Birdman of Alcatraz is not really a prison picture in the traditional and accepted sense of the term. Birdman reverses the formula and brings a new breadth and depth to the form. In telling, with reasonable objectivity but understandably deep compassion the true story of Robert Stroud, it achieves a human dimension way beyond its predecessors.
Trosper’s penetrating and affecting screenplay, based on the book by Thomas E. Gaddis, delicately and artfully sketches the 53-year imprisonment of the 72-year-old ‘Birdman’, Stroud, illustrating the highlights and lowlights of that terrible, yet miraculously ennobling span. The screenplay’s, and the film’s only real flaw is its dismissal of Stroud’s background, leaving the audience to mull over psychological ramifications and expositional data by and large denied it.
Lancaster gives a superbly natural, unaffected performance – one in which nobility and indestrucibility can be seen cumulatively developing and shining from within through a weary exterior eroded by the deep scars of time and enforced privacy in a ‘prison within a prison’. His running clash with the narrow-minded and vengeful warden Shoemaker is a highlight of the film, consummating in a powerful scene depicting their opposing views on penology. Karl Malden is excellent as the warden.
Four distinguished top supporting performances light up the picture. They are those of Telly Savalas as a fellow inmate and birdkeeper, Thelma Ritter (in a change of pace from her customary characterization) as Stroud’s mother (whose seemingly unselfish devotion to the cause of her son ultimately grows suspect), Neville Brand as an understanding guard, and Betty Field as the woman who married Stroud in prison, then reluctantly drifts away at his realistic request. Edmond O’Brien narrates and plays the author.
1962: Nominations: Best Actor (Burt Lancaster), Supp. Actor (Telly Savalas), Supp. Actress (Thelma Ritter), B&W Cinematography