The Sunday Dozen: Burt Lancaster

Our hero in From Here To Eternity.

Burt Lancaster had a long and distinguished film career. He started off as a brash young actor and grew into a brash old actor. He was still paying major parts four decades after his 1946 debut.

In my recent PFT post about The Killers, I said this about Burt Lancaster: “He was in as many great films as Bogie.”

But they were stylistic opposites. Bogie was cool and sardonic. Burt was explosive and white hot. They had something important in common: they were intelligent onscreen and off.

Lancaster was one of the first actor-producers, which is one reason he was in so many fine films. He also worked for the studios in his prime, alternating one movie for mammon with one for art.

I focus more on his film noirs and art films than the many fine Westerns he made with one exception, Gunfight At The OK Corral. That was one of seven movies he made with his friend Kirk Douglas who was the second brashest actor in Hollywood.

This was a tough one. I had at least 25 contenders before winnowing the list down to a dozen; all of which grade out at 4 stars.

Repeat after me: Burt Lancaster was in as many great films as Bogart.

The movies are ranked in order of preference complete with quad posters and pithy comments. At least I hope they’re pithy. I don’t want to pith anyone off, especially Burt’s ghost. I don’t want him haunting me as the Crimson Pirate. Just imagine those big teeth glowing in the dark.

I also follow my usual custom of skipping character names and using the player’s own monikers.

On with the show, this is it.

If there was ever an ironic title, Sweet Smell Of Success is it. Burt played a vicious and sarcastic New York newspaper columnist modeled on Walter Winchell.

Tony Curtis was just as good as the despicable press agent who does dirty deeds for Burt. Picture a pretty Michael Cohen.

Here’s what Burt thought of Tony’s character:

That describes the brilliant script by Clifford Odets as well. Trivia time: John Turturro’s character in Barton Fink is based on Odets; down to the hairdo.

Sweet Smell Of Success was an artistic triumph but a commercial disaster. It blew up Hecht-Hill-Lancaster to smithereens. Boom.

The Killers was featured in this week’s Pulp Fiction Thursday post.

It’s one of the best films noir or film noirs. I’m not sure which works best. Discuss among yourselves.

Burt rarely played noble characters, but he did in From Here To Eternity. He was the top kick Sergeant who kept his outfit running and tried to keep Montgomery Clift out of trouble. He couldn’t, however, protect Frank Sinatra from Ernest Borgnine:

It went downhill for Frank after that.

The Oscars loved From Here To Eternity: it picked up eight trophies but none for Burt who was nominated for best actor. He would be an Oscar bridesmaid until he kinda sorta found Jesus in 1960. Stay tuned.

Seven Days In May is one of the finest political films ever made. I was introduced to it by my high school English teacher Mr. Titus. I think my essay on the movie got an A. Yay me.

That introduction made me a fan boy of all the players, especially Burt. The diehard liberal actor was convincing as coup plotting wingnut General James Mattoon Scott. I dig the name because Mattoon rhymes with spittoon. A fine rhyme for a coup plotting motherfucker.

Elmer Gantry saw Lancaster win his Oscar as Sinclair Lewis’ hellfire and damnation preacher. I’ve only met one guy named Elmer and he went by another name. Who the hell wants to be named after a glue brand?

Criss Cross was featured on Pulp Fiction Thursday a month ago. It’s another of Burt’s early classics.

I dig this still of Burt exiting the Hollywood Blvd streetcar:

Let’s move from post-war Los Angeles to wartime France.

Lancaster did his share of World War II movies. The Train is one of the best of the bunch. It’s one of those Sixties movies that features Americans as Frenchmen and Brits as Germans. Weird but effective.

The Train is an action movie with a brain. They used to make those before the plague of stupor hero movies and revenge flicks.

Atlantic City is one of Burt’s late career triumphs. He received his final best actor nod for his role as an aging gangster. This quad poster features director Louis Malle, not the star. I’m down with that: he was a great filmmaker.

Trivia time: Louis Malle was married to Murphy Brown/Boston Legal star Candice Bergen. It’s unknown what Malle thought of having Candy’s dad’s puppets around the house.

I couldn’t find a quad poster for Burt’s last great film. Local Hero. But I dig the above image of him and co-star Peter Riegert.

The movie is set in Scotland and involves oil men trying to obtain drilling rights. Riegert goes native and gets squeamish about the whole deal. As always, Burt is made of sterner stuff. It also features a fine early performance by future Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi.

The Leopard is one of two films Burt made with arty Italian directors. In this case, Luchino Visconti. It was a coin toss between The Leopard and Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 for this list. Visconti won out because I didn’t want to offend a leopard. They have sharp teeth. That’s my feeble story and I’m sticking to it. Feebly.

Brute Force is one of Burt’s early triumphs. It’s a prison flick in which sadistic prison guard Hume Cronyn steals the movie. He’s so relentlessly brutal that he provokes mass escapes and a riot.

Gunfight At The OK Corral is one of many tellings of the Wyatt Earp-Doc Holiday saga. It has a big advantage over the rest: Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in the lead roles. Who could ask for anything more?

Since this is a long post, here’s the Burt Lancaster Dozen without any snappy patter:

  1. Sweet Smell Of Success
  2. The Killers
  3.  From Here To Eternity
  4. Seven Days In May
  5. Elmer Gantry
  6. Criss Cross
  7. The Train
  8. Atlantic City
  9. Local Hero
  10. The Leopard
  11. Brute Force
  12. Gunfight At The OK Corral

That’s all she wrote except for our weekly lagniappe:

Burt’s final role was in a fine 1991 TV mini-series, Separate But Equal. It’s about the landmark 1954 Brown vs. Board Of Education case.

Burt played 1924 Democratic presidential nominee and segregationist lawyer John W. Davis. Another time when one of Hollywood’s leading liberals played a right-winger. Sidney Poitier played the lawyer who won the case, Thurgood Marshall. It was a battle of the cinematic titans.

That concludes the Burt Lancaster Dozen. The last word goes to Burt and Kirk doing the old soft shoe for a 1958 charity event:


11 thoughts on “The Sunday Dozen: Burt Lancaster

  1. Other Burt Lancaster favorites of mine:
    The Flame and the Arrow, 1950
    Judgment at Nuremberg, 1961 … “I am aware, I am aware!”
    The Professionals, 1966 .. “Amigo, we’ve been had.”
    The Scalphunters, b. 1968
    Field of Dreams, b. 1989

    re: The Train … This movie always reminds me that Burt was possibly the breatest action hero of all time

    1. All of those were under consideration as was Kiss The Blood Off My Hands and Run Silent, Run Deep.

  2. Don’t forget my uncle, Ernie Lehman, who’s novella, The Sweet Smell of Success was adapted to the film version. He was originally the screenplay writer, but Burt didn’t like him so Clifford Odetts was brought in to rewrite it.

  3. Loved your blog and thanks for posting. I really liked DESERT FURY, HIS MAJESTY O’KEEFE, COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA. So many to choose from. No one talks about MR. 880. It is beautiful.

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