Ranking: #86/111

Director: John Frankenheimer (USA)

Genre: Prison Drama

Prison dramas, whether during war time, like The Great Escape, or in peace time like Shawshank Redemption, Escape from Alcatraz or Midnight Express, have been a successful genre of Western movies for decades, but, for my money, Birdman of Alcatraz is the very best.

Heavily fictionalised but based on a true story, and shot by Frankenheimer in a semi-documentary style, the film explores in minute detail the possibility of redemption for a man with a violent temper. The director lets the story tell itself through its scenes, imagery and dialogue. The latter is of a very high order, always sounding credible and real.

There’s a fascinating contrast at the heart of the film between two strong, but very different, men, namely Robert Stroud, the prisoner who loved and studied birds while incarcerated, and prison warden called Harvey Shoemaker. Burt Lancaster delivers one of his very finest performances as Stroud, while Karl Malden is nuanced as Shoemaker. A grudging mutual respect develops between them, although the prospect of tension and conflict still simmers and boils to the surface from time to time. Telly Savalas plays a well-rounded supporting role as fellow inmate, Feto Gomez, who also enjoys raising and training a sparrow to keep himself amused while incarcerated.

When the birds develop septic fever, Stroud becomes like an obsessed scientist seeking an inoculation for the disease. Later, when some of his articles are published, the prisoner becomes renowned as an ornithologist. And he takes seven years to write a definitive book on bird diseases, Stroud’s Digest of Bird Diseases. And all this from a man with an explosive temper! As a younger man, he’d been sent to prison for acts of violence committed while in a rage.

The strong script is full of gritty exchanges and superb lines like in solitary confinement “you can hear your life ticking away”, Stroud’s “One thing I’ve learnt is not to abuse time” and Shoemaker’s “What’s eating you up?”. When Lancaster releases the first sparrow he domesticated and nurtured he implores it to “go out and bite the stars for me”. Stunning scene!

The director certainly makes us feel what’s it’s like to serve long, mind-bending prison sentences. Frankenheimer’s film has action, intriguing dialogue, evocative imagery and great themes to think about. It also contains several touching and tender moments. For example, the scene when Stroud feeds a chick is very moving. In short, it has all the ingredients of a timeless film.

The movie is a striking humanist story of redemption which haunts the mind long after viewing it.