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Friday, 4 March 2016

Burt Lancaster - Noel Bjorndhal remembers one of the great actors of the twentieth century

Burt Lancaster
Now there was a complex man whose career spanned many decades and phases. Beginning in moody Films Noir (The Killers, Robert Siodmak USA, 1946,  I Walk Alone, Byron Haskin, USA, 1948), Criss Cross, Siodmak, 1949),he later became the Smilin' Burt of several genuinely entertaining Action/Adventure films/Swashbucklers (The Flame and the Arrow (Jacques Tourneur, USA,1950), The Crimson Pirate (Siodmak, 1952), His Majesty O'Keefe (Haskin, USA, 1954)). From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, USA, 1953) was a breakthrough to more demanding dramatic roles-and rolls- notably, raw, adulterous sex in the surf with Deborah Kerr in that exemplary award-winning film. He took to the Western with force and strength on both sides of the law (for Robert Aldrich-Vera Cruz (USA,1954) , Apache (USA, 1954), and John Sturges-Gunfight at the OK Corral(USA, 1957)). Sweet Smell of Success (USA, 1957) proved he could do dark just as convincingly as light-he made my skin crawl as J J Hunsecker, the Walter Winchell figure reducing fawning Tony Curtis's Sidney Falco to frenetic pleas - in Alexander Mackendrick's masterpiece about the power of the press and power generally.

He finally received his deserved Academy Award as the charlatan preacher in Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks, USA, 1960), opposite the wondrous Jean Simmons as the evangelist trapped between her belief system and her attraction to his raw sexuality. He got more self-conscious and solemn (but never pretentious or false to his instincts) in "heavy" drama like Judgment at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer, USA, 1961), Birdman of Alcatraz, (John Frankenheimer, USA, 1962), a wondrous, near solo part if you exclude the scenes with the birds, Telly Savalas and Betty Field), The Swimmer (Frank Perry, USA, 1968), a marvellously quirky tour de force that defies pigeon-holing, and A Child is Waiting (John Cassavetes, USA, 1963) ditto, extended his range even further. Finally, he distinguished himself magisterially on the international art-house circuit in two Visconti films (The Leopard (Italy, 1963) and Conversation Piece (Italy, 1975). A final western for Aldrich, Ulzana’s Raid (USA, 1972),  gave him another interesting part as the gnarled, wise old scout contending with Indian uprisings in the South-west. It contained some fascinating sub-textual references to the Vietnam war but never pushed the allegorical subtext into crude analogy. Burt took on a brave role as the sidelined patriarch in Bertolucci's glorious and beautifully shot -by Vittorio Storaro 1900 (Italy, 1976) - 4-hour epic of an Italian landowner family that spans decades of 20th century life,


Lancaster & Sarandon in Atlantic City (Louis Malle, Canada, 1981)
He continued to play forceful parts in many later films (notably in Aldrich's film Twilight's Last Gleaming (USA, 1977) which employs the best use of the split screen EVER. However, for me his last hurrah (a very poignant one) was for the erratic Louis Malle in one of his better films, Atlantic City (Canada, 1981), where Lancaster as a two-bit hood romances Susan Sarandon in a performance that brought tears to my eyes.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting guy, he made some great movies with his production company HHL. Sweet Smell of Success and Separate Tables, but also the fun movies like The Crimson Pirate and Trapeze. Atlantic City, The Rainmaker, Jim Thorpe, Kiss the Blood off my Hands, The Leopard, All My Sons, The Swimmer, Sorry Wrong Number - so many great movies!

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