“Even a convict’s got a right to breathe.”
Against the wishes of his prison warden (Karl Malden), a convicted killer (Burt Lancaster) at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary — whose domineering mother (Thelma Ritter) has negotiated a life sentence for him rather than hanging — begins raising canaries in his cell and becomes a renowned expert in ornithology. Eventually he marries a woman (Betty Field) he meets through his bird research, and life seems to be looking up — until resentful Malden has him transferred to Alcatraz, without his birds.
This highly fictionalized biopic about sociopathic but industrial prisoner Robert Stroud (whose life story was memorialized in a 1955 book by Thomas Gaddis) remains an absorbing, well-acted film about a man who — cinematically, at least — recovered his sense of humanity within the most abject of conditions by connecting with birds. Thankfully, Lancaster’s initial crimes and temperament aren’t sugar-coated: the rationale behind Malden’s determination to keep him isolated for the rest of his life makes logical sense. While Malden is ultimately posited as an inflexible and grudge-holding baddie, Lancaster is no saint either; rather, he’s a weary and pragmatic man who comes to understand the inevitability of his situation. A surprisingly hard-hitting narrative moment occurs midway through the film, when details of Ritter’s character are revealed and Lancaster’s history (posited here as stemming at least in part from his “momma issues”) is brought to light; he’s forced to make a challenging choice, and “does the right thing”. Watch for Telly Savalas in a small but notable role as Lancaster’s next-door cellmate; Neville Brand playing against type in a wonderfully modulated turn as Lancaster’s long-time guard; and Field’s honorable performance as the woman who unknowingly threaten’s Ritter’s dominance over Lancaster.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Burt Lancaster as Robert Stroud
- Fine supporting performances across the board
- Burnett Guffey’s cinematography
- Elmer Bernstein’s score
Yes, as an engaging and well-made drama.