Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

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Thomas E. Gaddis’ Birdman of Alcatraz Book

Birdman of Alcatraz is based on the 1955 nonfiction book of the same name by Thomas E. Gaddis (1908-1984). An educator, prison consultant and psychologist, Gaddis had also authored (with James Long) the 1970 book Killer: A Journal of Murder, the story of convicted Oregon serial killer Carl Panzram.

Guy Trosper wrote the screenplay, John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May) directed and Elmer Bernstein created the original music score.

Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden Head Birdman of Alcatraz Cast

Burt Lancaster (Robert Stroud) and Karl Malden (Harvey Shoemaker) head the fine cast. Other players include Thelma Ritter (Elizabeth Stroud), Neville Brand (Bull Ransom), Betty Field (Stella Johnson), Telly Savalas (Feto Gomez), Edmond O’Brien (Tom Gaddis), Hugh Marlowe (Roy Comstock) and Whit Bissell (Dr. Ellis).

For his role as Stroud, Burt Lancaster was paid a salary of $150,000.

Birdman of Alcatraz Filmed in California

Birdman of Alcatraz was filmed primarily at United Artists Studios in Hollywood. The exterior scenes were actual shots of Alcatraz Prison, situated 1 1/4 miles off the coast of San Francisco.

Alcatraz had operated as a federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. Robert Stroud (1890-1963) was housed there from 1942 to 1959. And despite his famous “Birdman of Alcatraz” moniker, Stroud had only been allowed to keep his birds at Leavenworth, and not on “The Rock.”

Birdman of Alcatraz Movie Review

Birdman of Alcatraz presents a fictionalized account of Robert Stroud, who in 1909 murders a man in Alaska in a dispute over a prostitute. Seven years later Stroud knifes a prison guard at Leavenworth and is condemned to death. His sentence commuted to life in prison by President Wilson, Stroud eventually becomes one of the world’s foremost ornithologists, authoring a textbook on bird diseases and cures.

Birdman of Alcatraz is a riveting drama that takes place at one of America’s most notorious prisons. Burt Lancaster is magnetic as the infamous “Birdman,” with steady Karl Malden as his institutional nemesis. Neville Brand and Telly Savalas are excellent as a prison guard and an inmate, respectively, while Thelma Ritter and Betty Field ably portray the women in Stroud’s life.

The prison scenes ably convey the brutal, depressing, claustrophobic nature of Alcatraz. Also partially depicted in the film is the 1946 Battle of Alcatraz, one of the bloodiest prison breaks in American history. The final scene is an emotional one, where Lancaster as Stroud finally makes it off the island prison in 1959. Here he meets author Tom Gaddis before being transferred to the federal penitentiary in Springfield, Missouri.

Birdman of Alcatraz Release, Reviews, DVD

  • Release date: July 3, 1962.
  • “A generally arresting and unusually fine film drama…” reported A.H. Weiler of The New York Times (7/19/62).
  • “An absorbing film that is deceptively calm and emotionally powerful…” opined Time magazine (7/20/62).
  • “The finest ‘prison’ picture ever made…” crowed Variety (6/20/62).
  • Academy Award nominations: Best Actor (Lancaster), Best Supporting Actor (Savalas), Best Supporting Actress (Ritter), Best Cinematography (Burnett Guffey).
  • Birdman of Alcatraz DVD (MGM, 2001).
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