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A Movie A Day: BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (1962)
You ain’t a man, Kramer! You are dog puke!



Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with today’s installment of A Movie A Day. [For those now joining us, A Movie A Day is my attempt at filling in gaps in my film knowledge. My DVD collection is thousands strong, many of them films I haven’t seen yet, but picked up as I scoured used DVD stores. Each day I’ll pull a previously unseen film from my collection or from my DVR and discuss it here. Each movie will have some sort of connection to the one before it, be it cast or crew member.] Growing up in the bay area I spent a lot of time in the San Francisco area, usually on school trips, so I was well aware of the infamous Birdman of Alcatraz. I took the Alcatraz tour, headphones and all, and heard about Robert Stroud, but nothing in-depth. Those tours were more interested with the famous gangsters like Al Capone and the big prisoner uprising story. So, while I was aware of the Birdman, this film was my first exposure to his story.

We follow director John Frankenheimer from yesterday’s ‘80s thriller THE HOLCROFT COVENANT and while I found I surprisingly enjoyed HOLCROFT this is bay leaps and bounds a better film. I groaned a little bit when I pulled the DVD from my shelf and saw it had a runtime of 2 ½ hours. Don’t get me wrong, I like long movies, but this week has been crazy… I’ve had to clear way for a new TV, completely rearranging my house in the process, I have the Star Wars contest still pending, a big, big final Bolt piece to write, the Holiday Shopping Guide running… I would have loved to hit a run of 70 minute movies this week is all I’m saying. I was much relieved when the movie not only turned out to be good, but that it didn’t drag at all. I didn’t feel the time pass, so I wasn’t distracted on everything I have to do. The primary reason for that is an incredible performance by Burt Lancaster as the title character, Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz. When we first meet him, he’s only up for 9 years and a fairly young man, but he has a temper on him that would make the Hulk go, “Dude, take a chill pill. Relax, man… jeez…”

Karl Malden plays the new warden at this smaller prison who puts faith into Lancaster, assuring a pessimistic guard that he should be taken out of solitary and put back in the regular prison population. When this guard is a dick to Lancaster, barring him from a visit with his mother, who he has an incredibly strong emotional connection to, the dude ends up with a shiv sticking out of his chest and Lancaster gets a death sentence. Long story short, his mother works tirelessly to get his sentence reduced, ultimately ending up in Washington where she’s able to secure a meeting with the First Lady which resulted in President Wilson commuting his sentence back to life. Malden at this point is completely changed. His optimism was murdered along with that guard and he turns into a man obsessed with punishment. He’s going to make sure that Stroud is punished as severely as he can be, which means life in solitary. That’s actually not all that bad for this guy, who is definitely not a people person. He gets to walk around the exercise yard (by himself) every once in a while, so it’s not like COOL HAND LUKE’s teeny tiny box or any of the PAPILLON cells. On one of these nights a storm sweeps in and blows down a tree limb into the yard. Stroud hears a chirping of a baby bird in a destroyed little nest and takes the little thing back in with him. He nurtures it, occupying his time with the bird, teaching it tricks and trying to teach it to fly.

Malden ends up being replaced by another Warden who taked immediately to the bird tricks and encourages Lancaster’s avian hobby… as Malden sits in the corner, stewing. I was frankly surprised how much of the movie takes place outside of Alcatraz. Leavenworth, in Kansas, is where 2 hours of the 2 ½ hour long movie takes place and when Lancaster actually gets to Alcatraz he goes without his birds. Malden is the Warden there and specifically asked for his transfer to get him back under his thumb. Lancaster really is spectacular here, giving an incredibly nuanced and subtle performance. He’s scary at the beginning when he is rage incarnate and not too bright, but once he starts taking an interest in birds his life is turned around. He finds his humanity a little bit, starts building friendships with the guards and his immediate next door neighor, played by Telly Savalas, who is likewise awesome. Lancaster’s bird research and care spread and soon everybody else is getting birds, finding a little joy and hope.

There’s a big statement in this movie about rehabilitation. It’s clear that Stroud’s anger issues are gone and he’s devoting himself to doing a lot of good. He studies science when his birds start dying, first to diagnose it and then to try and find a cure… which he amazingly does. But Malden makes it clear later on that only his definition of rehabilitation counts, so it doesn’t matter the good that Stroud has done or the good that he could do if he applied this same determination to human sciences. Savalas is probably what balances out the feel-good drama of the movie… one, it’s weird to see him with hair, even the little bit he has here… but more importantly, he’s just fucking funny. The way he worries about his canary (having fallen in with the rest of the inmates in wanting birds) is hilarious because he’s this tough guy, a punk and here he is fretting over a little birdy. There’s a great scene where his bird, which is found out to be a “broad” is given over to Stroud to keep… And when he does, it mates and lays eggs… as they get close to hatching Savalas is seen pacing his cell like an expecting father, calling out for updates every few seconds. What’s really fascinating to me is that this film came out a year before the real Robert Stroud died, still in prison. I wonder if he ever saw it? Final Thoughts: The film is very well shot, the black and white photography really stunning, well directed and incredibly well acted. I almost don’t want to label it as a “feel-good movie,” but it definitely is so. I’m sure it’s a very, very romanticized look at someone who in real life was probably a cold-blooded killer, but that doesn’t keep it from being a very emotional movie. So, it is very much a feel-good movie. Also, keep an ear out for a great score by Elmer Bernstein!

Here’s what we have lined up for the next week: Friday, November 21st: WHITE HEAT (1949)

Saturday, November 22nd: MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES (1957)

Sunday, November 23rd: EACH DAWN I DIE (1938)

Monday, November 24th: THE BRIDE CAME C.O.D. (1941)

Tuesday, November 25th: THE PETRIFIED FOREST (1936)

Wednesday, November 26th: BULLETS OR BALLOTS (1936)

Thursday, November 27th: THE CINCINNATI KID (1965)

A big gangster run coming up… Lots of Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, so I should be in hog heaven. I’ve loved all the Cagney and Robinson I’ve seen so far. Tomorrow I will be receiving my new TV, a nice LED LCD HDTV… so this will be my final non-upconvert 480p AMAD. See you tomorrow for a full upconverted WHITE HEAT, followed Edmond O’Brien over from this flick! -Quint quint@aintitcool.com



Previous Movies: June 2nd: Harper
June 3rd: The Drowning Pool
June 4th: Papillon
June 5th: Gun Crazy
June 6th: Never So Few
June 7th: A Hole In The Head
June 8th: Some Came Running
June 9th: Rio Bravo
June 10th: Point Blank
June 11th: Pocket Money
June 12th: Cool Hand Luke
June 13th: The Asphalt Jungle
June 14th: Clash By Night
June 15th: Scarlet Street
June 16th: Killer Bait (aka Too Late For Tears)
June 17th: Robinson Crusoe On Mars
June 18th: City For Conquest
June 19th: San Quentin
June 20th: 42nd Street
June 21st: Dames
June 22nd: Gold Diggers of 1935
June 23rd: Murder, My Sweet
June 24th: Born To Kill
June 25th: The Sound of Music
June 26th: Torn Curtain
June 27th: The Left Handed Gun
June 28th: Caligula
June 29th: The Elephant Man
June 30th: The Good Father
July 1st: Shock Treatment
July 2nd: Flashback
July 3rd: Klute
July 4th: On Golden Pond
July 5th: The Cowboys
July 6th: The Alamo
July 7th: Sands of Iwo Jima
July 8th: Wake of the Red Witch
July 9th: D.O.A.
July 10th: Shadow of A Doubt
July 11th: The Matchmaker
July 12th: The Black Hole
July 13th: Vengeance Is Mine
July 14th: Strange Invaders
July 15th: Sleuth
July 16th: Frenzy
July 17th: Kingdom of Heaven: The Director’s Cut
July 18th: Cadillac Man
July 19th: The Sure Thing
July 20th: Moving Violations
July 21st: Meatballs
July 22nd: Cast a Giant Shadow
July 23rd: Out of the Past
July 24th: The Big Steal
July 25th: Where Danger Lives
July 26th: Crossfire
July 27th: Ricco, The Mean Machine
July 28th: In Harm’s Way
July 29th: Firecreek
July 30th: The Cheyenne Social Club
July 31st: The Man Who Knew Too Much
August 1st: The Spirit of St. Louis
August 2nd: Von Ryan’s Express
August 3rd: Can-Can
August 4th: Desperate Characters
August 5th: The Possession of Joel Delaney
August 6th: Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx
August 7th: Start the Revolution Without Me
August 8th: Hell Is A City
August 9th: The Pied Piper
August 10th: Partners
August 11th: Barry Lyndon
August 12th: The Skull
August 13th: The Hellfire Club
August 14th: Blood of the Vampire
August 15th: Terror of the Tongs
August 16th: Pirates of Blood River
August 17th: The Devil-Ship Pirates
August 18th: Jess Franco’s Count Dracula
August 19th: Dracula A.D. 1972
August 20th: The Stranglers of Bombay
August 21st: Man, Woman & Child
August 22nd: The Little Girl Who Lives Down The Lane
August 23rd: The Young Philadelphians
August 24th: The Rack
August 25th: Until They Sail
August 26th: Somebody Up There Likes Me
August 27th: The Set-Up
August 28th: The Devil & Daniel Webster
August 29th: Cat People
August 30th: The Curse of the Cat People
August 31st: The 7th Victim
September 1st: The Ghost Ship
September 2nd: Isle of the Dead
September 3rd: Bedlam
September 4th: Black Sabbath
September 5th: Black Sunday
September 6th: Twitch of the Death Nerve
September 7th: Tragic Ceremony
September 8th: Lisa & The Devil
September 9th: Baron Blood
September 10th: A Shot In The Dark
September 11th: The Pink Panther
September 12th: The Return of the Pink Panther
September 13th: The Pink Panther Strikes Again
September 14th: Revenge of the Pink Panther
September 15th: Trail of the Pink Panther
September 16th: The Real Glory
September 17th: The Winning of Barbara Worth
September 18th: The Cowboy and the Lady
September 19th: Dakota
September 20th: Red River
September 21st: Terminal Station
September 22nd: The Search
September 23rd: Act of Violence
September 24th: Houdini
September 25th: Money From Home
September 26th: Papa’s Delicate Condition
September 27th: Dillinger
September 28th: Battle of the Bulge
September 29th: Daisy Kenyon
September 30th: Laura
October 1st: The Dunwich Horror
October 2nd: Experiment In Terror
October 3rd: The Devil’s Rain
October 4th: Race With The Devil
October 5th: Salo, Or The 120 Days of Sodom
October 6th: Bad Dreams
October 7th: The House Where Evil Dwells
October 8th: Memories of Murder
October 9th: The Hunger
October 10th: I Saw What You Did
October 11th: I Spit On Your Grave
October 12th: Naked You Die
October 13th: The Wraith
October 14th: Silent Night, Bloody Night
October 15th: I Bury The Living
October 16th: The Beast Must Die
October 17th: Hellgate
October 18th: He Knows You’re Alone
October 19th: The Thing From Another World
October 20th: The Fall of the House of Usher
October 21st: Audrey Rose
October 22nd: Who Slew Auntie Roo?
October 23rd: Wait Until Dark
October 24th: Dead & Buried
October 25th: A Bucket of Blood
October 26th: The Bloodstained Shadow
October 27th: I, Madman
October 28th: Return to Horror High
October 29th: Die, Monster, Die
October 30th: Epidemic
October 31st: Student Bodies
November 1st: Black Widow
November 2nd: The Ghost & Mrs. Muir
November 3rd: Flying Tigers
November 4th: Executive Action
November 5th: The Busy Body
November 6th: It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World
November 7th: Libeled Lady
November 8th: Up The River
November 9th: Doctor Bull
November 10th: Judge Priest
November 11th: Ten Little Indians
November 12th: Murder On The Orient Express
November 13th: Daniel
November 14th: El Dorado
November 15th: The Gambler
November 16th: Once Upon A Time In America
November 17th: Salvador
November 18th: Best Seller
November 19th: The Holcroft Covenant

Readers Talkback
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  • Nov. 21, 2008, 12:47 a.m. CST

    Burt Lancaster is one of the most underrated badasses

    by seppukudkurosawa

    ever. From Here to Eternity, Gundown at the OK Corral, Sweet Smell of Success, Castle Keep, shit I could go on all day. He needs to be elevated back to his rightful throne as joint ruler of the world with Clint and Bronson.

  • Nov. 21, 2008, 12:49 a.m. CST

    And if ANYONE

    by seppukudkurosawa

    dares correct the title "Gundown at the O.K. Corral" to "Gunfight..." and make me look like an ass in the process...I'll post in capital letters until they regret it!

  • Nov. 21, 2008, 1:47 a.m. CST

    Hrrrmmm

    by macheesmo3

    The reak story of Stroud , si nothing like this movie... However , I must say , that Lancaster actually gives a decent performance ( second best IMO after The Leopard) He's usually too forced . But he finds a way to lay back in this role !

  • Nov. 21, 2008, 2:04 a.m. CST

    I really liked this movie when I saw it a few years ago...

    by caruso_stalker217

    ...but right after I watched it I used the internet research to find out about the real "birdman" and he was a total piece of shit. I haven't seen the movie since.

  • Nov. 21, 2008, 2:07 a.m. CST

    Funny thing is this isn't even Lancaster's best prison movie

    by Continentalop

    That is "Brute Force", hands down. And Hume Cronyn is awesome as the villain. And yes the real "birdman" Stroud was a dick.

  • Nov. 21, 2008, 3:50 a.m. CST

    Quint: Now that you have been seeing all these movies...

    by Lukecash

    Do you find yourself more impressed with the Golden Age of Hollywoods greats? Like the Hawk, Capra, and Ford films? Does the ability of James Cagney, Burt Lancaster, Humprey Bogart and John Wayne show you how much of a range they had as actors?<p> When I was a kid, there was a show on PBS called Matinee at the Bijou. It recreated the Saturday afternoon event that my gradparents and parents went through. The serials, The cartoons, the Shorts and the features. It wasn't always great stuff...but it made me appreciate why those creators were held in high esteem. They created the vocabulary of film.

  • Nov. 21, 2008, 5:47 a.m. CST

    CINCINNATTI KID

    by palimpsest

    Ann-Margret and Tuesday Weld in the same movie....

  • Nov. 21, 2008, 5:54 a.m. CST

    Apologies Quint

    by cinemaniac

    I just revisited the Best Seller talkback and saw you'd left a shout-out to me, re: time-frame for posting your reviews. Methinks with giving up smoking (cold turkey) I am losing track of time and perhaps my mind. ...Situation exacerbated by my big love for Best Seller and curiosity to hear your take... hence the pressure for you to deliver. No offense. I'm really enjoying AMAD -- I used to do the same thing, many years ago. I'd force myself to get up two hours early and watch a movie before work. I'm thinking I might get back into it. All the best buddy Cinemaniac

  • Nov. 21, 2008, 5:59 a.m. CST

    this is a good movie

    by Gungan Slayer

    This is a good movie; one of Lancaster's best. And yes, he is a badass.

  • Nov. 21, 2008, 7:41 a.m. CST

    Upcoming

    by morganmorgan

    I can hardly wait 'til you get to see White Heat and Petrified Forest. Oh man are you in for a treat!

  • Nov. 21, 2008, 9:22 a.m. CST

    Ugliest. Photoshop. Ever.

    by Wyatt Wingfoot

    Throw this sorry-ass muther-fuckin' "graphic artist" in Alcatraz. Or Gitmo. Nauseating.

  • Nov. 21, 2008, 10:58 a.m. CST

    You've never sen the Cincinnati Kid?

    by berserkrl

    Man, you're in for a treat.

  • Nov. 21, 2008, 11:46 a.m. CST

    Luke and cinemaniac

    by Quint

    Luke, definitely. I've always had a healthy respect for them in my limited exposure to their work, but especially John Wayne has impressed me with his range. He's not known for it, but there's a lot of depth to work, even if he is always "John Wayne" just like Bogart is always "Bogart" and De Niro is always "De Niro." What I'm finding more, though, is that the filmmaking on most of these films, especially the noirs, isn't so locked into their era, that on many of these films you don't have to put yourself into a mindset of watching them as products of their time and place... In short, seeing films that are timeless, either in part or full, has re-energized my passion of film as an artform.<BR><BR>Cinemaniac, no problem. Glad you're enjoying the column!

  • Nov. 21, 2008, 11:55 a.m. CST

    The real Birdman

    by Bloodstained

    was nothing like the person Lancaster plays in the movie. He was an unrepentant pedophile who when he wasn't busy with his birds spent his time writing stories about molesting young boys.

  • Nov. 21, 2008, 1:15 p.m. CST

    The greatest loss ever

    by ArcadianDS

    when we lost him. He could potray the scariest meanest son-of-a-bitch to ever walk the earth, and then turn around and flash that million dollar smile and with a twinkle in those intense yet soft eyes, he'd make you feel like you were his most favorite grandchild in the whole wide world.<p> God what a talent that man was.

  • Nov. 21, 2008, 1:16 p.m. CST

    also

    by ArcadianDS

    the next 5 movies are absolute winners. Hope you like them.

  • Nov. 21, 2008, 9:02 p.m. CST

    Unfortunately...

    by Quint

    I seem to have misplaced my Gangsters V. 1 box set. I've spent 2 hour searching for it, so I'm having to do an emergency re-construction of the list... I'm going to follow Frankenheimer and Lancaster to The Train today instead of jumping to Cagney, which pisses me off a little bit, but I hear The Train is fucking fantastic, so no big deal. Stay tuned!

  • Nov. 22, 2008, 3:08 a.m. CST

    Don't worry about it Quint

    by Lukecash

    We got your back...The Train I might have seen. That's the one set in Japan Right?

  • Nov. 22, 2008, 4:33 a.m. CST

    One of my all time favorites

    by crazybubba

    love the birdman of alcatraz. For me the theme of this movie is conformity. Malden's character doesn't give a rats ass about the amazing scientific accomplishments of Lancaster's character while in prison. In Malden's eyes Lancaster has failed to be rehabilitated simply because he never learns to conform. Lancaster is always bucking the system and breaking prison rules which just pisses the Warden off. Kind of reminds me of the rumored relationship between J. Edgar and Albert Einstein. Allegedly Hoover had it out for Einstein because he didn't consider him an ideal citizen.

  • Feb. 15, 2010, 4:29 a.m. CST

    HPvROi

    by TmvEqK

    lvihlAb <a href="http://nrycvy.com/ ">HPvROi</a>

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