Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
USA, 1962. Norma Productions. Screenplay by Guy Trosper, based on the book by Thomas E. Gaddis. Cinematography by Burnett Guffey. Produced by Stuart Millar, Guy Trosper. Music by Elmer Bernstein. Production Design by Fernando Carrere. Film Editing by Edward Mann.
The true story of Robert Stroud, a man imprisoned for decades for murder, is covered in this absorbing drama by John Frankenheimer. Burt Lancaster is excellent as the lead character, a man who exasperates his prison supervisor (Karl Malden) by refusing to go along with any attempt at reform; Malden tries for humane treatment but Lancaster responds by killing a Leavenworth guard, landing himself in years of solitary instead.
While there, he finds a baby bird whose nest falls into the yard where he does his daily walk. Nursing it to health, he inspires his fellow inmates to get their own similar pets, which eventually results in Lancaster managing a menagerie of avian creatures that then start to die of mysterious illnesses.
Developing chemical treatments for their health, Stroud, without any formal education, ends up writing a book on medicine for birds, then sees this whole world he created vanish when he is moved from Leavenworth to Alcatraz, where he lives out the rest of his sentence without his winged friends.
There’s an obvious attempt to soften up the character for audience consumption, reports from those who knew Stroud say he was a lot scarier and more dangerous in real life (and the manipulation worked, the film was followed by a public petition to have him released, which was not successful).
Lancaster’s performance has him basically doing Goodbye Mr Chips with birds instead of students, but the string-pulling never feels shameless thanks to Frankenheimer’s avoiding unnecessary sentimentality in his direction.
Thelma Ritter, earning her final Oscar nomination, appears in rather ridiculous makeup as Stroud’s enterprising mother, while Betty Field is outstanding as the fellow bird watcher who took Stroud’s hand in marriage and joined him in a business partnership while he was incarcerated.
Academy Award Nomination: Best Actor (Burt Lancaster); Best Supporting Actor (Telly Savalas); Best Supporting Actress (Thelma Ritter); Best Cinematography-BW
Golden Globe Award Nomination: Best Actor-Drama (Burt Lancaster); Best Supporting Actor (Telly Savalas)
Venice Film Festival Award: Best Actor (Burt Lancaster)