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  • Widescreen 1.66:1
  • Dual Layer ( 73:36)
  • English: Dolby Digital Mono
  • Italian: Dolby Digital Mono
  • Dutch: Dolby Digital Mono
  • Danish: Dolby Digital Mono
    French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, English - Hearing Impaired
  • Theatrical trailer

Birdman of Alcatraz

20th Century Fox/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 142 mins . PG . PAL


The Birdman of Alcatraz is an oddly titled character, book and film, because The Birdman never actually kept birds in the island prison of Alcatraz. Still, you can’t change history and The Birdman of Alcatraz it is and probably always will be. This film is the mostly true story of a quite remarkable man and is now considered a classic.

Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster) is a double-murderer, so it’s a little hard at first to take to the guy. Sentenced to solitary confinement at Leavenworth Prison until he can be hanged, he eventually gets a stay of execution after his mother appeals directly to the wife of the President of the USA. The Governor of Leavenworth Prison, Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden), makes no attempt to hide his utter contempt for Stroud and takes great pleasure in telling him that he will carry out the Judge’s sentence to the letter, kept in solitary until hanging, and as he will never be hanged, maybe this punishment will be worse. So begins a life-long battle of wits and fortitude between the two men that is explored throughout the film.

It is during a storm-lashed exercise period that Stroud’s life changes, after he rescues a sparrow chick from a nest attached to a tree branch that has been blown into the yard. He raises the bird and teaches it some basic tricks. A new Governor is appointed and allows Stroud to not only keep the bird, but also to order in birdseed for it.

Soon other prisoners have asked for birds, but when a fellow prisoner grows tired of the responsibility, Stroud inherits his first canary. One canary blows out to be dozens when another inmate, fearing his bird is sick, gets Stroud to look after it, and when boy canaries and girl canaries get together, well, you know the rest.

When birds begin to die inexplicably, Stroud spends hours, then days, weeks, and eventually years studying bird illnesses and ailments. Finding a cure for the plague that is killing his birds, he begins to write articles for bird magazines, making public his findings. He soon becomes quite an expert on the subject of bird anatomy and disease, but it is when he wins a bird in competition that his cover is partially blown after the prize’s donor awards the bird in person.

The two form an unlikely partnership to market Stroud’s remedies, but his whole imprisoned world comes crashing down after Shoemaker, now the Federal Head of Prisons, enforces a crackdown on the rules, and pets and businesses, even legitimate ones, are not permitted for prisons. Stroud manages to beat that too, but when he is awakened one night to be transferred to the island prison of Alcatraz, he finally realizes that the fight is over and that Shoemaker has won. Or has he?

Whilst the story occasionally borders on mush and ‘warm fuzzy’ territory, it is still an intriguing and enjoyable experience with a solid cast and a strong script. Lancaster and Malden are particularly good as they butt heads over the years, only to learn that there is really no joy in ’beating’ the other when all is said and done. Stroud changes from a very hard and bitter man to an almost subservient and decent citizen with a little too much ease, but every now and then we see a glimpse of what the man was.

There are some fine dramatic moments throughout the film, enhanced by the score that is so subtle yet very effective. There are also a number of tense scenes that carry no sound which are extremely engaging.

The supporting cast includes Telly Savalas, Neville Brand and Thelma Ritter, The Birdman of Alcatraz may be 40 years old, but it has an awful lot more going for it than half the crap that is being released from Hollywood today. Human dramas don’t get much better than this, even if a few liberties have been taken with the telling of the story. While the film is complete, it does not cover the period of time Stroud spent after Alcatraz, so for that you’ll need to do a little bit of research.


The Birdman of Alcatraz is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.66:1, but is not 16x9 enhanced. The film shows some signs of its age, but is generally in a very good condition, especially when compared to the trailer that is included as an extra. It is a black and white film, but the contrast is good and there are no problems with glare. Black levels look good with no evidence of low-level noise, and shadow detail is good.

The overall image is quite sharp for a film of this age, and while it is not free from film artefacts, they are generally quite minimal. There is at least one reel change marker at the 17:30 mark, which is a large black dot in the top right corner of the screen that tells the projectionist where reels are to be changed. More may be included but were not noticed. There are a few instances of shimmer on items such as the striped prison mattresses and uniforms, but it's never overly distracting.

The layer change is placed between scenes at 73:36 and while it's noticeable, it is acceptable.


The only option provided is a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono, but being a dialogue-driven drama - and how it was originally made - this is perfectly serviceable. All dialogue is well synchronised and clear and audible. The numerous sounds of birds and cage rattling of prisoners sounds quite good for a mono mix, and the score likewise is quite good. As far as mono goes, this is probably as good as it gets. Naturally, there is nothing to be heard from the rear channels or sub-woofer, so those wanting aural gymnastics should look elsewhere.


As for extras, this is about as minimal as it gets. The original theatre trailer as mentioned is not the same quality as the feature and what’s more it's in full frame. It is a very dirty print, and dark. It runs almost three minutes and gives an accurate picture of what an audience can expect from the feature.


The Birdman of Alcatraz is a well-paced drama that shows what can be achieved with a good cast and strong script, all placed in the hands of a good director. Some liberty with the truth has been taken for the sake of drama, but it is still an enjoyable story - a classic in fact.

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      And I quote...
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