Birdman of Alcatraz

January 28, 2012 6 Min Read

Review by: Fusion3600

Plot: What’s it about?

Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster) has been sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison, within the notorious Alcatraz no less. Stroud has a lower level education and a quick temper, but he soon starts to show a softer side. In the isolation yard one afternoon, he finds a small, weak sparrow and manages to nurse it back to health, which seems to spark something inside of him. After that, Stroud begins to learn all he can about birds and what makes them tick, from diseases to migration patterns to all things in between. If he found a weak bird again, he would take good care of it and make sure it survived, which brought him a sense of pride. Stroud might have had only a third grade education and no hope of ever leaving his prison home behind, but thanks to his passion for the birds, he was able to divert his mind often. But will this new interest be enough to keep him out of trouble with the guards?

Another release in MGM’s Vintage Classics series, Birdman of Alcatraz is a terrific movie and a most welcome low price. This disc doesn’t much in terms of bells & whistles, but the basics are present and again, the low price makes the difference. The movie runs a little slow at times, but in a two and a half hour flick, some slow stretches are bound to surface, especially within a confined picture like this one. I will say that director John Frankenheimer and his crew do a lot to ensure the limited space remains fresh and interesting, but even their hard work falls short in a few instances. But the film is very well made and moves at a nice pace most of the time, thanks to some good writing and excellent direction. I know these extended dramas don’t hold a lot for modern audiences, but I find this to be very good and I think fans of older films will agree with me. So the film has some flaws, I still think it is a solid picture and well worth a look, especially at this low, low price.

At the wheel of Birdman of Alcatraz is John Frankenheimer, who seems to have it all going his way in this case. I’ve always liked Frankenheimer’s work and even with some recent slips, he still seems to have the knack and delivers in terms of direction. Even when the film as a whole hasn’t won me over, I’ve usually been able to appreciate his direction, which is a real compliment to his skills. His options are more limited than usual in this case, but he and his crew manage to keep things brisk when possible, which helps the audience remain focused. The emotion surfaces from the material in fine form, which is the testament that Frankenheimer did what he was supposed to with this movie. Other films directed by Frankenheimer include Seconds, The Manchurian Candidate, Grand Prix, Seven Days In May, The Train, The Iceman Cometh, and Ronin. The cast here includes Burt Lancaster (Ulzana’s Raid, Field of Dreams), Thelma Ritter (All About Eve, Pillow Talk), Telly Savalas (Cape Fear, The Dirty Dozen), Karl Malden (One-Eyed Jacks, Patton), and Neville Brand (Stalag 17, Eaten Alive).

Video: How does it look?

Birdman of Alcatraz is presented in a 1.66:1 widescreen transfer, which is not enhanced for widescreen televisions. This film was made in 1962 and shows some signs of age, but I was pleased with the condition of the print used here. I saw some nicks, pops, and grain elements at times, but not too much and I think fans will be pleased with this effort. The black & white image looks sharp and very well defined, thanks to the solid balance of the black levels. I do wish this was anamorphic, but even as it stands, this is a welcome clean, widescreen edition.

Audio: How does it sound?

As this is a slow moving dialogue driven picture, the included mono option is more than adequate. From the bird chirps to bar shaking, all the sound effects come through well here, never flat or dated in the least. I also love Elmer Bernstein’s musical score here, so I was pleased to hear it in such clean and crisp form, very cool indeed. Now this mix never pushes the speakers by any means, but in terms of mono, I was very impressed in the end. The spoken words come across well here also, very sharp and always at the proper volume balance. This disc also houses French and Spanish subtitles, in case you’ll need those.

Supplements: What are the extras?

This disc includes the film’s theatrical trailer.

Disc Scores