Plot: Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster) has lived a life of crime, with convictions of various severity and a clear indication that he is not likely to become an upstanding member of society. As soon as he arrives, there is friction with warden Shoemaker (Karl Malden), who knows about Stroud’s reputation as a difficult person and has no intention of allowing him to start trouble in his prison. His only outside social interaction is with his own mother, but he loses even that contact for a while, after he lashes out in violence and kills a prison guard. This sets his up to head to the gallows, but until his sentence is carried out, he is to be in solitary confinement. Thanks to his mother’s relentless push on his behalf, Stroud has his sentence commuted, but the judge’s mandate about solitary confinement means he will spend his life like that. This is devastating, but he pushes on and one day during his minimal time outside, he finds a baby bird in need of care and sneaks it back to his cell. This begins a chain of events that change Stroud’s life, but will it bring him any kind of peace in the hellish prison?
Entertainment Value: Although Birdman of Alcatraz is based on a real person, the real life Stroud had little in common with Lancaster’s version, as he was a violent, unstable, and dangerous individual. The narrative about his connection to the birds is rooted in the true events, but Stroud is softened to the point that he barely resembles the real life incarnation. So don’t expect historical accuracy, but as a movie, this is a well crafted and effective narrative. Lancaster is excellent in the lead, surrounded by impressive talent like Karl Malden, Thelma Ritter, Neville Brand, and Telly Savalas, so the cast here is quite remarkable. The movie covers an extensive period of time and runs well over two hours, so the pace is deliberate. As most of the scenes are dialogue driven, I can see some losing focus over the duration, but I think the performances are strong enough to hold interest, even in stretches with little narrative movement. The slower pace and long duration also serve to emphasis the passage of time, as Stroud was locked up nearly his entire life and the movie covers decades of his imprisonment. A little slow perhaps, but Birdman of Alcatraz is a good movie that features some great performances and has an inspiring tone, even if it veers from the real life events often.
No nakedness. This is a prison movie, but no sexual elements are present. The real life Stroud claimed to be a sexual predator, but that side of his persona isn’t even hinted at in this version of his narrative. No blood. There is some violence at times, but it is non graphic and produced no bloodshed. So when someone gets stabbed, we just see the red stain on his shirt, no blade going in or the wound. But it is still tense and not glossed over, it just isn’t presented in a visceral fashion. The dialogue is well written and driven by characters, not the narrative needs, but the serious tone prevents wackiness or over the top lines. The banter between Stroud and those around him yields some interesting moments, as he has a real chip on his shoulder at times, especially when it comes to authority figures. But don’t let the low score mislead you, the writing is good, just not the crazy or quotable stuff we reward points to. No craziness, unless you count a prison cell filled with hundreds of birds crazy, which it kind of is. This one is serious and all business, so no wackiness to report.
Overall Insanity: 0/10