Life in Solitary.
- Birdman of Alcatraz review by Steve Mason
Thoughtful and progressive (and lengthy) biopic of murderer Robert Stroud who entered prison in 1909 and remained in solitary confinement until 1959, and incarcerated until his death in 1963. While in Leavenworth Penitentiary he began to keep and study birds and developed remedies for previously untreatable diseases. Given a simple microscope he studied haematology and histology and wrote academic books. In order to keep his menagerie, he learned about the law.
When Stroud (Burt Lancaster) is first imprisoned he is wearing stripes and chains. He feeds his birds with insects freely infesting the jail. Over the years, under the control of a reforming public servant (Karl Malden) the jails become cleaner and safer and less physically brutal. But the film is clear that they remain instruments of revenge, and fail because they do not mend the psychological faults of the convicts.
The film is a little vague on Stroud's own mentality. He seems a sociopath, resentful of society, of anyone but his mother. He kills a warden. But his sullen malevolence is soon ameliorated by nurturing his birds. At first he does it to break the monotony of solitary confinement, but begins to live vicariously through them. There's a great, ironic shot of Stroud viewed though the bars of a birdcage. Eventually his obsession releases his talent, or even genius.
Lancaster does a fine job in maintaining interest in this introverted, troubled man who isn't all that easy to like. Frankenheimer overcomes the limitation of shooting within a tiny space by dealing mostly in closeups and expressionistic camera angles and set design. I don't think we truly get a realistic idea of what compelled Stroud to kill and then change so remarkably. But the film mostly has an agenda of reform and it makes its argument entertainingly and persuasively.
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