Birdman of Alcatraz (John Frankenheimer / U.S., 1962):

The liferís intransigence is his aesthetic approach, stated early on ("You ainít got much, but you keep subtractiní!") to place the story on a Frostian even keel ("A Drumlin Woodchuck," plainly). Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster) is the "real and living man" of the filmís subtitle, a hulking mommaís boy introduced in 1912 en route to the Leavenworth prison where he meets the doggedly reformist warden (Karl Malden), his nemesis. The angry mind reveals itself once isolated, in solitary confinement the murderous "dingbat" takes a shine to a fallen sparrow and gradually turns his cell into an aviary. The walls are the eggshell that wonít hatch, the move to Alcatraz some decades later is merely a shift from one perch to another, "I give you my friends the illusion of freedom!" In this exhaustive abstraction of the John Frankenheimer social outcast, the earnestness of the biopic cloaks the caustic absurdity of men who turn to canaries just so they donít stab each other and then grow old together anyway. Itís about the laborious manual work of science, about learning compassion from a guard played by the rebellious convict from Riot in Cell Block 11 (Neville Brand), about a couple of show-offs (Lancaster and Frankenheimer) scrambling to find ways to crack their hemmed-in surroundings (vide the way the brass band in the mess hall falls silent so we can hear the shiv going into a manís belly). And itís about the fowl-like distortions of its supporting cast, a remarkable roster of Ovidian metamorphoses: Telly Savalasís monologue about ugly parrots and ugly girlfriends, the twitch on Thelma Ritterís mouth that finds her as the link between Angela Lansburyís maternal monsters (All Fall Down, The Manchurian Candidate), Betty Fieldís look of hurt with one hand pressed against the glass cage. The coda contemplates "the modern world" from the codgerís equable perspective, invoked in Bertolucciís 1900. Cinematography by Burnett Guffey. With Edmond OíBrien, Hugh Marlowe, Whit Bissell, Crahan Denton, and James Westerfield. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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