Thursday, December 26, 2013

John Frankenheimer: The Birdman of Alcatraz

Here’s what I know about The Birdman of Alcatraz: I hadn’t seen it since the summer when I started this retrospective, and I looking around for my notes, I could only scrounge up, “At 143 minutes, the film is way too long.” Insightful, I know. So, seeing how the film is on Amazon Prime at the moment, I decided to re-watch it since I honestly could remember nothing about it, and my notes weren’t offering any help. Well, I can confirm: at 143 minutes, the film is way too long. Like 43 minutes too long. The Birdman of Alcatraz seems to be a popular entry in Franklin’s oeuvre, but I cannot understand why this is. It has little-to-none of the aesthetic flourishes one would associate with Frankenheimer’s later work (as in later that year with the much, much better The Manchurian Candidate), and it boasts one of the most prosaic performances of Burt Lancaster’s (who I am admittedly not a huge fan of) career. The parts of the film that do work are buoyed by some great supporting performances by Karl Malden and Telly Savalas, and an impressive setpiece when the prisoners riots. Other than that, it’s a totally skippable film.

The well-known story is as follows: Robert Stroud (Lancaster) is imprisoned at a young age for a murder he committed in Alaska. He is taken to Leavenworth Prison where he has some run-ins with the  warden (Malden). While in prison, he learns of a situation where his mother was denied the right to see him. Angered by this, Stroud kills a guard and is sentenced to death; however, his mother stages a successful campaign to change the death sentence to life in prison, and the judge agrees so long as the terms include that Stroud spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement.

While in solitary, Stroud adopts a pet sparrow, which acts as the catalyst for him collecting different types of birds and cages. When the birds fall ill, Stroud experiments with a cure, and as the film’s story moves forward in time, we see Stroud not as a homicidal killer but as an expert on bird diseases (even publishing a book about the subject). Stroud eventually marries (much to the chagrin of his mother) and begins selling his remedies. However, he is transferred to Alcatraz — which was new at the time — where he is not allowed to keep his birds. And it is there where perhaps Stroud’s legend grew largest.

The rest of the film concerns itself with an again Stroud who is mostly shown as the reluctant rabble-rouser rather than the rebellious and ruthless inmate he supposedly was. Lancaster’s decision to play Stroud’s rebellious attitude as doing what’s best for his fellow inmates in the name of cruel treatment by the prison system is one of the film’s major flaws.

The Birdman of Alcatraz was Lancaster’s pet project. It’s far too serious, subjective, and self-serving to be an effective piece of filmmaking. Lancaster was inspired by Thomas Gaddis’ profile on the convict’s life and rehabilitation. It is said that it touched Lancaster deeply, and this is, I think, the film’s ultimate undoing. Lancaster is too much in the business of idealizing Stroud (again, known to be a prickly customer, even during his “Birdman” phase) that totally removes any intrigue from the film — handcuffing Frankenheimer and the writers so that it is impossible to view Stroud as anything but an angel. A much more interesting film could have been made about a conflicted, complex, and (yes) even dickish Stroud — who, despite being a convicted murder, does some good. But I didn’t feel like that was the person I got to see.

But, the dulling of Stroud’s rough edges was intentional. Lancaster made Stroud into more of an existential character — doing good despite the warden and other’s disapproval. This is a character type not uncommon to Frankenheimer films, but again, this version of Stroud (who Lancaster thought was more of a victim of the system than a cold-blooded killer) is nothing more than an avatar for Lancaster’s message: we need to rethink our prison system. A noble intent, indeed, but one that is too sugary-sweet  in its portrayal of a known psychopath to support a 143 minute prison drama. The film’s best scenes are when Stroud’s intentions are challenged, specifically in the scene between Lancaster and Malden. But moments like that are few and far between.

Frankenheimer does his best to light scenes in a manner that suggests as much space as possible — even though Stroud spent 43 years in solitary confinement, you’d never know by the way the film’s mise-en-scene. But this isn’t one of Frankenheimer’s more stylized efforts. In fact, this is more “A Burt Lancaster film” than a “John Frankenheimer film,” and even though the filmmaker was proud of the final product, he did voice regret over the chance to make the film he could have made out of the subject material. But since Frankenheimer came to the film incredibly late (he was honestly shocked that Lancaster wanted to work with him again after their not-so-great experience working together on The Young Savages), and Lancaster insisted on controlling every aspect of the process, it’s no surprise that outside of the prison riot, we don’t see a lot of what we associate with Frankenheimer.

So as it is, The Birdman of Alcatraz is a too-long drama with some decent supporting performances. But it can’t truly be considered a Frankenheimer film, and even if we were to consider it so, it’s not a very good one. It’s far too impressed with its own sense of moral duty and far, far too languid in its pacing (and not in a good, contemplative way) to elicit any kind of response beyond, “that was a professionally made movie.” No, the real show-stealer of Frankenheimer’s prolific year in film would be his third and final film of 1962, the brilliant (and still exhilarating and relevant) The Manchurian Candidate.


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