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Birdman of Alcatraz

Here's a great bar-bet trivia question: in what prison did the famous "Birdman" Robert Stroud raise canaries, teach himself ornithology, and become an internationally recognized authority on birds and their diseases while living in solitary confinement? The answer — Leavenworth. That's right. Catchy as the moniker is, Birdman of Alcatraz — title of the 1963 film and the biography on which it was based — is something of a misnomer. Imprisoned in 1911 for the murder of a bartender who had failed to pay off a prostitute for whom he was pimping in Alaska, Stroud spent 53 years in prison, the majority of it in solitary confinement. During his 30 years at Leavenworth, he developed an interest in canaries after nursing a sick bird to health, then went on to study the diseases of birds and write two books on the subject. But when he was transferred to Alcatraz, he wasn't allowed to bring either birds nor any of his scientific equipment with him. As played by Burt Lancaster, in what may have been his best role, the Movie Stroud evolves over time from angry young psychopath with a mommy fixation to a thoughtful genius, never able to leave prison because of a grudge held by warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden). In real life, Stroud was reported to be unrepentantly violent for his entire life, killing two people while in prison, stabbing an orderly, and perhaps even writing child pornography. And it was discovered, upon his transfer to Alcatraz, that he had been using the scientific equipment that he had requested for his "research" to in fact build an elaborate still. But hey, this is a Hollywood biopic. Lancaster's Stroud is a genius who eventually learns the value of life and even develops caring relationships with other people, including his longtime cellblock guard (Neville Brand) and another inmate locked away in the next cell over (Telly Savalas). Birdman of Alcatraz was only the third theatrical film by director John Frankenheimer and a lot of it feels like a lengthy television play; it wasn't until his next movie, The Manchurian Candidate, that he really hit his stride as a director (although time has shown Frankenheimer to be capable of not only the sublime — Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, The Iceman Cometh — but also of the truly abominable — Prophecy, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Reindeer Games — and everything in between). The movie works because of an excellent screenplay and an outstanding performance by Lancaster who, by the very nature of the story, must carry the film entirely on his massive shoulders. Nominated for an Academy Award, Lancaster lost to Gregory Peck for To Kill a Mockingbird (and that was the grand era of Oscar, friends — the other actors in the running that year were Jack Lemmon, Marcello Mastroianni, and Peter O'Toole). Others nominated, but not awarded, Oscars were Savalas for Best Supporting Actor, Thelma Ritter (who played Stroud's mother) as Best Supporting Actress, and Burnett Guffey for his gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. MGM's "Vintage Classics" DVD release edition of Birdman of Alcatraz is presented in its original 1.66:1 theatrical release format with Dolby Digital mono sound and, well, it's a rather sorry piece of work. "Vintage Classics" apparently can be translated as "old movies we don't really give a rat's ass about." Not only hasn't this film been restored, it doesn't even look like an attempt was made to get an especially good print to work with — there are dust spots, scratches, even huge black blotches throughout the film. Guffey's black-and-white work is crisp, the blacks are rich, the shadows are deep and complex, but none of that changes the rather sloppy condition of the celluloid transferred to this disc. Nevertheless, the film looks positively pristine next to the quality of the theatrical trailer (the one extra on the disc) — it seems to have been kept in the trunk of someone's car for a couple of decades, then tossed on the ground and tap-danced over. Ugly ugly ugly. A very poor presentation of a superior film. The four stars below are for the movie itself, not this DVD — buy this edition only if you absolutely must own Birdman of Alcatraz and don't mind a messy presentation. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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