The ABC's of Film Noir
The ABC's of Film Noir

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) Classic Movie Review 30

The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

Twelve years I've known you, Stroud. Twelve years, sun up and sun down, I've had to look at that frozen mug of yours. And in all that time, never so much as a how-de-do out of you.

The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) is a fictionalized tale of Robert Stroud who raised birds while in prison and discovered cures for bird diseases. This movie showcases the amazing talent of Burt Lancaster. Karl Malden is excellent in the supporting role.

Rough Script Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

Today’s film is the Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). This is a wonderfully inspiring story based on a true story that makes you say “thank god that guy is locked up.” This movie was directed by John Frankenheimer and based on a book by Thomas E. Gaddis.

Of course, the Birdman was brought to life by arguably one of America’s greatest actors – Burt Lancaster. Even that name sounds macho. Lancaster played the role of Robert Stroud a lifer in a couple of different prisons.

Lancaster was born in Manhattan. All four of his grandparents were immigrants from Northern Ireland. Lancaster grew up on the streets and was a tuff character. He became interested in gymnastics and was a high school athlete. Following his mother’s death, he dropped out of college and later joined the circus at age 19 where he could use his considerable physical skills.

He met his lifelong friend Nick Cravet during his circus period. In 1939, a hand injury forced Lancaster to quit his beloved circus. For a time he worked at a department store and as a singing waiter.

When World War II broke out he joined the Army and ended up in the USO entertaining troops. He served in the Italian theater of operation. Following the war he was not excited to become an actor but he tried out for a stage role and landed the part. With his intense blue eyes, athletic physique, and devilish smile it is not hard to see how he got the role.

Although the play ended rather quickly he received his first movie role in The Killers (1946) based on his performance. After one movie he was a start and he kept after it. For a time he played tough guys but also took roles where he could show off his acrobatic talents such as The Crimson Pirate (1952). Before long Lancaster started his own production company and was successful at that as well.

In 1953, Lancaster one of his greatest and most well-known roles – 1st Sgt. Warden in From Here to Eternity (1953). The love scene with Lancaster and Deborah Kerr kissing as the wave crashed over them has been parodied and copied endlessly. He should have received an Oscar for this role but he had to wait until Elmer Gantry (1960).

He didn’t slow down a bit starring in The Young Savages (1961) as ADA Hank Bell, Judgement at Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and Nazi Dr. Ernst Janning with Spencer Tracy and many others, and of course the Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) as Robert Stroud.

He continued to make movies through his life and he slowly drifted from the action hero to deeper parts, political roles, or comedies. In 1964, Lancaster was cast in a fairly low budget anti-Nazi movie with Paul Scofield. He showed his acting and acrobatic talent in this movie as a member of the resistance and a railroad yard manager. If I did not already say that From Here to Eternity (1953) was his greatest role I would say this is. Maybe he had more than one. he turned in another stellar performance Seven Days in May (1964). Lancaster took a role in a comedy The Hallelujah Trail (1965), followed by a western hired gunman in The Professionals (1966), then he jumped into the disaster flicks with Airport (1970). This was followed by a string of first-rate military films including Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977), Go Tell the Spartans (1978), and Zulu Dawn (1979). Of course, he threw in a horror film with The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) and one of my personal favorites Local Hero (1983) where he played eccentric Felix Happer. He took a role in an over the hill buddy film Tough Guys (1986) and his last film, which is one of his greatest, Field of Dreams (1989) as Dr. Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham.

Lancaster was politically liberal and worked with and for many good causes including the March on Washington in 1963 fighting McCarthyism, and fighting for AIDS research. He died in 1994 from coronary problems at the age of 80.

Karl Malden was cast as Harvey Shoemaker a warden and prison bureau official. I spoke about him Episode 26 – Time Limit (1957) if you want to hear more.

Thelma Ritter was cast as the birdman’s mother – Elizabeth McCartney Stroud. Ritter was trained in high school and attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. However, her career did not really take off. In the 40s she worked in radio. A brief uncredited part in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) changed her life. She received lots of movie work for the next 12 years. She was a major actor and just of a few of her films are: All About Eve (1950), Rear Window (1954), Daddy Long Legs (1955), The Proud and Profane (1956), Pillow Talk (1959), The Second Time Around (1961), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), and How the West Was Won (1962). However, I will single out one other movie, The Misfits (1961). Ritter holds her own at Isabelle Steers cast alongside Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, and Eli Wallach.

Sadly Ritter died after a heart attack at the age of 66.

Neville Brand played prison guard Bull Ransom. Of course, Bull is what the cons call a guard so I don’t know if he had a real first name. Neville Brand joined the Army in 1939 with plans to be a lifer. He served in World War II in Europe where he was wounded and also received a silver star. For a time it was believed that he was the 4th most decorated soldier of WWII. However, when they put him in a training film he says a new path forward. He left the Army and used his GI Bill to study acting. After training, he worked on stage until he got a big break and was cast in D.O.A. (1950).

With his gravelly voice and unprepossessing face, he was bound to play the heavy. One of his quotes is “With this kisser, I knew early in the game I wasn’t going to make the world forget Clark Gable.” He was cast as the nemesis of William Holden in Stalag 17 (1953) and was fantastic.

He may be best known for playing the dimwitted Texas Ranger Reese Bennett in TV’s “Laredo” from 1965-1967. With 137 acting credits, Brand died at the age of 71.

Betty Field was cast as Stella Johnson the love interest/business partner of the birdman. I cover her in Episode 5 – Of Mice and Men (1939) but I gave her a pretty short shrift so I will try to do a little better here.

Betty Field was born in Boston in 1913. By 1932 she was enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Art. She spent the 30s working on stage until she got her film break in What a Life (1939). This was followed the same year with her bit in the previously mentioned Of Mice and Men. She jumped between the stage and film but never found the film that would make her a star. In 1949, she was cast as Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby but she was not well received so back to the theater.

Field returned to movies in the 50s a thread bad hardened character in such films as Picnic (1955), starring Kim Novak, Bus Stop (1956) with Marilyn Monroe, and Peyton Place (1957) featuring Lana Turner. One of the roles she is most remembered for is as an older floozie in Coogan’s Bluff (1968) with Clint Eastwood.

Sadly she died at age 60 never being noted for the talent she really was.

Telly Savalas was prisoner Feto Gomez. Savalas was the child of Greek immigrants. He served in the military during World War II. He was good at playing characters that were a little off like Maggot in The Dirty Dozen (1967) or like Sgt. Guffy in the Battle of the Bulge (1965). With his 127 acting credits he is best known as bald-headed lollipop-sucking detective Theo Kojak or the Players Club commercials he starred in afterward – Who Loves ya, baby.

Edmond O’Brien played Thomas E. Gaddis the author of the book about Stroud and the narrator. O’Brien was born in the Bronx in 1915. It has been reported that he learned magic tricks from his neighbor Harry Houdini. He was in the school theater and major in drama a Columbia University. He started on Broadway debut at 21.

He was brought to Hollywood and he was uncredited in his first film – Prison Break (1938). The next year he was in a supporting role as “Gringoire” in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) with Charles Laughton. He joined the Army Air Force during World War II and returned to a solid career as a supporting actor. By 1950, he was given the lead role in D.O.A. (1950).

In 1954, he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Barefoot Contessa (1954). He was nominated for another for his role as a drunken senator in Seven Days in May (1964). O’Brian also appeared in the Sam Peckinpah’s classic The Wild Bunch (1969). Through the 60s and 70s O’Brian worked more on television.

He died in 1985 and is buried in California.

Hugh Marlowe was cast as Leavenworth Warden Albert Comstock. I gave the run down on Marlowe in Episode 28 – World Without End (1956).


This movie begins with a group of convicts being transported by train. One of the prisoners, Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster) uses his hat to break open a window to let in fresh air. Gets in trouble by the guard Bull Ransom (Neville Brand) but Stroud is defiant.

Let me give you the backstory up to this point in the movie. Stroud ran away from home and an abusive father at the age of 13. By the time he was 18 he was in Alaska pimping for 36-year-old Kitty O’Brien. In 1909, an acquaintance of theirs, bartender Charlie Von Dahmer, didn’t pay Kitty and beat her when she complained. Stroud tracked down Von Dahmer, fought with him, knocked him unconscious and shot him on the ground.

Somehow with the help of a lawyer, his mother hired he was only convicted of manslaughter while the police report seems to indicate 1st-degree murder. At the time Alaska was not a state so it was under federal jurisdiction. He was sentenced to 12 years in the federal penitentiary on Puget Sound’s McNeil Island.

While at McNeil Island he stabbed at least two prisoners and a hospital orderly. He was in conflict with staff as well as his fellow inmates. For all these crimes he was given 6 more months and was ordered transferred to Leavenworth Prison, Kansas.

This is the point where he was on the train.

So back to the movie. When the rebellious Stroud arrives at the prison he immediately comes into conflict with Warden Harvey Shoemaker (Malden). Stroud is in the chow hall when a guard writes him up for some infraction. He asks the guard to not write him up so he will be able to visit with his mother. In real life, it is his brother that he has not seen in 8 years. So in real life and in the movie Stroud stabs the guard in the heart killing him.

They don’t show the trial and most of this movie is shot in cells and exercise yards often with only the birdman in the scene. Outside of Stroud’s window, they are building a gallows where he can be hung. Stroud’s mother (Thelma Ritter) conducts a publicity campaign and even makes it to the President of the United States. Eight days before he is to be hanged his sentence is commuted to life. His original sentence was that he should be held in solitary until executed and being upset that he was spared the prison system arranged that he would carry out his life sentence in solitary.

At this point, the only thing that Stroud cares about is contact with his mother. He spends time in his cell with Bull Ransom sitting outside on an apple crate. In the movie, he is taking his exercise walk along and finds a baby sparrow. In real life, it was three babies in a nest. Stroud does the bug smashing that has been seen in every prison movie where one of the cons has a bird ref. Shawshank Redemption.

Warden Shoemaker leaves to reform the Prisoner Bureau and Stroud get the new warden (Hugh Marlowe) to allow pets after the trained sparrow puts on a little act. For some reason in real life prisoners could keep pets at this time so Stroud begins acquiring canaries. The other prisoners quickly follow suit and Stroud takes in more birds as other inmates tire of them.

There is a nice scene where the prisoner in the next cell Feto Gomez (Telly Savalas) thinks his bird is sick so he gives it to Stroud for a year to heal it. It turns out that the bird is pregnant and Stroud’s bird count goes up. He eventually releases the sparrow to the wild.

In the movie, Stroud slowly makes peace with Bull and gets his apple crate so he can build a bird cage. In real life, up to 300 birds were flying wildly in Stroud’s cell. It must have smelled like bird hell.

In the movie, the sparrow returns to prison just before all of the birds start getting sick with hemorrhagic septicemia a full body blood disease. Stroud begins the testing compounds using the scientific method to isolate a cure. Oddly one of the most heart-wrenching parts of this movie is when the sparrow dies of the disease.

Slowly and at great cost, Stroud finds the cure and begins writing articles in bird journals. He also begins selling his cures through the mail. This is a great burden to the prison that must screen all incoming and outgoing mail.

One day Stroud gets a visit from bird fancier Stella Johnson (Betty Field) and they immediately go into business together selling bird remedies. He real name was Della Mae Jones. The authorities try to limit his birds but Stella helps him run a campaign with the bird lovers and he ends up getting another cell and scientific equipment. This starts a riff between Stroud and his mother.

In the movie, Stroud marries Stella in a common law ceremony as part of a loop hold for the Louisiana Purchase treaty. In real life, he did it because Kansas law prevented the transfer of prisoners married in Kansas. At this point in real life and in the movie Stroud’s mother broke with him and began publicly stating that her son should remain in prison.

With everything going fine in the prison they come in and tell Stroud that he is being transferred to Alcatraz and he has 10 minutes to get ready. Bull Ransom gets teary at the thought of his long term charge leaving. Stroud has to leave all of his birds and equipment behind. In real life, he was caught making booze with his equipment and the prison used it as an excuse to get rid of a real pain in the ass.

Stroud is shipped to Alcatraz where he cannot have pets. That’s right he was the Birdman of Leavenworth not the Birdman of Alcatraz. Alcatraz or the rock as it is known was a maximum security prison built for the worst of the worst. When Stroud arrived the prison warden was Shoemaker. On the rock, Stroud spent 6 more years in solitary. While on the rock Stroud wrote a history of the US penal system but the warden would not allow it to be published.

In the movie, they show Stroud as ending a prison riot in 1946 and Shoemaker saying he can trust the man because he never lied to him. Nothing like this ever happened. During the real riot, the guards threw grenades down into the cell blocks killing the riot. If you take the tour at this National Park Service unit you can still see the chunks blown out of the cement floor.

The movie ends with the aging Stroud being transferred off the rock after 17 years. At the dock, he meets Thomas E. Gaddis (Edmond O’Brien and narrator), the author of the book about him.

Post movie Stroud was transferred to the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri where he died at the age of 73. Burt Lancaster made this essentially psychopathic killer seem sympathetic. Those who knew him said he was a really mean guy and worst than that a trouble causing jerk.

The movie ends with some facts about how long Stroud was in solitary.

World-Famous Short Summary – Solitary confinement makes a prisoner go to the birds

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