Posts Tagged ‘burt lancaster’

Elmer Gantry (1960)

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Big-tent evangelism is a very American form of religion, a combination of populist Christianity and salesmanship that could only exist in a sprawling country that relied on religious freedom as one of its founding tenets, right next door to aggressive individualism and free enterprise. Elmer Gantry, therefore, is a story that can only happen in American, with a hero as complex and morally ambiguous as the land itself.

Burt Lancaster is Elmer Gantry, a traveling salesman, huckster, and former seminarian who hitches his wagon to Sister Sarah Falconer (Jean Simmons), the leader of a traveling revivalist church. I use the term church loosely, for Sister Sarah has no denominational affiliation to speak of: she’s selling her own brand of Christianity to the rural masses. Gantry proves to be a sort of godsend to Sister Sarah’s organization: he’s a rousing speaker, summoning visions of hellfire and damnation to ignite the congregation while Sister Sarah offers them peace and salvation. As their organization grows, Gantry and Sarah decide to push into the (bigger) city with their revivalist meeting, heading to Zenith, Winnemac (a fictional city and state that could be any large populated area across the Midwest), where Sister Sarah hopes to build a permanent tabernacle. Gantry runs afoul of his past, however, in the form of Lulu Baines (Shirley Jones), Gantry’s former lover turned prostitute.

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Elmer Gantry could have played like a straight moral tale, with the shady salesman duping the small-town folks into buying his religious snake-oil until finally exposed by a more moral crusader (or, alternatively, by his nefarious past). But the film refuses to offer such an easy answer to the questions it poses. Gantry is a huckster, no doubt, yet he comes to believe or, at least, to understand the need for belief in those around him. Sister Sarah is no doe-eyed idealist dreaming of salvation; she’s a complex figure, with both a strong understanding of what it means to sell religion, and a true belief that she’s saving souls. Jim Lefferts (Arthur Kennedy), a newspaperman and resident symbol of atheism and cynicism, is repelled by Gantry but respects his intellect all the same; nor is Lefferts’ disbelief any better or more realistic than the evangelical fervor of Gantry and Sarah – it’s just another side of the same coin. Even the wronged and cynical Lulu hides a complicated soul: rejected by her reverend father after she’s seduced by Gantry, she still loves the man who wronged her.

If this film could have had a better cast, I’d like to see it. Burt Lancaster is the center of this whirlwind: charming, cunning, half-sincere and half-joking, he charges into each scene with his head down and his teeth gleaming. A salesman for Jesus, he waves his Bible with all the conviction of a true believer, and talks town officials into allowing the revivalist meeting by appealing once to their avarice and twice to their faith. Yet Gantry isn’t insincere in his religion, or in his burgeoning love for Sister Sarah; he just bends the world to accommodate him, mostly unaware of those he walks over to get there, and never willfully harming anyone. He might seem almost Satanic at times, but we should not forget that Satan has always believed in God.

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Jean Simmons as Sister Sarah is in stark contrast to Lancaster’s bellowing Bible-thumper. Sarah is the other kind of true believer, a woman whose faith is so engrained in her identity that to think that God isn’t speaking to her would be to destroy her own soul. She recognizes Gantry as a charlatan, making use of his charlatanism to advance her ministry. When Gantry’s roving past is revealed, it’s Sister Sarah who suffers willingly, as she finally steps into the role of martyr. But again it would be a mistake to dismiss Sarah as someone searching for personal aggrandizement: this is a film about faith, and Sarah’s is as real and as palpable as Gantry’s.

Elmer Gantry‘s great strength is that it neither dismisses evangelism as cynical chicanery, nor does it embrace the Bible-thumpers as the true heralds of God. It’s not about the rightness or wrongness of religion or atheism, or about where religious truth actually lies. If anything, it’s about America: about the soul of a country and of a people, about searching for answers to questions that have none. Is Gantry a huckster or a preacher? Does Sister Sarah perform a miracle or is it just random coincidence? How far does faith go and can we justify the ways of God to Man?

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Seven Days in May (1964)

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Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas had a friendship that spanned decades, during which they made seven films together, playing heroes, villains, friends, and enemies. They were among that generation of actors that started their careers in the midst of the Studio System and managed to find their way out of it again, producing some truly remarkable films under their own production banners. Among these is 1964’s Seven Days in May, a political thriller about the near-overthrow of the United States by a military coup.

Lancaster is General James Mattoon Scott, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who is in direct disagreement with President Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) over a missile treaty recently signed with Russia. The U.S. and Russia have agreed to disarm their nuclear warheads, effectively bringing the Cold War standoff to an end and avoiding any future nuclear war. The decision is unpopular with America at large, but none more so than General Scott, who believes that the President is setting the U.S. up for an attack when the Russians fail to honor the agreement. What few realize, and what Scott’s aide ‘Jiggs’ Casey (Kirk Douglas) soon discovers, is that Scott and several other high-ranking commanders of the Army, Navy, and Marines have been setting up a military coup aimed at killing the President and taking over the U.S. government. When Casey stumbles across information about the coup, he’s placed in a position of defying his commanding officer, whom he greatly admires, in order to stop it.

The film is directed by John Frankenheimer (Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate) and scripted by Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) for Kirk Douglas’s own production company. The script is taut and topical, dealing with the Cold War and arms race to immediate and chilling effect.  The first half of the film is primarily concerned with the discovery of the coup and Jiggs’s crisis of conscience. He has to do the right thing and report his suspicions, but he doesn’t particularly want to. The mis-en-scene in this section is all lights and darks, as the chiaroscuro mirrors Jiggs’s increasing suspicions and divided loyalties. As we head into the second half of the film, occupied with proving and preventing the coup, the pacing picks up significantly, moving away from the conflict between Jiggs and Scott and into the attempts of various members of the President’s staff to find something concrete on Scott.

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Seven Days in May is chock full of excellent performances: everyone from Lancaster and Douglas to Martin Balsam and Ava Gardner, who plays Scott’s former lover with more on the General than she realizes. It becomes increasingly clear that Scott is a self-obsessed sociopath who believes that what he’s doing is not for personal aggrandizement but the good of the United States. Few actors can portray the intensity of the fanatic and still remain firmly grounded, but Lancaster pulls it off. His General Scott is a true-believer, logical and totally terrifying.

If Seven Days in May has a flaw it is in the few speeches handed to its characters, particularly Frederic March’s President Lyman. While March’s performance is a strong one, he has at least two speeches intended to provide the film’s already obvious message about the dangers of Cold War rhetoric and nuclear armament. The speeches are largely unnecessary and do somewhat date an otherwise topical film.

Far more chilling are the moments that hammer home how prescient this film is. Scott gives a speech about patriotism and freedom that eerily reminds one of some pundits we typically hear on Fox News…and in Congress. The coup relies on a belief that Scott and his compatriots know the will of the people, and will force that will on the country irrespective of democracy. The continuous refrain of jingoistic patriotism is as recognizable today as it was in 1964. Seven Days in May is frightening because it is so believable.

While firmly embedded in Cold War mentality, Seven Days in May should be an iconic film because it is still so universal. Strong performances and script keep things moving along, though really the whole film is held on two sets of very broad shoulders. Lancaster and Douglas would make other films together, but none perhaps quite so prescient.