There is a certain charm to movies that rely on the charisma and talent of just one actor or actress.
Movies were the actor is in every scene, even scenes where it is simply that actor talking to himself, and being fully invested in that character’s story and journey. To spend over two hours with this one person and hear about their life story. You need just the right actor to pull this off, as one wrong move or motion could ruin the whole performance. When it’s pulled off just right, the result is a stunning piece of acting and directing.
A more recent example of this would be the “Iron Man” movies, which rely entirely upon the charisma of Robert Downey Jr. Remove him from the films where he is essentially playing himself, and they fall apart. Many Johnny Depp movies from the 1990s are the same way, especially “Edward Scissorhands” and “Ed Wood.” Let’s not forget about “Forrest Gump” revolving entirely around Tom Hanks’ performance.
“Birdman Of Alcatraz” is another one of those movies, as it banks upon the acting and talent of Burt Lancaster and his ability to tell the story of one man over the course of decades. Not to mention, his character is confined to mostly a prison cell full of birds. To pull something off, you need a cracker jack performance, and Lancaster pulls it off.
The film follows Robert Stroud (Lancaster) as he is sent to prison in Kansas for killing a man back in Alaska. Originally serving a nine year sentence, things take a turn for the worst when he kills a prison guard in self defense. As he is about to be sent to sentenced to death, his mother (Thelma Ritter) saves him from the hangman’s noose, only to be locked up in confinement for the rest of his life.
Just as all seems lost, Stroud finds a downed baby bird caught in the middle of a rainstorm. He takes the poor creature to his cell, nurses it back to health and even teaches it how to fly. As time goes on, Stroud grows a collection of birds and becomes the foremost expert on ornithology, much to the dismay of the many prison wardens he comes across.
As I said, the crux of this film is Lancaster’s performance. To be able to start out as a young 20-some-odd year old going to prison for murder, and to tell a story of his life in prison that lasts well over 40 years. Not to mention there are several scenes where he is the only actor and he’s just talking to the walls of bird cages.
Yet Lancaster is able to pull this off with his stone faced character learning to appreciate the small things in life, in this case birds. When little achievements happen, like the hatching of the first baby bird, its Lancaster’s facial expressions that sell these moments.
Burt also retains that tremendous passion in the way that he delivers his lines. There is always power and strength behind everything that he says, but just enough heart in what his character is doing to care about every word he says.
It is for these reasons that this is the best performance that I’ve seen from Burt Lancaster. There are plenty of roles where he has intensity and ferocity in his eyes, such as “The Sweet Smell Of Success” and “From Here To Eternity,” but his ability to pull of scenes of him talking to birds makes not only his performance a joy to watch, but also the film.
Something noteworthy is that, even though this film takes place in a prison, it is not a prison escape movie. Most movies that revolve around that idea are ultimately about the protagonist breaking out of his barred existence and running free again. That’s not the case with “Birdman Of Alcatraz.”
Not once does Stroud try to break out of prison. He seems content with spending the rest of his natural life in a cage. Some characters even question this, such as the warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden). Stroud continues to have a rebellious attitude, even in his old age. He seems to get enjoyment out of breaking the system and that it has now become his mission in life.
“Birdman Of Alcatraz” breaks the system of prison movies for its portrayal of a man’s life after going to jail, but is content with being there forever. This is made possible by the fierce acting of Burt Lancaster and his talent for making the banal seem exciting. In the hands of any other actor, this film would not have worked.
Lancaster makes his caged life seem like a world full of limitless freedom.
Final Grade: B