaster’s friend and producer, Harold Hecht. Interestingly, Frankenheimer – who also helmed another personal favorite, The Manchurian Candidate, the same year – wasn’t Lancaster’s first choice; being brought in after the film’s original director, Charles Crichton, left the project. (Good thing, too, or else we might never have had movies like The Train or Seven Days in May!)

Frankenheimer utilizes the most that the young 32-year-old director had already learned directing television drama, delivering a yarn so compelling, one hardly notes that it runs nearly two-and-half-hours in length. Burnett Guffey, the director of photography for Bonnie and Clyde as well as Lancaster’s From Here to Eternity, captures every single element that makes black-and-white photography so dynamic, while composer Elmer Bernstein (who composed music for every kind of film imaginable, from Robot Monster to The Great Escape!) provides a rather minimalist score that is so low-key (but good), many viewers won’t even notice it is there.

Robert J. Schiffer deserves an honorable mention for doing his best to make Lancaster look 18 (which we don’t buy), and effectively aging Stroud to age 70 throughout the course of the film (which we do). Why, even in this new HD transfer made available to Twilight Time from MGM, Schiffer’s makeup on the likes of Lancaster and Ritter still holds up well. Likewise, this 1080p presentation displays much more than many may have noticed before – from those genuine tears Neville Brand conjures up out of nowhere to a barely noticeable hand pulling away the charred remnants of a photograph away in the reflection of Lancaster’s glasses.

Presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio (the opening credits are slightly zoomed out in order to present titles and imagery that stretches a bit too far off screens), Twilight Time’s Birdman of Alcatraz is a huge improvement over the various Standard-Definition versions we’ve seen over the years. While some of the black levels exhibited a trace of video noise (that, or my HDMI cable was crappin’ out on me), the overall picture quality is a joy to behold, and the DTS-HD 1.0 MA soundtrack suits the talky flick appropriately. As it’s a drama in mono, you may have to crank up the volume if you’re enjoying the film with copious amounts of popcorn like I did (just sayin’). Fortunately, there are English (SDH) subtitles available should you need them.

Despite being a true American classic, Birdman of Alcatraz is one of those movies that doesn’t get the proper amount of attention. Film historian Julie Kirgo explains how 1962 was a very, very busy year in her thorough liner notes of the film, which might explain why MGM had nothing else to offer Twilight Time for their Limited Edition Blu-ray release than the motion picture’s original theatrical trailer. Thankfully, Kirgo and fellow film historians Paul Seydor and Nick Redman have brought us their own special feature: an insightful, informative audio commentary for the feature film. A third audio option presents Elmer Bernstein’s score in an isolated DTS-HD 2.0 MA track.

Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray release is limited only 3,000 pressings. I highly recommend the film. Always have, always will. Yes, the film really scrubs the dirt out of what life in prison is said to be like and from its lead character, but between the script by Guy Trosper (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), Frankenheimer’s superb direction, and his cast’s equally magnificent performances, Birdman of Alcatraz emerges as a genuine classic. And a classic drama. I can only hope many confused indie film-goers live up the parenthetical subtitle of the newly-released Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (which stars yet another Batman!) and check this out instead, as today’s audiences really could do with seeing what actual acting looks like for a change.

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Luigi Bastardo

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