Showing posts with label Karl Malden. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Karl Malden. Show all posts

Monday, March 26, 2018

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

In 1955, Thomas E. Gaddis, a prison consultant, psychologist and writer, profiled the remarkable story of prisoner Robert Stroud in his book Birdman of Alcatraz. A few years after its publication, 20th Century Fox was interested in adapting the biography into a movie. They received pressure by the Federal Beureau of Prisons to abandon the project which they eventually did. It took Burt Lancaster, an actor with the resources and the gumption to make things happen to bring Stroud’s story to the silver screen.

What made Robert Stroud’s story so captivating? Imprisoned for murder, Stroud spent 54 years of his life behind bars, and 42 of those was in solitary confinement. He rebelled against the prison system, killing a prison guard when he was denied a family visit and writing two books which cast doubt on how prisons were being managed. Stroud became famous for his work studying birds earning his name as the Birdman of Alcatraz. He rehabilitated and kept sparrows and canaries and developed medicine to cure a particularly stubborn disease that was killing his canaries en masse. His study contributed to the study of avian pathology in a big way.

With Stroud, Lancaster had an agenda. He admired Stroud’s resilience and said "Stroud will not kowtow. He will not make polite amends for what he has done." According to Lancaster biographer Kate Buford, "[Lancaster] hoped [his film] would galvanize the audience... and came to believe the movie would be the vehicle to free the prisoner."

Karl Malden, Neville Brand and Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz
Karl Malden, Neville Brand and Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) stars Burt Lancaster as Robert Stroud, a pimp accused of killing a man who beat up one of his prostitutes. He’s sent to Leavenworth Penitentiary and is under the supervision of prison guard Bull Ransom (Neville Brand). The prison warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden) is a strictly-by-the-book kind of guy. He believes he can rehabilitated even the worst criminal if they follow his rules. Stroud presents a challenge to Shoemaker’s way of thinking. When Stroud is denied a visit by his mother (Thelma Ritter), he kills one of the prison officials. His mother petitions on his behalf, saving him from execution but he must pay the price of his crime with life imprisonment in solitary confinement. We follow his story throughout the decades as he befriends fellow inmate Feto Gomez (Telly Savalas) and as he helps save and raise an abandoned sparrow. Stroud develops a keen interest in birds and uses not only his smarts but also prison regulation loopholes to raise the canaries in his cell. He becomes famous on the outside for his study on the diseases affecting canaries and befriends an aviary enthusiast Stella (Betty Field). The two create a business together and marry so that they can continue their work. We follow Stroud’s story until he his transferred to Alcatraz, lives through the famous prison riot, eventually leaves the island, meets with his biographer Gaddis (Edmond O’Brien) and is transferred to another facility.

There are no spoilers here because the timeline follows closely the events in the real Stroud’s life. However, Lancaster’s Robert Stroud is essentially different from the real man and many elements of the story are fictionalized. While Lancaster had high hopes that the movie would make an impact and help Stroud finally get parole, it ultimately didn’t. The biggest impediment was Stroud's notorious reputation. He was far more violent than the movie depicted and the Federal Bureau of Prisons classified him as a “violent homosexual.” Stroud died the year after the film’s release and never got to see Lancaster’s portrayal of his life.

Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz

Birdman came after a string of notable films for Lancaster including Elmer Gantry (1960), The Young Savages (1961) and Judgement at Nuremberg (1961). Producer Harold Hecht and Lancaster revived their production company Norma to make Birdman. Initially Charles Crichton was on board as director but it quickly became apparent that this was not the project for him. Hot-tempered Lancaster clashed with Crichton and he was swiftly removed. Although Lancaster had also butted heads with John Frankenheimer on the set of The Young Savages, Lancaster admired his work and he was hired for Birdman. The Federal Bureau of Prisons was uncooperative so filming at actual locations was out of the question. Some exteriors were filmed in San Francisco and you can see Alcatraz in the background. The rest of the film was shot on the Columbia Studio lot. Lancaster spent weeks working with sparrows and canaries to prepare for the part. Unfortunately, as is the case with many early films featuring animals, birds were harmed (and killed) in the making of this movie.

This was my first time watching Birdman and I was quite taken with this marvelous movie. It’s long, clocking in at 2 hours and 28 minutes, but it never feels like it outstays its welcome. The audience is given time to live in Stroud’s world and to get to know him and the circumstances he’s living in. Nothing ever feels rushed as is the case with many biopics. I quite enjoyed Lancaster’s more muted performance as the quiet but rebellious Stroud. This film features many of my favorite actors including Karl Malden, Telly Savalas, Neville Brand, Edmond O’Brien and Thelma Ritter. I wish O’Brien had more to do. He’s only in two quick scenes at the very beginning and end.

There are several scenes scenes that really stood out for me in Birdman.

Opening scene – Stroud (Lancaster) and several other criminals, supervised by prison guard Bull Ransom (Neville Brand). Everyone is sweating profusely from the heat. Lancaster removes his prison cap, places his hands inside to protect them and shatters the glass with his fists letting some much needed air in. This is Stroud’s first act of defiance and sets up his character beautifully.

Feto Gomez at Alcatraz – During their time at Leavenworth, Stroud and Gomez (Telly Savalas) become friends. They are reunited at Alcatraz where Stroud is a new prisoner. Gomez has worked up the ranks, gaining the trust of officials and is now responsible for serving the prisoners their meals. The two have a wonderful moment reminiscing about the past and Gomez generously gives Stroud second helpings of food. Stroud asks Gomez how many years he’s been behind bars. As Gomez works through the math we realize why Stroud asked him this and the impact of spending so much of their lives imprisoned.

Prison guard says goodbye to Stroud – Ransom (Brand) and Stroud (Lancaster) were on opposite ends of the prison system and Ransom was always quick to have the upper hand. But after more than a decade together at Leavenworth, Ransom begins to feel a friendly affection for Stroud. He watches him progress in his study of birds. When the two part ways as Stroud is transferred to Alcatraz, Ransom’s eyes wells up with tears, they shake hands and part ways. This is a brilliantly nuanced performance by Brand who adeptly shows tenderness in a pivotal scene.

Rehabilitation Argument – This is by far my favorite scene int he movie. Warden Shoemaker (Malden) and Stroud (Lancaster) never see eye-to-eye. And it’s never more clear than in this moment in the film. Stroud has just written a manuscript criticizing the prison system and Shoemaker blocks it’s publication. Malden’s Shoemaker delivers a speech about his frustration with Stroud for resisting his efforts for rehabilitation. Lancaster’s Stroud comes back with a powerful rebuttal. He presents Shoemaker with the etymology of “rehabilitation” which means to restore someone to their former condition with dignity. It’s a powerful political statement for prison reform if I ever heard one.

In 1963, Birdman was nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Actor (Lancaster), Best Supporting Actor (Telly Savalas), Best Supporting Actress (Thelma Ritter) and Best Cinematography - Black and White (Burnett Guffey). This was Lancaster's third Academy Award nominated performance and he and Frankenheimer worked on a total of five films together.

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films. The discs feature film commentary from Lancaster biographer Kate Buford. My Blu-Ray disc unfortunately was faulty and when I stopped the movie it started over from the beginning. I hope that Olive Films has corrected this by now.

Many thanks to Olive Films for sending me a Blu-Ray copy of Birdman of Alcatraz for review!

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Hotel (1967)

Hotel (1967)

"I'm an old-fashioned innkeeper. I take care of my employees and they take care of my guests. That's the way I want it to be. I don't want it to change." - Melvyn Douglas as Warren Trent

Hotel (1967) follows the story of the fictitious New Orleans hotel the St. Gregory. Pete McDermott (Rod Taylor) is at the heart of the business. As the hotel manager he oversees all staff, attends to any urgent needs of the hotel guests and conducts business with the owner Warren Trent (Melvyn Douglas). Although the St. Gregory is the destination for many illustrious guests, it's in serious financial trouble. Pete convinces Mr. Trent to entertain an offer by wealthy hotelier Curtis O'Keefe (Kevin McCarthy). However, O'Keefe threatens to transform the place into a cold moneymaker rather than an inviting hotel with hospitality as it's main focus. O'Keefe brings with him his girl of the moment, a young Parisian beauty Jeanne Rochefort (Catherine Spaak). Jeanne is tired of O'Keefe and soon falls for the charming hotel manager. O'Keefe uses Jeanne and his co-horts to try to seal the deal for the hotel while Pete and Mr. Trent quickly try to find another buyer.

Rod Taylor as Pete McDermott in Hotel (1967)
Rod Taylor as Pete McDermott

Melvyn Douglas as Warren Trent in Hotel (1967)
Melvyn Douglas as Warren Trent in Hotel (1967)

Kevin McCarthy as Curtis O'Keefe in Hotel (1967)
Kevin McCarthy as Curtis O'Keefe

Catherine Spaak as Jeanne Rochefort
Catherine Spaak as Jeanne Rochefort

Then there are the hotel guests who prove to be an interesting bunch of characters, each with their own agenda. Merle Oberon plays Duchess Caroline whose husband Duke Geoffrey (Michael Rennie) killed a child in a drunken hit-and-run accident. The Duchess tries to cover it up but the hotel detective Dupere (Richard Conte) is on to them and tries to extort them. Then there is Karl Malden as Keycase Milne, the resident hotel thief with an impressive collection of room keys. He has his eye on the Duke and Duchess's room and the possible treasures inside. When a black couple book a stay at the hotel and Pete is not around, the hotel turns them away causing a scandal that's splashed across the newspapers. A business deal gone sour, an extortion, theft, a civil rights dilemma, a forbidden romance and an elevator on the fritz, everything comes to a crashing climax. The ending is one that I didn't expect but one that left me immensely satisfied and feeling good about the story's overall message: stay true to yourself.

Michael Rennie and Merle Oberon as the Duke and Duchess
Michael Rennie and Merle Oberon as the Duke and Duchess

Karl Malden as Keycase Milne
Richard Conte as Detective Dupere in Hotel (1967)
Richard Conte as Detective Dupere

Hotel (1967) is a gratifying film to watch on a rainy day. If you don't have any high expectations you'll be pleasantly surprised. It has it's flaws. It's terribly old-fashioned but that's what I liked about it. Taylor and Spaak lacked chemistry and Spaak quite one note to me. Another actresses would have livened up the film. I found everyone to be delightful to watch including Taylor, Melvyn Douglas, Karl Malden, Richard Conte and even Merle Oberon who I don't particularly care for. Jazz singer Carmen MacRae has a small role as the hotel lounge singer. Clinton Sundberg, a regular in 1940s collegiate movies, plays hotelier O'Keefe's personal assistant.

One could see Hotel (1967) as the 1960s answer to Grand Hotel (1932). The film was directed by Richard Quine, someone I have a keen interest in. Some exteriors and interiors were shot in New Orleans most notably in the French Quarter and in the New Orleans International Airport. Everything else was shot on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, California. Gowns were designed by Edith Head and Merle Oberon wore her own jewelry including a piece that once belonged to Marie Antoinette. The story was based on the best-selling novel by Canadian writer Arthur Hailey. He's also known for his novel Airport which was adapted in 1970 and spawned a series and a spoof. Hotel became a TV series in the 1980s starring Anne Baxter and James Brolin.

I enjoyed Hotel (1967) for it's motley cast of characters, interesting plot lines and for that glorious ending. It also serves as a time capsule of the goings on of a 1960s era hotel. The movie makes me long for a time when morals and personal truths trump greed. I'm drawn to movies about workplaces and this one did not disappoint.

Hotel (1967) is available on DVD-MOD from the Warner Archive Collection. You can purchase the DVD from the WB Shop.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me a copy of Hotel (1967) to review!

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