I caught up with Burt Lancaster in The Birdman of Alcatraz the other night, on tv. It’s a curiously named film when you think about it, as he has nothing to do with birds in Alcatraz at all. It should have been called The Birdman of Leavenworth, because that’s where all his action with birds took place.
Be that as it may, it’s an excellently made film, and deserved the awards showered on it. It’s unlikely that Stroud, the character played by Lancaster, was as genteel as he comes across in the movie. Only in the earliest scenes is he shown as violent and vicious. Lancaster, however, is one of those actors who tends to come across as a tough gentleman, and that’s pretty much how he plays Stroud. Equally, Thelma Ritter, who plays his mother, is seen as a rather lovely lady who campaigns for her son in spite of his behaviour. It’s only when he prefers his wife to her that she turns on him and shows an equally vicious side. The relationship between the two is never quite explained: why is he so fond of his mother? Why does she do so much for him? And later, why does the woman played by Betty Field fall under his charm so easily?
The movie isn’t interested in these questions, and it presents the long journey of a man who spent almost all his adult life in prison, and the way in which he made successful use not only of his time, but also of his isolation. It’s absorbing in spite of the unanswered questions about the characters. The movie is also very sympathetic to Stroud, and the real concerns of the prison governors regarding his violence are quickly swept aside in favour of a view of the man as someone who really didn’t deserve to be locked up the way he was.
I began watching the film on quarter of the computer screen: the great thing about that was that the fuzziness you often get on larger tv screens was entirely absent. Instead there was a superb clarity about the picture, and it brought out the detail of the lighting and photography, both of which are excellent. Burnett Guffey is credited with the cinemaphotography. He had a long career spanning all sorts of movies, from Gidget to From Here to Eternity, from All the King’s Men to Me and the Colonel.
The photo isn't of Burt Lancaster without his make-up, but of the real 'Birdman', Robert Stroud.