Alcatraz: prison home to notorious criminals like Al Capone once upon a time, but now perhaps the most famous inmate is Robert F. Stroud (Burt Lancaster), for he was the well-known Birdman of Alcatraz, that convict who was a cause celebre among the public and press of the day once his activities were publicised. He was first incarcerated for killing a man back in the nineteen-tens and proved an uncooperative and dangerous prisoner who the warden, Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden), was wary of to the extent that he promised Stroud would be behind bars for a very long time. And so he would be, but he would find a flock of companions even in solitary confinement...
Birdman of Alcatraz was a much-admired film in its day for its portrayal of an apparently irredeemable criminal who found a form of redemption through his work with his pet birds, a tale of the indomitability of the human spirit where even the worst of us can make something better of our character given the right circumstances. Now, of course, it's as well-known for glossing over some unpalatable facts of Stroud's case, for there was a reason he was incarcerated until the day he died, and it wasn't because he was a thorn in the side of the prison authorities for his drive for prison reform, it's because he was a genuinely unpleasant individual who was a threat to the public.
That means you would not find details about the other people he attacked and even killed, before and after he was jailed, in this story: we are told he was sentenced for one murder and then see him kill a guard for preventing him from seeing his mother (Thelma Ritter), which according to this is the only motive for keeping him locked up for the next fifty or so years. You also won't find so much as a whisper about Stroud's love of child pornography, which he enthusiastically wrote to pass the time in his cell, though it does render Lancaster's line about the children of the staff on Alcatraz, supposedly down to humane concern, a lot less comfortable with that information in mind.
On the other hand, he did love his birds, and director John Frankenheimer (taking over from Brit Charles Crichton, who was fired from what might have been a major break in Hollywood) guided this in a surprisingly gentle fashion, both given his antagonistic reputation on the set and also the subject's violent tendencies. This was assisted by Lancaster's performance, which began as closer to the truth of Stroud's brutality, then suggested his mellowing after the significant act of rescuing a sparrow chick from a nest that fell into the exercise yard during a storm. After he keeps the bird as a pet, he takes an interest in avian matters and begins to collect canaries like there was no tomorrow, which for Stroud there more or less wasn't, or not a tomorrow he could live as a free man, at any rate.
Lancaster's ability to divine the dignity in an undignified man was what made this compelling, a tightrope act when any slip as the film progressed would have seen our sympathies evaporate. Yet as he is nice to his birds and cures them of their maladies, we can discern even the irredeemable can have their good days, though the knowledge that Stroud's pioneering in looking after the creatures was mostly gleaned from other, existing texts and guesswork does put a dent in the myth the movie wished to propagate. The supporting cast were uniformly fine as well, from Ritter and Malden to Betty Field as Stroud's wife who he married in prison, Neville Brand as the guard who warms to the convict and Telly Savalas offering a very decent account of himself as a fellow con who becomes as far of a friend as it was possible for Stroud to have thanks to the idea of pets becoming popular among the inmates. It was a long film, no doubt about it, but Lancaster was so intriguing it didn't feel that way; no matter the facts, Birdman of Alcatraz as a film found hope in the hopeless, and that's an achievement. Music by Elmer Bernstein.
[There are two featurettes on Eureka's Blu-ray, plus an audio commentary. Picture and sound just fine.]