Burt Lancaster Season

This is by way of an “extra” to my Viewings postings (the one for the fourth quarter of 2021 is coming up in January). Anyhow: Burt Lancaster.

The Killers 1946
Burt Lancaster with Ava Gardner—his screen debut in Robert Siodmak’s superlative THE KILLERS (1946).

After watching some of Burt’s early film roles, which were mostly films noir, I finally got around to reading Kate Buford’s An American Life biog of BL. In brief, the book is excellent & highly recommended, with the almost predictable caveat that whoever edited it failed as usual to provide sufficient clarity for the cast of hundreds… for instance, “Smith said” (hypothetical example)—but which Smith?! Editors exist to trap these pitfalls; but they often don’t. Anyhow, great book, regardless.

This led, almost inescapably, to a desire to see many of the films discussed in the book! And so, we’ve had a Burt Lancaster Season. The films watched so far:

Vengeance Valley (1951) (DVD)
From Here to Eternity (1953) (Blu-ray)
Vera Cruz (1954) (DVD)
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) (Blu-ray)
The Unforgiven (1960) (DVD)
Elmer Gantry (1960) (DVD)
Seven Days in May (1964) (Blu-ray)
The Professionals (1966) (Blu-ray)
The Scalphunters (1968) (DVD)
Ulzana’s Raid (1972) (DVD)
Scorpio (1973) (DVD)

To that we could add the noirs watched earlier this year, of course—The Killers (1946), Brute Force (1947), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), and Criss Cross (1949). Also, 1964’s terrific John Frankenheimer actioner The Train. So that’s 16 BL films watched this year, to date, with Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and The Swimmer (1968) currently on the “to-watch” pile!! There may well be more, probably in 2022.

Burt Lancaster's First Screen Appearance in the Killers, 1946
This is cinema’s very first glimpse of Mr Lancaster, in 1946’s THE KILLERS.

I think all of this was a reminder how much Burt is missed, actually. I recall him as a welcome presence wherever he turned up. In later years, of course, after heart surgery, he was not the robust figure of yore, but he retained up to retirement his distinctive presence and magnetism. He was my chief reason for watching 1989’s Field of Dreams. It’s a good movie, as it happens, but the plot didn’t necessarily make me want to rush out and see it… but new Burt on the big screen? Okay, I’m up for that. And he was great.

The Swimmer 1968
Burt says: “I’m almost 55 and I look better than you topless!” 1968’s THE SWIMMER.

At his peak, his presence was off the scale, and it’s his physicality that underpins it all—the graceful movement of the former circus acrobat he was, coupled with genuine acting chops, and a willingness, nay eagerness, to do as much of his own stunt work as permissable. Even later on, we see Burt himself scaling a sheer cliff-face in The Professionals, aged 52, and we see him tumbling a dozen feet only to immediately spring to his feet and keep on running in Scorpio, just shy of turning 60. With that kind of physical capability, he might even be forgiven for being a mediocre actor. But he wasn’t. Anything but.

Sweet Smell of Success 1
JJ Hunsecker—one of the screen’s all-time creeps. 1957’s SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS.

If I had to pick a fave movie of his, I might struggle. But it’s hard to beat the great Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957)—hardly an uplifting tale, but in all its sleaze, corruption and mental illness a stunning triumph in all particulars… and especially Burt’s obsessive, diseased performance as tabloid columnist JJ Hunsecker.

Sweet Smell of Success 2

He is one of the great grotesques of all cinema, and it is apt that Sweet Smell comes at the butt-end of the film noir era… I believe that this film, coupled with Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958)—with its equally damaged & sulphurous Hank Quinlan—represents the apotheosis of the whole cycle. Both these films are definitely on my all-time list.

Would reviews of specific films be of any interest to anyone? It’s something I may consider in the new year. Lemme know!

6 thoughts on “Burt Lancaster Season”

  1. I’d certainly enjoy reading reviews of specific movies. Burt was a tremendously talented actor and a screen presence. Thanks for spotlighting him and his work.

    1. There’s a scene in Elmer Gantry when Burt Lancaster moves in on Joe Maross, who’s just slapped Shirley Jones around for derailing the blackmail racket they were pulling; it’s like watching a tiger loom over a terrified antelope, a sense of immense power and balletic grace.

  2. Not a personal favourite, but I’m happy to agree that he was a fine actor. The Crimson Pirate is another great showcase for his physicality and as a Western fan, The Professionals is always worth a watch

  3. Professionals was probably the first film in which I noticed Burt. I was around 13. I recently watched Vera Cruz and I really enjoy his Joe Erin characterization (charming rogue) and love his death scene. Jack Davis did a great comic take, wherein he has Joe get shot, go home, shave and then drop dead.

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