Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Birdman of Alcatraz

My stories about the the wounded Blue Jay in my backyard, prompted a Facebook discussion among some of my friends about the film, Birdman of Alcatraz. As this film approaches its fiftieth anniversary, I thought it might be a good time to revisit one of Burt Lancaster's best roles.

Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz.

In Birdman of Alcatraz, we have already begun to feel ourselves siding with the apparently persecuted prisoner, Robert Stroud, when he finds a wounded sparrow during a solitary walk in the prison yard. 

Once he has befriended that little bird, any doubts we might have had about the title character, played by Burt Lancaster, fall away. 

The imprisoned, wounded bird becomes the symbol of our anti-hero. His ability to nurture and study birds is an allegory for the life we believe Stroud would be living, had it not been for the evils of society, which have driven Stroud into prison.

All this is, of course, a bunch of Hollywood baloney. The real Robert Stroud was a violent, anti-social, psychopath: convicted of one murder in society, he was convicted of another one in prison.

Except for the part about studying birds--which the highly intelligent Stroud did do in his prison cell and write about--the film doesn't have much to do with reality. But sitting in the dark and watching the film, you aren't checking the plot points against your encyclopedia. Burt Lancaster is a genuine movie star: he does a swell job of making a bad guy look awfully good.

He had a lot of help. John Frankenheimer was just thirty-two years old when he took over direction of Birdman from the beleaguered Charles Crichton. Producer and star Lancaster was not the easiest man to work with, according to an interview Frankenheimer gave, late in his life, to Turner Classic Movies.

It is a paradox of the film business that it has to be a collaborative art; yet it requires movie stars with talent so powerful and individualistic, the best collaborations are nothing much without them.

It took director Frankenheimer, who was seventeen years younger than Lancaster, to stand up to the star and cut, edit and re-shoot the four-and-a-half-hour original version, to turn it into the Oscar-nominated triumph it became. 

But half a century later all that behind-the-scenes stuff counts for zip. Each time I tune in to Birdman--and I really dislike prison movies!--I can't seem to get myself to tune out. 

That's one definition of an excellent movie.

We could have a full and fair discussion at some point about whether real lives should be distorted in this manner to make Hollywood hokum. Oliver Stone has made it into a sort of calling, and his films aren't nearly as good as Birdman.

Probably a discussion for another day.

First--enjoy the movie. Later, turn your boat around, and row into the heavy seas of miserable reality. The salt spray will smack you in the face and remind you that--in spite of what you see in the movies--not every person who takes in a wounded bird, has a heart of gold. 

(Although--in one particular case--it does apply to me.)

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
United Artists/Hecht-Lancaster
Nominated for four Academy Awards
Music by Elmer Bernstein

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Don Meuler said...

I'm not particularly fond of prison movies either, but this is one I can watch again and again; another is Shawshank Redemption. My TV remote refuses to pass either of them, although Birdman is on a lot less frequently than Shawshank.

Robin Chapman said...

I agree with you on both films, though I like Birdman better--the violence in quite a bit worse in Shawshank. What is it about prison movies, I wonder? I think they give me claustrophobia.

Don Meuler said...

Yeah, those cells would just get smaller and smaller. Plus the toilet is, you know, right there. The violence is a given in prison films, but sometimes it can be too creative, as in Escape From Alcatraz...

Robin Chapman said...

Hate those public loos.