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Birdman of Alcatraz

"Birdman of Alcatraz" on DVD

Vintage Classic

Birdman of Alcatraz is a story of the triumph of the human spirit, and the power of a man's mind over his environment.

Burt Lancaster stars as Robert Stroud, murderer of two people who spent more than 40 years in solitary confinement. He's a guy with a chip on his shoulder and an attitude that seems bound to keep him on the wrong side of his keepers for the rest of his life.

Then a couple of things happen. He finds an injured sparrow and nurses it back to health. This gives him a purpose and a direction. The second incident is the final dawning on him, via the reading of the riot act from his guard, that human interaction and decency is a two way street.

From here, he never looks back. Despite having only been through third grade in school, he becomes a voracious reader and researcher and eventually a renowned ornithologist and, in the process, more than a bit of a renaissance man.

He writes books on birds, starts (with help from the outside) a business, and in general finds inner peace and is truly rehabilitated. This doesn't help him get out of prison, but it allows him to cope and, despite his surroundings, thrive.

One of the messages of this film, besides the obvious ones about humanity and the power of the mind, is that one shouldn't confuse schooling with education, and this is also something we should all keep in mind. After all, a diploma does not a genius make; it comes from inside.

Lancaster, in an Oscar-nominated role, is excellent as Stroud, though they could have worked a little harder on making his aging a tad more convincing (they gray and shave his hair, but he doesn't develop much in the way of wrinkles or lines). Karl Malden is also very good as the bureaucratic warden of whom Stroud runs afoul, but who ends up with a grudging respect for the prisoner who, when all is said and done, has gone from being a vicious rebel to a thoughtful and decent human being (at least according to the Guy Trosper screenplay). And watch for Telly Savalas, with hair, as a neighboring inmate.

Director John Frankenheimer has done a great job on a story with very little action. You end up really feeling for Stroud and his situation, even though in the film's early stages it's obvious that he belongs behind bars.

The DVD is presented in its original black and white, widescreen picture, though unfortunately it isn't 16x9 TV compatible, and Dolby Digital mono. Audio and video quality are as good as one can expect from these specifications and even when the picture is zoomed to fill the widescreen of a 16x9 TV it's still eminently watchable.

Forget about a lot of extras, though. All you get is the trailer.

Here's an interesting historical point that makes one wonder about the movie's title. According to the movie, Stroud is only moved to Alcatraz for a few years after having spent many more years in Leavenworth, and while in Alcatraz he has no contact with birds at all: all his avian experience happens at Leavenworth. So why is it Birdman of Alcatraz? We don't know.

Birdman of Alcatraz, from MGM Home Video
149 min. widescreen (1.66:1) not 16x9 compatible, Dolby Digital mono
Starring Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter, Neville Brand, Telly Savalas, Betty Field
Produced by Stuart Miller and Guy Trosper
Written by Guy Trosper, Directed by John Frankenheimer


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Updated May 13, 2006