Burt Lancaster: from swash and buckle to arthouse

BURT LANCASTER– He was a street kid who became a circus acrobat and after military service in N Africa and I think Italy, he was discovered along with Kirk Douglas (later a frequent co-star) by Hal Wallis and started his long and impressive career in film. In his early career he specialized as a broody, moody protagonist of some excellent 1940s films noir including Siodmak’s impressive version of Hemingway’s The Killers (with Ava Gardner), the tough prison breakout film Brute Force, and an even better Siodmak noir (Criss Cross) this time getting done in by Yvonne De Carlo. He showed a scary ability to project menace and become victimiser in Sorry, Wrong Number where Barbara Stanwyck was the victim.

Burt’s physical grace and cheeky athleticism and his ability to perform breathtaking stunts a la Douglas Fairbanks lead to his being perfectly cast in a spate of pirate yarns and swashbucklers in the early 1950s. Jacques Tourneur’s cheeky medieval romp The Flame and the Arrow (1950) gave him plenty of room to demonstrate his pectorals and flash his set of even teeth. He was dubbed Smilin’ Burt at the time of his matinee fodder which continued in The Crimson Pirate (1952, Siodmak), this time flying across parapets with his old circus partner Nick Cravat. In His Majesty O’Keefe, set in the Yap Islands of the Pacific, he tricked and exploited the natives for copra before he saw the error of his ways. My father, who accompanied me to many matinees loathed Smilin’ Burt and called him a show-off. He was, but he could also act with physical grace, and I found his derring-do thrilling.

He continued to leap around and cut a dashing figure in several movies throughout his career which required demanding physical action: he was well suited to two dynamic Robert Aldrich westerns, in Apache, he was cast in the titular role of the renegade making a valiant stand against the odds in a white man’s world and in Vera Cruz, his extroverted villain almost stole the film even from the great western star Gary Cooper whose subdued, interior performance provided an interesting study in contrasts. He was at the centre of some high wire acts in Trapeze for director Carol Reed sharing the limelight in the first but not the last of his pairings with Tony Curtis (and being distracted by gorgeous Gina Lollobrigida); The Professionals (1966) and The Swimmer 1968) proved that moving into middle age didn’t slow his vibrant physicality down any.

Burt was being taken more seriously as early as 1953 when he showed the ability to widen his dramatic range considerably. The film providing the turning point was Come Back, Little Sheba, where as the husband of character actress Shirley Booth, he proved his mettle as a former alcoholic, suitably made up to look positively middle-aged and seething with repressed tensions arising from Booth’s mannered behaviours (for which she garnered a best actress award. I reckoned Burt’s performance was more impressive). In 1953, he also joined an all-star cast in the multi-award winning From Here to Eternity directed by Fred Zinnemann, sharing that notorious roll in the surf with Deborah Kerr, the frustrated wife of his superior officer. Monty Clift and a resurrected Frank Sinatra gave stunning performances, but Burt’s dramatic credibility was finally established too. By 1957, he played Wyatt Earp to Kirk Douglas’s Doc Holliday in that popular John Sturges western with the haunting Frankie Laine ballad, Gunfight at the OK Corral, the success of which provided him with more clout in the industry where actors were beginning to establish their own production outlets. Lancaster was one of the pioneers of this tendency.

In 1957, he joined forces with Harold Hecht, James Hill and Tony Curtis to produce a film in which both he and Curtis gave the best performances of their respective careers. They engaged the Scottish film maker Alexander Mackendrick (who had made the darker Ealing comedies like The Ladykillers and The Man in the White Suit) to direct Sweet Smell of Success, a film noir etched in acid, in which Burt played J J Hunsecker, a newspaper columnist (said to be modelled on Walter Winchell) obsessed with breaking up the relationship between Hunsecker’s young sister and her boy friend. Curtis is Sidney Falco, a nasty study of a vicious parasite and hustler who feeds information to Hunsecker for a price. Lancaster ‘s Hunsecker is a study in pure evil (with incest overtones). Ernest Lehman mostly wrote the trenchant script although credit is also given to Clifford Odets. It has a terrific, jazzy score by Elmer Bernstein. Burt had come a long way from The Crimson Pirate.

Burt’s performances in his later career established him as one of Hollywood’s greatest character stars. He won an Academy Award for his barnstorming evangelist Elmer Gantry in the title role derived from Sinclair Lewis’s novel. He had stiff competition that year with Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates for Hitchcock’s ground-breaking Psycho. Burt, however, threw himself into this tailor-made role with vigour, intensity, and a powerful charisma perfectly suited to the character. Jean Simmons was equally impressive as victim, Sister Sharon Falconer, whose trust he betrays with tragic consequences. Shirley Jones, cast against type as the prostitute Elmer plays with, won a supporting actress award. During the early and middle 1960s, he was playing serious dramatic roles with great authority and nuance, including several that clinched the early promise of then up and coming director John Frankenheimer in four films: The Young Savages (1961), where Burt was forceful as the tough prosecutor dealing with racial tensions, gang violence and murder in this gritty film; in Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), where as bitter lifer Robert Stroud  with no hope for parole, Lancaster spends decades in solitary confinement  working with birds, and without any formal education, becomes a leading ornithologist in this painstakingly effective biography; in Seven Days in May (1963), he leads some military big wigs in a plot to oust President Fredric March when the latter plays soft politics with the USSR over a nuclear treaty; he is robustly physical again in The Train (1964), a rattlingly effective, exciting WW2 thriller involving a battle of wits between a German General (Paul Scofield) and a French Railway Inspector (Lancaster) on miles and miles of track.

Additionally, Burt’s career in 1963 took an unexpected turn into art house cinema when Luchino Visconti convinced the Fox studio to back The Leopard, a fascinating study of a powerful Sicilian noble family in decline, as an upstart called Garibaldi and the Risorgimento organises its forces to ensure that the new order will eventually reduce the family to an historical footnote. Burt plays the patrician role as though he’d been rehearsing all his life for such an opportunity. Although butchered by a  backtracking Fox studio in its initial release, it’s now restored in all its glory in a stunning blu-ray print. Smilin’ Burt had become magisterial Burt at last. He worked for Visconti again in Conversation Piece and Bertolucci snapped him up to play another ageing patriarch in his epic Novecento-1900, this time struggling against his loss of authority and impotence (in every sense) during dynastic rivalries between two families in the lead up to the Fascist years.

Final thoughts: Burt worked continuously, despite declining health, through the 70s to the early 90s (he made his last film in 1991). He worked fruitfully for Robert Aldrich again in Ulzana’s Raid, a knowingly written film (by Alan Sharp) about guerrilla warfare between the cavalry and some wily Apaches. He plays, with understated irony and authority, a grizzled old scout who mentors naive cavalry officer Bruce Davison. The film works its parallels with America’s incursions into Vietnam with considerable intelligence. Aldrich cast him as a rogue General in Twilight’s Last Gleaming, a vision of apocalypse which uses the split screen impressively. Burt is convincingly deranged and chilling. The last of his really outstanding roles was for French director Louis Malle’s interesting elegiac American film Atlantic City (1980) where as an ageing petty crook and operator, Burt falls in love with gorgeous Susan Sarandon after openly ogling her naked form through his window eye view into hers. It avoids sentimentality astutely but retains warmth and wit in its delineation of its seedy characters who co-exist with the mobs and the petty racketeers in the dilapidated resort town of the title. It was a superb last hurrah for the formidable star whom Malle celebrates here.

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