It's rather odd that I visited Alcatraz about a decade before finally seeing "Birdman of Alcatraz."
If you've never toured the famed prison, and you're visiting San Francisco in the near future, I highly recommend it, and that same recommendation extends to this fine drama about Robert Stroud, a convicted killer who used his life imprisonment to become an expert on birds. Burt Lancaster stars in one of his best roles, and while the drama tends to omit some facts from Stroud's story, it's still a compelling portrait of a solitary man and what he's able to accomplish.
Stroud, a convicted murderer, kills another man while imprisoned in Leavenworth prison in Kansas. Sentenced to death, his mother (Thelma Ritter) pleads his cause, going all the way to Washington. She manages to get President Woodrow Wilson to commute the sentence to life imprisonment. While in solitary confinement, he finds an injured canary and nurses it back to health. His work with birds leads to impressive research and scientific writings.
For a film that spends so much time inside a jail cell, it's filled with memorable characters. In addition to his mother, you have Warden Harvey Shoemaker, prison guard Bull Ransom, fellow inmate Feto Gomez, and business partner Stella Johnson. Each has a distinct relationship with Stroud, and considering how few people Stroud comes in contact with, these relationships are beautifully fleshed out. And each character is played by a flawless supporting cast.
For example, Ritter is a loving mother who becomes possessive of her son's affections. It's one of Ritter's rare performances without wisecracks, and she is memorable in it. Karl Malden plays Shoemaker, who goes toe-to-toe with Stroud on several occasions. Toward the end of the film, Stroud lectures Shoemaker about reform, faulting the prison system's -- and Shoemaker's -- inability to see beyond their own regulations at the humans who are behind bars. Malden's face may register a resignation that Stroud may be correct, but it's momentary, and Malden returns to the task at hand, wearier than before. It's these kinds of moments, ones filled with tension but without histrionics, acted by people who have crawled inside of their characters' skins, that makes the drama riveting.
Telly Savalas is brilliant as Gomez, who switches from loudmouth con to tender bird lover, whose exchanges with Stroud are both belligerent and touching. It's impressive to see Savalas find this mix of bravado and vulnerability, as these two men who trust no one unwittingly come to trust each other to forge an unlikely friendship.
Neville Brand plays Bull as a straightforward man who eventually gains Stroud's trust. And Betty Field plays a woman who reads Stroud's works and wants to know more about him, eventually forming a professional and personal relationship that's surprising in its respect, with Field conveying Stella's loneliness not as pitiable but heartbreaking.
All of these players provide support for Lancaster, who gives one of his best performances. As an actor, Lancaster excels with characters who keep their anger just below the surface, men who are smart and passionate, the latter sometimes leading to trouble. With Stroud, Lancaster maintains an inner rage that simmers for much of the film, finally giving way to an acceptance for his position. He also juxtaposes that rage with the tenderness he shows his birds, creatures who cannot talk back or ignite that anger. Lancaster is compelling, complex and brilliant.
Lancaster received his third Oscar nod for this film in a year that saw sensational performances, including Gregory Peck in "To Kill a Mockingbird," Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia" and Jack Lemmon in "The Days of Wine and Roses." Ritter received her six Oscar nod for supporting actress, and it's a shame this great actress never won an Oscar. Savalas deservedly received a nomination as well.
It's a long movie, just under two-and-a-half hours, but it's a compelling film. TCM is airing the film on Tuesday (Nov. 2), so if you haven't seen it, set your DVRs. You'll be happy you did.