Arts

Cult Movie: Classic prison tale Birdman Of Alcatraz might not stand up in court

Burt Lancaster as Robert Stroud in Birdman of Alcatraz
Ralph McLean

FEW would suggest that truth and Hollywood go hand in hand but Birdman Of Alcatraz pushes Tinseltown's relationship with the cold hard truth to the absolute limit.

Watch Burt Lancaster's low-key performance as the softly spoken lifer who finds an injured sparrow in the prison yard and learns to cope with his incarceration by nursing it back to health and you're bang in the middle of a classic tale of justice miscarried.

Under the slow-burning, measured melodrama of director John Frankenheimer, Lancaster's laconic loser is just another victim of a corrupt system that had misfired again, thoughtlessly slinging another innocent man in jail in the process. The truth, as is often the way when Hollywood tackles real life, is an altogether murkier affair.

Robert Stroud, the actual prisoner upon whom Frankenheimer's acclaimed film is based, was a double murderer who apparently never showed an inkling of remorse for his crimes and continued to be a disruptive and difficult character throughout his time behind bars. By the time the film appeared to huge acclaim in 1962 Stroud had been incarcerated for five decades.

Despite the disparity between fact and film fiction, there is still much to admire in this cold and considered slice of superior prison drama (released next week on Blu-ray and DVD by Eureka Entertainment).

There's Lancaster's Oscar-nominated lead performance, for a start. Never falling into wild, barnstorming style he applied to many a high-level performance, the Lancaster we see here is deep, dour and impressively broody. If Gregory Peck hadn't have delivered the goods so effectively in To Kill A Mockingbird in the same year that little golden statuette was his all the way.

Guy Trosper's screenplay, based on the book by Thomas E Gaddis, allows for some pleasingly deep relationships within the prison to be explored fully. Stroud's relationship with a fellow con (played by future Kojak Telly Savalas), a sympathetic guard (Neville Brand) and a bitter and twisted old warden (Karl Malden) are dealt with impressively and at a deliberately slow pace that allow characters to develop before your eyes.

There are rare, fully formed female roles for Thelma Ritter as Stroud's overbearing mother and Betty Field as a fellow fledgling ornithologist to enjoy as well.

Watched today the 'bird representing freedom' metaphors feel a little forced but as the first big success story in Frankenheimer's career the film delivers a compact and emotionally economical tale of human endurance.

As a final reminder of how facts and film continue to butt heads at just about every opportunity, it's worth noting that just about all of Stroud's bird-related activities actually took place during his time at Leavenworth prison in Kansas and not during his lengthy stay at Alcatraz.

When he moved to 'The Rock' in the 1940s he wasn't permitted to bring his birds and his interest in the subject petered out.

Still, it wouldn't be like Hollywood to let truth get in the way of a good story now would it?

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