Birdman of Alcatraz – John Frankenheimer (1962)


Birdman of Alcatraz is a 1962 American biographical drama film starring Burt Lancaster and directed by John Frankenheimer. It is a largely fictionalized version of the life of Robert Stroud, a federal prison inmate known as the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz’ because of his life with birds. In spite of the title, much of the action is set at Leavenworth Prison, where Stroud was jailed with his birds. When moved to Alcatraz he was not allowed to keep any pets. The film was adapted by Guy Trosper from the 1955 book by Thomas E. Gaddis. It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Burt Lancaster), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Telly Savalas), Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Thelma Ritter) and Best Cinematography, Black-and-White.Robert Stroud (Lancaster) is imprisoned as a young man for committing a murder in Alaska. He is shown as a rebellious inmate, fighting against a rigid prison system: on his way to jail by train he breaks open the window to allow the suffocating inmates to breathe. His rebellious attitude puts him in conflict with Harvey Shoemaker (Malden), the warden of Leavenworth Prison. While in jail, Stroud learns that his mother (Ritter) tried to visit him but was denied and told to return later in the week. Outraged, he attacks a guard over the issue and stabs the man to death. Stroud is sentenced to death, but his mother runs a successful campaign and he is commuted to life in prison. The terms of the sentence require that he be kept in solitary confinement for the rest of his life. To break the monotony, Stroud adopts an orphaned baby sparrow as a pet. This starts a trend and he and the other convicts acquire birds, such as canaries, as gifts from the outside. Before long, Stroud has built up a collection of birds and cages. When they fall ill, he conducts experiments and comes up with a cure. As the years pass, Stroud becomes an expert on bird diseases and even publishes a book on the subject. His writings are so impressive that a doctor describes him as a ‘genius’.  Stroud later meets bird-lover Stella Johnson (Field) and agrees to go into business, marketing his bird remedies. He and Stella later marry, but his mother disapproves and this causes a rift between mother and son. He is abruptly transferred to the federal penitentiary at Alcatraz (the ‘Rock’), a new maximum security institution where he is not permitted to keep birds. He is now growing elderly but still shows a rebellious side, writing a history of the U.S. penal system that is suppressed by Shoemaker, now warden of the Rock. …”
Wikipedia
The Birdman of Alcatraz
NY Times: Burt Lancaster Stars in Role of Prisoner Film Drama Offered at Several Theatres (July 1962)
amazon
YouTube: Birdman of Alcatraz Official Trailer #1

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