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Monday, 16 January 2017

Noel Bjorndahl's Personal History of Film (4) - John Ford's Twilight

"Ford and Hawks, the directors closest to the Griffith tradition, project different aspects of Griffith's personality. Ford, the historical perspective and unified vision of the world, Hawks the psychological complexity and innate nobility of characterization" (Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema).
This "historical perspective" covers an incredibly broad spectrum of the American experience. Sarris again: "No American director has ranged so far across the landscape of the American past, the worlds of Lincoln, Lee, Twain, O'Neill, the three great wars, the Western and trans-Atlantic migration, the horseless Indians of the Mohawk Valley and the Sioux and Comanche cavalries of the West, the Irish and Spanish incursions, and the delicately balanced politics of polyglot cities and border states." (Film Culture, No 25, Summer 1962).
In that landscape, evoked in all its immediacy, Ford reflects the uniqueness of the American experience; from the wilderness to the garden, moments of that experience crystallise out of the flow of time and are transfigured forever as a standing testament to their creator.
The Searchers
In his mature work, from The Searchers, (1956) onwards, Ford projected increasingly ambiguous attitudes towards a whole range of issues that are a continuing part of that experience (war, problems of assimilation, racial intolerance); and he has questioned the myths of his own creation (the achievements of the legendary western archetype; a contemplation of that figure's position vis-à-vis the changing landscape). This has given his work a total richness, a spiritual density, denied all but the greatest artists.
Claude Jarman Jr, John Wayne, Rio Grande
Rio Grande (1950) is Ford's last cavalry film cast wholly in the heroic mould; it celebrates its heroes through the ritual of fanfare and flag, bold and daring feats (e.g., the grand show of horsemanship by Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr and Claude Jarman Jr) and above all, the kinetic excitement of battle. The legendary, isolated figure of the career soldier receives its mythic incarnation in the craggy relief of John Wayne's Kirby York. York's loneliness - the loneliness of command, accentuated by his estrangement from his wife (Maureen O'Hara) and son (Claude Jarman Jr) is never allowed its personal tragic proportions, as this would override the values and ideals of the group-carving its order into the wilderness - at the centre of the film. Such values are realised in the sublime visual expression of ordered ritual patterns across the Monument Valley desertscape, and the heroic-epic elements attain further dimension in the inspired choral commentary of The Sons of the Pioneers. Rio Grande therefore summarizes the classical Western forms developed by Ford through the 1940s in Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949).
Harry Carey Jr, John Wayne, The Searchers
The Searchers both looks backwards to these forms and forwards to the terser, reflective forms of Ford's 1960s work in which the old ideals are turned inward, and the myths are examined in a more personal' intimate frame of reference. The Searchers is complex enough to demand a complete analysis, but it should be noted here that the Monument Valley landscape receives a stylised colour treatment which simultaneously captures the film's epic sweep through a whole gamut of seasons and moods, and exteriorizes the personal conflicts of its tragic hero, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne). As Peter Wollen pointed out in Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, “Ethan Edwards' quest represents the destructive pole in the vision of the conquest of the wilderness. At the end of their trek in Wagon Master, the group of Mormon settlers surmount their final physical and moral obstacles, and enter The Promised Land. For Ethan Edwards, the end is not salvation but destruction; in carrying out his personal revenge on the Indian chief, Scar, he forfeits the New Jerusalem and is condemned to wander through the wilderness all his days. Peter Wollen sums up his tragic destiny thus: Ethan Edwards...remains a nomad throughout the film. At the start, he rides in from the desert to enter the log house. At the end, with perfect visual symmetry, he leaves a house again to return to the desert, to vagrancy. In many respects, he is similar to Scar: he is a wanderer, outside the law: he scalps his enemy. But like the homesteaders, of course, he is European, the mortal foe of the Indian. Thus, Edwards is ambiguous...The opposition tears Edwards in two: he is a tragic hero." (Signs and Meaning in the Cinema). The heroic gesture that marks the end of the search, as Wayne sweeps up Natalie Wood with the gentle but broken "Let's go home, Debbie", is indicative in its irony of an increasingly bitter view of the old code.
John Wayne, Constance Towers, The Horse Soldiers
The Horse Soldiers (1959), on the surface, has the physical force and drive of an epic in the old Ford tradition. Dealing with a known Civil War incident involving a Union sortie behind Confederate lines, it has John Wayne as a Union Colonel who lives by the old chivalric code-obliged to do as he has to do, with no questions asked. The film opens with a line of horse soldiers moving across the skyline - a traditional ritual which appears to determine the tone and overall visual style of the film. But additional elements create a highly ambiguous attitude towards the nature of war and the old notions of duty and honour, where there was an implicit understanding between officer and men in the carrying out of that duty. William Holden's bitter, insubordinate Major Kendall is something outside of the old concept of the soldier, but Ford never allows the balance of sympathies to move radically away from the direction of Wayne and Holden. Indeed, Holden's appreciation of the suffering and carnage is somewhat reflected in Wayne's sober defences. In the raid on Newton Station, Wayne follows orders but at one moment is seen to turn away in disgust from the sickening ordeal. There is a point, too, where Wayne comforts a dying soldier, which has the physical urgency and horror of a similar sequence in Samuel Fuller's powerful war film Merrill's Marauders (1962) where a dying soldier asks Merrill (played by Jeff Chandler) - "Did Lemchek get through?" and the soldier is Lemchek. There is a fine line between heroism and physical suffering in The Horse Soldiers. Wayne and Holden grow to some understanding of each other's attitudes and points of view: this is indicative of the generally expansive notion of warfare in which Ford can accommodate both attitudes, the idealized and realistic notions of a soldier's duty, an ambiguity as finely drawn as the tone that can absorb humour, horror and distorted ritual into the scene in which children march out of the Jefferson Military Academy against the Union soldiers.
Woody Strode, Sergeant Rutledge
The old notions of a soldier's duty and responsibility receive an even more highly refined consideration in Sergeant Rutledge (1960), treated as it is against a background of racialism in a melancholy evocation of the Monument Valley tableau, where the old myths were born and perpetrated. Even the Fordian humour emerges as disturbingly grotesque in the context of the negro soldier's trial. This film paves the way for further critical enquiry into the values of the old army code in Two Rode Together (1961).
While The Searchers and The Horse Soldiers retain a great deal of the epic sweep of the Cavalry Trilogy, Two Rode Together isolates its issues into a confined area of conflict. its terse, low-key lighting creates something of a bitter mood that characterises 1960s Ford, which culminates in the growing circles of darkness that surround a group of missionaries in Seven Women (1966). The traditional heroic figures in Ford's films had always subjugated their personal duties through a driving commitment to group ideals, a group code; this is one face of the American spirit that pushed outwards into new frontiers (as in Wagon Master) and tamed those frontiers (Rio Grande). Two Rode Together, by contrast, presents the viewer with Guthrie McCabe (James Stewart), a cynical and pragmatic opportunist to the core, His values have nothing in common with the traditional Ford hero. In The Searchers, John Wayne twists the old concepts of duty and responsibility into a personal obsession, but it is something that lies outside of his control. The Stewart character in Two Rode Together makes no pretence about where his values lie: he has no commitment to duty, the common good or whatever else comes his way without his ten percent cut. Ford was at a low ebb when he made Two Rode Together. His close friend and drinking buddy Ward Bond had died suddenly at the age of 57. It has been said that his behaviour on the set reflected his genuine grief and he characteristically kept Stewart shivering in icy waters while he plonked his camera for a single take.
Richard Widmark, James Stewart, Two Rode Together
Stewart's character poses a number of personal ambiguities and contradictions that reflect Ford's own personal ambiguities - he assumes the role of a shrewd, business-like charlatan in his dealings with Henry J Wringle (Willis Bouchey) but he is the only character to present an honest assessment of the problems of assimilation when he brutally shatters Shirley Jones' hopes for her captive brother. Widmark's reaction to this honesty operates within the limitations of the chivalric code He excuses McCabe (Stewart) by comforting Shirley Jones with "It's the whisky talking". But Ford makes us see, feel and appreciate with all our senses, the validity of Stewart's assessment in the violent consequences arising out of a simplified view of assimilation problems. It is Stewart, too, who somewhat arbitrarily accepts his saviour role (on his own terms), and then carries it through to a complete and constructive conclusion. Widmark turns back when he has fulfilled his personal notions of duty; Stewart pursues the line of deeper involvement, and in the extraordinary sequence in which he shoots Stone Calf (Woody Strode) witnesses a real-life demonstration of what he has stated to Shirley Jones. As if by reflex action, Stone Calf's widow (Linda Cristall, one of the captives, performs a little ritual over Stone Calf's body, an action that registers the deep, deep roots of a perennial problem. Guthrie McCabe's cynical façade betrays his, and Ford's deeper affinities with the old codes of conduct. His final affirmative gesture to Linda Cristal, has taken the course of the whole film to be revealed openly. But McCabe, like Ford, is apt to question the old values in a changing frontier.
Edmond O'Brien, Lee Marvin, James Stewart
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), could well be, as Peter Bogdanovich stated, Ford's final statement on the Western. Doniphon (John Wayne), the epitome of the Old West, dies without his boots on, without his gun, and receives a pauper's funeral, but the man of the New West, the man of books, has ridden to success on the achievements of the first who was discarded and forgotten. It is perhaps the most mournful, tragic film Ford ever made. There is nothing wrong with the New West, it was inevitable. Yet as they ride back East, Stoddard (James Stewart) and Hallie (Vera Miles) look out of their train window at the passing Western landscape and Hallie comments on how untamed it used to be, and how it has changed almost into a garden. But one feels that Ford's love, like Hallie's, remains with the wildness of the cactus rose.

Liberty Valance, like Two Rode Together, presents a bleak, low-key contemplation of the old myths. One feels Doniphon's bitter frustration, when, as Liberty Valance crumples into the dust Doniphan's world crumples with it. Ford makes us live, breathe and partake of Doniphon's angry awareness that he has crumpled with it. Ford makes us live, breathe and partake of Doniphon's angry awareness that he has forfeited his life with Hallie, in the ritual burning of his log cabin. As Bogdanovich points out, it takes little perception to realize that Ford's heart resides in the wild cactus rose, remnant of the old west...

There is no simple-minded nostalgia or wallowing in operation here. Ransom Stoddard is only one of a range of characters (others include Guthrie McCabe in Two Rode Together, Dr. Cartwright in Seven Women) who lie outside of the traditional Ford vision, and who are treated sympathetically. Often, as in Seven Women, it is the traditional Fordian figures (e.g., Sue Lyon) who appear most out of place as the old-world retreats, and the old Ford characters are situated in more and more isolated positions. Seven Women represents the extreme pole of Ford's tough-minded examination of his own values, and his honesty determines the film's mood of utter despair.
Anne Bancroft, Sue Lyon, Seven Women

Anne Bancroft's weary cynicism recalls James Stewart’s in Two Rode Together and both characters share a pragmatic tough-mindedness in hostile situations where more idealized values are rendered ineffectual. Both the internal threat of plague, and the external threat of the Mongols are finally exorcised from the missionaries’ midst through Anne Bancroft's quick and efficient course of action. Ford reflects on his Christian values by pushing the group of missionaries to the extremes of isolation and vulnerability. The Mission walls, and the grip of progressive darkness and fear closes around the group. Only Dr. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft) retains control of the situation - Dr. Cartwright, an atheist, pouring contempt on the missionary women, projecting moral anarchy. But it is her very worldliness that equips her to survive the situation far more effectively than the godliness of the others. And it is she who ultimately makes the affirmative gesture akin to Christian self-sacrifice and forfeits, according to traditional Christian beliefs, her right to Eternal Life. The missionaries, on the other hand, are driven through a manifestation of their worldly neuroses into increasingly negative gestures.

Two Rode Together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Seven Women, along with Cheyenne Autumn, constitute the intimate and increasingly melancholy reflections of Ford on his life and work in films. They are filled, like Ford himself, with a dense moral ambiguity that make them one of the richest body of works. if not the richest, of his towering career.
Richard Widmark, Cheyenne Autumn

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Current Cinema - Jim Jarmusch's Paterson - John Conomos considers the cinema's "contexts, mutating shifts, fissures and tensions" (Reposted from Facebook)

These are strange days indeed for cinemagoing and cinephilia in general, given the tumultuous changes that are taking place with mainstream and art cinema exhibition and distribution, niche film festivals and the little that is left of repertory cinema possibilities in a massively traumatised neoliberal global city like Sydney (ha!). To add the final insulting blow, what with TCM vanishing from our television sets, where oh where do cinephiles like yours truly seek sustenance? 
Whatever your form of cinephilia maybe – digital, televisual, and the movie theatre – rest assured one needs to take heed of the late John Berger’s recent resonating words “Hold onto everything that is dear to one’s life.” 
And like Robert Aldrich’s Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) in the incandescent noir classic Kiss Me Deadly (1955), where he approaches the recently threatened Eddie Yeager character (Juano Hernandez), Hammer wants to know if he could beat the offer the harassing thugs made to Yeager, only to be told “ I don’t think you can. They let me breathe.” One needs to be grateful for what cinema – in all of its contexts, mutating shifts, fissures and tensions – both locally and globally it still has to offer. As in the case of the indefatigable Tina Kaufman in her recent uplifting Film Alert post, where she, unbelievably seemingly, covers all possible screenings in this city. her theatre–going cinephilia is a testament to William Blake’s perception that “energy is eternal delight.” 
So contra Martin Scorsese’s recent autopsy report on the state of cinema today – that images are too hollow, too prolific, bereft of any enduring aesthetic, existential and cultural significance, etc, – I have over the years rather seen myself as a cinephile – memory harbinger, along the similar lines as proposed by Ray Bradbury’s science fiction allegory about the diminishing importance of our alphabetic book culture Fahrenheit 451 most memorably adapted for the screen by Francois Truffaut in 1966. And recently evoked by Kent Jones in his latest piece for Film Comment where he argues, as cinema rapidly diverges from its classic audio-visual spectacle, the more likely we will become Bradbury’s and Truffaut’s book people. (1) My own cinephilia is definitely in this particular mode of cultural activity acknowledging that despite our era being one of a multiplying hegemony of images in our televisual communications media, we remain as Maurice Blanchot puts it, "still in the civilisation of the book.” (2)
Adam Driver, Paterson
Something that is clearly evident in Jim Jarmusch’s recent acclaimed Paterson (2016), which was shot during the same year as his non-hagiographic collage documentary about Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Gimme Danger, is the characteristic solitary lone character Paterson (Adam Driver) who is a bus driver and an unpublished poet and who lives in a highly routine world of work, shared domestic living with his creative artist-baker wife (Golshfeth Farahani) who wants to learn country and western music and their English bulldog Marvin (named no doubt after Lee Marvin and further evidence of Jarmusch’s tongue–in–cheek secret society of Lee Marvin aficionados like Tom Waits, John Lurie, Neil Young and Nick Cave.
Paterson himself existentially and creatively relies on routine as it allows him to drift in the city of Paterson (New Jersey), making everyday wry observations about his life - world of random encounters, ordinary city folk and their rituals and values. By working in a highly routinized world as a bus driver, Paterson observes everything around him so his poetry (which he daily writes in his black notebook) may one day hopefully be published. It is his wife’s long term wish that Paterson one day will publish his poems. Gradually and reluctantly, Paterson gives in to his wife’s persistent insistence that he should publish them. But before Paterson can do this he leaves his notebook on the sofa upon which Marvin chews the book into confetti-like shreds. 
Jim Jarmusch (r)
It is a simple enough minimalist, long take, experimental non-narrative film that relies on ambience, and the director’s hallmark signature concerns of certain urban settings, a deadpan comic tone, and relatedly a wry, absurd sensibility that is anchored in a consummate genre – hybrid playfulness in popular culture, as much as the cinema –particularly the B movies and independent /underground cinema, - music, art and literature. (A few years ago having been invited to attend the wake of Taylor Mead, actor, poet and playwright, in New York City at the Anthology Film Archives, Jim Jarmusch who was sitting in front of me stood up and gave a brief but moving testament to Mead’s art and life in the Manhattan art scene of the 1960s suggesting the huge importance that this world had for the filmmaker’s own oeuvre.) In one particularly resonant sequence, we see Driver and his wife entering a movie theatre passing by a series of large colourful B movie posters including the movie they are about to see Erle C. Kenton’s black and white 1932 Paramount science fiction /horror/ romance film Island of Lost Souls, an adaptation of H G. Wells’ famous novel Island of Dr. Moreau. Charles Laughton plays the insane vivisector who on his private island is involved with unspeakable experiments trying to evolve animals into humans. With this key sequence, we have a vivid instance of cinema-going as time travel back to the last century.
Jim Jarmusch and Golshfeth Farahani at Cannes
Jarmusch’s highly personal cinema consciously avoids being shouted from the rooftops of high culture but is presented to us like letters – gesturally rich in style and theme, genre and context, mood and character - and quite modest in their concern not to underscore everything in the key of significance but, if you will, anti-significance. He reminds Amytaubjin of this in a Film Comment interview with him this year. For Jarmusch, filmmaking is avowedly non-auterist with his insistence that it is a collaboration process that involves everyone. Central to this view of filmmaking, the editing process is for him the most significant creative stage. Editing means, for him, capturing the random moments of life in all of its subtleties, gestures and textural sight and sound qualities. 
Paterson, like his other films, favours a rather flat non-in-depth perspective which for someone like Raul Ruiz is a distinctive non-American quality and is not fully appreciated in Europe. As the exiled Chilean director put it “ In America I like Jim Jarmusch. He’s working in a very anti-American way. In Europe these aspects of his work are not appreciated, and I think that’s very interesting. In Mystery Train (1989), for example, he plays with certain aspects of regularity and symmetry – approaches that are not very American – and Europeans hate the idea that an American can be non-American. But after all, Americans can be humans too!” (3) (It is worthwhile noting that with Ruiz’s first USA feature, the phantasmagorical The Golden Boat (1990), which borrows freely from American police dramas and telenovelos, there are numerous memorable cameos from Jarmusch himself, Barbet Schroeder, Vito Acconci, Kathy Acker, Annie Sprinkle and music by John Zorn.)
Like Paterson, Jarmusch seeks the lyrical, the poetic, in the everyday quotidian, based on William Carlos Williams’ commitment to “the American grain” by focusing not on ideas as such but on things. This colloquial aesthetic is markedly anti-elitist, non-academic and lowbrow. In poems like “This is Just to Say” and “The Red Wheelbarrow” and many others, Williams is accentuating the texture of the everyday. Hence, we see Paterson jotting down his observations and poems that range across a wide array of subjects including vintage match boxes, the passengers on his bus and their conversations, his romantic longing, etc. In a critical sense, what we observe here is not too far from Francis Ponge’s prose poems that examine in miniature everyday objects. Like Ponge, who was influenced by existentialism and surrealism, Williams was a ‘poet of things’. 
Not only is the protagonist named Paterson, but he lives in the New Jersey city of Paterson, which is remarkably photographed capturing its past industrial, small town architecture of factories, stores, fading billboards, roads and byways. According to Jarmusch, who went to Columbia University and studied literature with David Shapiro, Kenneth Koch, two representative figures of the so-called New York School of Poetry, which included MOMA curator Frank O’Hara, John Ashberry and Ron Padgett (who actually contributed the film’s poems) and others. The director, in a very long period of gestation of note-taking and intuition, eventually decided to make Paterson. It was the subject of the eponymously named very long abstract modernist poem by Williams himself. Other factors contributed to Jarmusch’s decision to make this film: the fact that someone like Allen Ginsberg came from the city and that Robert Smithson, the land artist of entropy, whose most celebrated work The Spiral Jetty.  Smithson was delivered by Willliams, a paediatrician by profession. Smithson’s spiralling land artwork ironically suggests the film’s own circular logic of construction which deploys a very symmetrical span of a week with each day’s activities ritualistically presented as bookends. 
Given Jarmusch’s penchant for dealing with offbeat marginalised characters, unorthodox subjects, social and political themes, it is noteworthy to say how the city of Paterson itself had a rather chequered demographic, social and historical background : from Alexander Hamilton’s vision of Paterson as the first utopian, industrial city to the fact it was a hotbed of anarchism in the 19th century with child labour exploitation, strikes, etc. 
Paterson’s recurring writerly device of handwrittern text that eloquently appears across the film’s images and sounds is, a further reminder to us of Jarmusch’s dedication to locate cinema alongside the other arts especially literature, art and music. In this instance, the filmmaker is also acknowledging how his unpredictable inventive oeuvre is not only rooted in the American avant-garde/experimental cinema of the 50s and 60s, but also in the European avant-garde traditions of the last century. Like the recent two films of Pablo Larrain’s Neruda (2016) and Terence Davies’ portrayal of Emily Dickinson, the reclusive poet, A Quiet Passion, Jarmusch’s absorbing meditative film is concerned with the muses and intricacies of the poet’s life in our world and how cinema itself may reflect upon poetry. 
Finally, inspired by Paterson’s beautiful Passaic Falls over 25 years ago – which itself became the subject of Smithson’s 1968 homage photo-essay Monument to Passaic New Jersey - Jarmusch has Paterson himself sit in two separate occasions - in front of the falls – where he explores his own inner creative and ontological life. In one of these occasions Paterson encounters a Japanese poet who offers him his latest book and they talk about the intuitively sudden ‘a ha’ gestalt moment of writing poetry. These, to my mind, are set virtuosic pieces of filmmaking, performance and place. They subtly and effectively remind us how cinema, in the hands of someone like Jarmusch, can speak to us of the lyrical wonder of being alive.
Notes : 
(1). Kent Jones, “The Marginalisation of Cinema ,” Film Comment, Nov.-Dec. 2016, Vol, 52, Number 6, 2016, pp.54-59.
(2). Blanchot is quoted in “Traces of Cinema”, Jean-Luc Godard Phrases Six Films, New York, Contra Mundum Press, 2016. Trans., and with an introduction by Stuart Kendall.
(3). Ruiz is cited by Ethan Spigland , “ A Conversation with Raul Ruiz, “ Life is A Dream The Films of Raul Ruiz ( Part 1) Dec. 2-22 Film Society Lincoln Centre

Noel Bjorndahl's Personal History of Film (3) - In praise of Burt Lancaster

Lancaster and Ava Gardner, The Killers
BURT LANCASTER 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.
Apache

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 (1954), 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 (1954), 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.
Shirley Booth, Lancaster, Come Back Little Sheba

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.
Tony Curtis, Lancaster, Sweet Smell of Success

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.
The Leopard

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.

Lancaster, Paul Winfield, Twilight's Last Gleaming

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 Canadian 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.


Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, Atlantic City