The Sympathetic Criminal

Robert Stroud was not a nice man.  He spent most of his life behind bars (almost 55 years) and not for a few petty robberies and aggravated assaults.  Robert Stroud was in jail because he was a murderer.  His murder victim was a john who’d roughed up one of his prostitutes (yes, he was a pimp, too).  Once in prison, he proved dangerous to both inmates and guards and, eventually, murdered a guard and got put into solitary confinement after his death sentence got commuted to life.  While in prison he took in interest in birds, nursing a few back to life, developing cures to known avian illnesses, and writing a book that even the bird experts found exceptional.   Eventually he got transferred to Alcatraz and, though he had no birds there, a new moniker was coined and Stroud became the Birdman of Alcatraz.  Today on TCM, the 1962 John Frankenheimer film, The Birdman of Alcatraz, starring Burt Lancaster as Stroud, airs and, while it’s a good movie, it makes Stroud a bit more saintly than he, perhaps, deserved.  Yes, the murders are included, how could they not be, but a few scenes are inserted showing Stroud as a fighter for his fellow inmates and, in the end, an interventionist in a prison riot.  By the time he meets up with the author who has penned his life story, played by Edmond O’Brien, he gets a big hug. And though I don’t feel like hugging him, the movie succeeds for the most part in making Stroud sympathetic without making the audience feel duped.  It’s not an easy trick to pull off.  One movie in particular, or two parts of the same story, went a long way towards creating the most sympathetic criminals in movie history.


Movies aren’t supposed to be a moral compass with which to navigate the difficult decisions of our life.  That doesn’t mean we can’t use them, like all art, to inform choices in our life and turn to favorite moments and characters as examples to follow but, for the most part, a movie is a work of art, good or bad, with an intention of communicating something to the audience.  It’s telling a story and its primary goal is making the story work, not making the characters likable.  But let’s be honest, making the characters likable doesn’t hurt.  Of course, that’s a loaded word.   There are plenty of evil characters that we love to hate and so, in a way, they’re likable.  That’s not what I’m talking about, though.  I’m talking about actually making them seem like decent people when they’re clearly not.  The lead villains of Scarface, Little Caesar, and Public Enemy, played by Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson, and James Cagney, respectively, aren’t decent at all but they are captivating.  Vito Corleone, on the other hand, is practically a familial treasure, a great man, a great father, and a leader.  Sure, he’s murdered several people and had many, many others brutalized or murdered but, hey, he loves his family, right?  He’s just looking out for them.  It’s another sympathetic criminal that the movie The Godfather manages to pull off, the king of all sympathetic criminal movies, over the course of its story in three movies.  But the real trick of The Godfather isn’t Vito, it’s Fredo, played by John Cazale.  By the second movie, The Godfather, Part II, Fredo isn’t just the most sympathetic figure in the movie, overtaking Diane Keaton’s Kay, he’s one of the most pitiable, sympathetic figures in all of seventies cinema.  When you think about it, though, why should we have any sympathy for him at all?  He’s awful.  Okay, so he’s incompetent at killing people (his gloriously bumbling performance in defending his father in the first movie screams out for the audience’s sympathy) but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to.  It doesn’t mean, like the early version of Michael, that he once considered his family as separate from himself.  Oh no, he’s mad because he’s not in charge.  He makes that clear in a fit of anger to Michael that he was the older brother and should have been the one ordering people’s deaths.  He’s a small, petty, pathetic little man and yet, I’ll be damned if every time I watch him get into the boat with Al Neri (Richard Bright) I don’t think, “Oh, Fredo, you poor dumb fool.” When the shot is fired, I always feel a little sad, not just for Michael’s lost soul but for Fredo’s lost life.

But what about when a movie fails at convincing us?  Staying with the second film, writers Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, and actor Robert De Niro, seem to go out of their way to portray Vito Corleone as someone we should all look up to.  Hell, he’s not just a sympathetic criminal, he’s a good guy!  Those people he killed?  Had it coming.  He’s looking out for the little guy, this Vito.  The second movie really does do such a whitewash of Vito that, honestly, it keeps the movie from winning me over.  I like it but the stacked deck against Michael, in which he’s portrayed as just a molecule or two removed from Count Dracula, and for Vito, who’s practically the Mafia version of George Bailey, always puts me at odds with fans of the second film.  Yes, it’s a well done and beautifully photographed film but, damn, it’s pretty drastically simplified in its characterizations.  So simple that I wonder how it has the reputation it has.  There’s something almost comical at how blatantly they bias the story against Michael and for Vito.  There are many words one could use to describe The Godfather, Part II, many of them good.  “Subtle,” however, isn’t one of them.


Other movies have an easier time of it.  Red (Morgan Freeman) in The Shawshank Redemption is conveniently giving a nice, long speech to the parole board in which he can bare his soul about his past mistakes and talk about how stupid he was to have done any of it.  He killed a man but everything in the script and in the portrayal by Freeman lets us know that Red is a decent, moral, upstanding man.  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the movie of the same name are witty, fun, handsome guys just looking for an easy way out.   Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in Goodfellas appears to have gotten all the way to the inner circle of the mob without ever once killing a guy.  Amazing.  De Niro is Heat is just looking for one last score.  Bonnie and Clyde are just mixed up anti-heroes who only accidentally killed that one guy.  But none of them do quite the job The Godfather films do with the Corleone clan.  By the third movie (sorry, I have to mention it), even Michael is becoming sympathetic.  It’s not his fault, really, they just keep pulling him back in.  Coppola and Puzo probably felt bad about making Michael so damned awful in Part II and Part III was their way of making it right (by getting it all so gloriously wrong!).

So today, enjoy The Birdman of Alcatraz right here on TCM, and watch great work by Burt Lancaster, Thelma Ritter, Karl Malden, and Telly Savalas.  Think of it as kind of a precursor to the sympathetic treatment afforded a whole family of amoral murderers just ten years later.  And don’t worry if you find yourself starting to think this Robert Stroud character ain’t so bad.  That’s how the movie wants you to feel.  Sometimes, movies convince us of all the wrong things but we’re the ones that let them.  We all want to like people, even if their bad.  It’s a strange feeling but one with which we can all sympathize.


13 Responses The Sympathetic Criminal
Posted By Marjorie Birch : January 4, 2015 3:17 pm

Here’s another example: Mark Lewis, the killer/photographer in “Peeping Tom” — so meek, so gentle, so deadly and damaged. His first line: “I beg your pardon?”

Posted By Emgee : January 4, 2015 8:16 pm

Personally, i never felt any sympathy for any member of the Corleone family. They’re killers, for goodness sake, not pastry makers. Great films, though, as are Scarface, Little Caesar, and Public Enemy. But like them as people? Not a bit.

Posted By Doug : January 4, 2015 8:25 pm

Darth Vader didn’t grow a conscience until Episode VI, and then, all of a sudden, he kills one Emperor and he’s a hero.
The real Robert Stroud, if given an opportunity to meet Burt Lancaster, would probably have tried to kill him.
Is it a component of our nature that we try to make even our movie villains sympathetic? Do we cheer for a Don Corleone not only because he’s a family man, but because we wish to believe that Man, any man, is inherently good? Not beyond redemption?
Aside from the Emperor mentioned above, the most heinous, unsympathetic and downright EVIL villains that I can think of are those from the original “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” trilogy.
In the Swedish trilogy (haven’t seen the remake), there is not a trace of humanity among the villains, and we can accept that some Men ARE inherently evil. Beyond redemption.
Fredo shot first.

Posted By swac44 : January 5, 2015 6:49 pm

Weirdly, the email notification for this post came in while I was watching Bresson’s Pickpocket, in which the enigmatic central character is also oddly sympathetic, despite his amoral ways. Mind you, he just wants some scratch to get by, not run a criminal empire built on murder and corruption.

Posted By george : January 5, 2015 8:50 pm

I’ve read that Stroud shared his fantasies of raping and killing children with just about everyone, including parole boards. That’s a big reason why he never got out of prison. See Bill James’ book, “Popular Crime,” for more about that.

Posted By Qalice : January 5, 2015 10:59 pm

Whoa there! Michael Corleone may be quite unlikable in Godfather Pt. 2, but that movie was never intended to be seen with no experience of Godfather Pt. 1. Both of them together show a young man who’s almost a war hero, someone who intends to distance himself from the family business — but someone who becomes the ultimate practitioner of that same business, so cold blooded that he orders the execution of his own brother. That’s tragedy. There’s great catharsis in seeing bad characters with good qualities and good characters with bad qualities — because that’s how we experience our own inner lives.

Posted By gregferrara : January 6, 2015 4:09 am

Both of them together show a young man who’s almost a war hero, someone who intends to distance himself from the family business — but someone who becomes the ultimate practitioner of that same business, so cold blooded that he orders the execution of his own brother. That’s tragedy.

While I like the second film, I don’t see anything you describe above as being unstated in the first film, about his character I mean. The first film beautifully charts the tragedy of Michael Corleone. When that door closes on Kay’s face at the end of the first movie, the tragedy of Michael Corleone is complete. The second movie is quite good but as a character study, it’s superfluous to the first.

Posted By The Autist Formerly Known as Prince : January 6, 2015 2:51 pm

I share your unusual take on the Godfather movies (I haven’t seen the third). The first I enjoy as the almost Shakespearean tragedy of Michael. The second leaves me cold; I just don’t care what happens to any of those characters.

Posted By robbushblog : January 6, 2015 8:14 pm

In an extreme and horrible example, HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS, the theatrical atrocity perpetrated by Ron Howard with the game cooperation of Jim Carrey, turns the despicable anti-Christmas grump into a sympathetic loser whose feewings were hurt by the big, mean Whos. Just awful.

Posted By george : January 6, 2015 9:07 pm

The most “extreme and horrible example” I can think of is THE TOWN (2010), where we’re supposed to regard the Ben Affleck character — a bank robber, killer and kidnapper — as a nice, sensitive guy who’s the victim of his environment. And, of course, he has a happy ending.

At least in THE GETAWAY (also criticized for glorifying criminals), there’s no doubt the Steve McQueen character is a mean, ruthless guy and not a nice person at all.

Posted By george : January 6, 2015 9:21 pm

In the Godfather films, the only person I felt really sad for was Michael’s wife. The others chose a life outside the law.

And I felt a bit sorry for Fredo, who was clearly in over his head as a career criminal. But his death is what often happens to people like that.

It’s like Henry Hill’s great line in GOODFELLAS: “See, your murderers come with smiles, they come as your friends, the people who’ve cared for you all of your life. And they always seem to come at a time that you’re at your weakest and most in need of their help.”

Posted By gregferrara : January 7, 2015 3:24 am

Rob, I never saw that version of The Grinch and after seeing what you wrote and what David wrote about it in his post, I have no intention of ever seeing it.

Posted By gregferrara : January 7, 2015 3:28 am

It may be true that most of us have a hard time feeling sympathy for any of these characters, save Kay, as George points out (although, to a degree, she knew what she was getting into when Michael came back from Italy), but the filmmakers are, nevertheless, trying to elicit sympathy for them, and for me, Coppola and Puzo succeed far better at it than Frankenheimer, Crichton, and Trosper with Birdman of Alcatraz.

That was one long sentence.

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