Spotlight On: Burt Lancaster

Being a circus performer from a very young age, Burt Lancaster realized he had a skill for entertaining audiences. After a military stint in World War II, his desire to perform took him to the Broadway stage where he caught the attention of powerful producer Hal B. Wallis. Wallis brought the talented and ruggedly handsome actor back with him to Hollywood and signed him to a deal. His film career began in 1946 and he quickly found a niche in the film noir genre which was in full swing. After building his reputation as an actor, Lancaster began taking on the role of producer with his Hecht-Hill-Lancaster company. Today Burt Lancaster is recognized as one of the greatest icons to ever grace the screen, never afraid to take risks and deliver for the camera.

The Killers (1946): One of the seminal movies of the film noir movement gave Lancaster his onscreen debut. In a small town a duo of hitmen gun down Lancaster’s seemingly ordinary character. But a dogged insurance investigator (Edmond O’Brien) discovers this murder victim was actually Ole “the Swede” Anderson. Once his boxing career ended in injury Anderson was seduced by Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner) to help her gangster boyfriend with a heist. Things went south and he disappeared with the dough. Now with his death all of his collaborators are crawling out of the woodwork to find the missing money. Under the direction of the visionary Robert Siodmak, the Killers made stars of both Burt Lancaster and his co-star Ava Gardner.

Brute Force (1947): This bleak prison flick easily ranks as one of the best of its ilk. At Westgate Prison, the warden is under pressure and the captain of the security guards (Hume Cronyn) is a sadist. This is the world where the take-no-crap inmate Joe Collins (Lancaster) lives. But with his wife Ruth (Yvonne De Carlo) now suffering from a life-threatening illness and needing him by her side, Joe has had enough. Assembling his crew together he plans on breaking out of the joint. Of course with a plan this intricate breakdowns are bound to occur meaning he will have to escape using pure brute force.

Criss Cross (1949): A few years later, Burt Lancaster would reunite with Siodmak for another landmark film noir. Once again, he is a poor sap manipulated by a femme fatale, his ex-wife Anna (Yvonne DeCarlo). Though she is now married to a gangster (Dan Duryea) she carries on an affair with Lancaster’s character Steve. With his job being an armored car driver this inevitably brings him into a plot to rob a truck. Things go south and between, Steve, Anna, and her ruthless husband Slim there are those who are not going to walk away from this. A violent and cynical movie, Criss Cross gave Lancaster a deep role to dive into and dive into it he did.

The Crimson Pirate (1952): In this fun high-seas adventure, Lancaster took on a role as producer as well as stars as such got to work with many of his friends/frequent collaborators like Robert Siodmak and Nick Cravat. Playing off his circus heritage, Lancaster plays the acrobatic pirate Captain Vallo, the Crimson Pirate. When a rebellion begins to brew in the Caribbean, the clever buccaneer sees a chance to turn a big profit. But his plans hit a snag when he meets Consuelo (Eva Bartok) the daughter of rebel leader El Libre. This convinces the famed Crimson Pirate to join the fight for independence.

From Here to Eternity (1953): This 2002 addition to the National Film Registry sees Burt Lancaster leading an all-star ensemble including: Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed, and Ernest Borgnine. With World War II on the horizon, Pvt. “Prew” Prewitt (Clift) transfers to a new unit where he is pressured by the captain (Phillip Ober) to use his boxing skills to help their company in competition despite his refusal to do-so. This sets off a host of naval drama within the unit. Lancaster portrays First Sergeant Warden who is having an affair with the captain’s wife, Karen (Kerr) who is dealing with a marriage that is falling apart. She hopes to end the marriage in the hopes of being with Warden, but he is unsure if this is the path he wants. Not only is this film a classic but, From Here to Eternity features Lancaster and Kerr engaging in one of cinema’s most famous kisses.

The Sweet Smell of Success (1957): As a producer, Burt Lancaster had a skill for finding projects to bring to life. However, for my money this was his best film in a producer capacity, unabashedly this sleek noir is also one of my all-time favorite movies. Lancaster portrays one of cinema’s greatest villains, JJ Hunsecker. As the top newspaper columnist in New York City, Hunseker wields his immeasurable power with precision, manipulating others and spouting razor sharp dialogue. Amoral press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is desperate to get his clients name dropped by the writer, but it will come at a price. What begins as a plot to ruin the relationship between Hunsecker’s sister and her boyfriend evolves as the columnist exerts more control over Falco. Lancaster’s towering performance as the manipulative and controlling writer helped ensure that JJ Hunsecker was listed by the American Film Institute as one of moviedom’s 100 greatest villains.

Elmer Gantry (1960): Inspired by the Sinclair Lewis work about religion during the 1920’s, Lancaster takes on the title role playing a charming but sleazy con man who crosses paths with the evangelist Sister Falconer (Jean Simmons). Elmer Gantry works his way into her act and the two travel around spreading the word. Nobody in her camp trusts Gantry for obvious reasons but they can not argue with the hype and money he draws. The gravy train seems set to derail when the sister wants to set up a permanent church home in a major city where Elmer Gantry’s past can come back and bite him.

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961): This film sees Lancaster play a man at the center of one of the all-time great legal films. During the historic Nuremberg Trials, Chief Judge Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) is charged with overseeing the trial of respected intellectual Dr. Ernst Janning who is accused of playing a horrendous role in the Nazi sterilization cause. Now that the dust is settled Janning realizes the true impact of the actions he took in the name of patriotism and party loyalty. The fact that a defendant does not resemble the monsters one usually expects on this trial, Haywood has to look within himself and at Germany as a whole is ensure justice is carried out. Lancaster proves to be the perfect centerpiece for a film filled with incredible actors like himself and Tracy; but also Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, Judy Garland, William Shatner, Montgomery Clift, and Werner Klemperer.

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962): Based on the true story of Robert Stroud (Lancaster) a prisoner who never has a problem resorting to violence even murdering a prison guard. Serving a commuted life sentence he encounters a baby bird who survived a downed nest. This awakens a seemingly forgotten shred of humanity within the inmate as he leads his fellow prisoners in caring for area birds while educating himself on the species. From behind bars he immerses himself in aviary care setting up a number of cages to care for them, even becoming a respected expert in the field thanks to his medical discoveries. When everything seems to be on the upswing and he even marries a fellow bird-lover (Betty Field) but he is transferred to the infamous Alcatraz cut-off from his pets and under the watchful eye of the spiteful Warden Shoemaker (Karl Malden). However, he is still able to continue his new life path proving himself a changed man. As Robert “Bird Man” Stroud, Burt Lancaster received an Oscar nomination for bringing to life this unlikely tale of redemption.

The Swimmer (1968): This surreal film features what many consider Burt Lancaster in his finest performance. While at a pool party, Ned realizes that all of the swimming pools in the neighborhood are connected together allowing him to simply swim back home. Along his journey he crosses paths with others along this pool-based river including women from his past. Ned’s journey is one which forces him to truly take a look at himself and confront many of his own delusions about how he sees the world. A true Hollywood icon like Lancaster starring in the Swimmer gave a massive amount of credibility to an experimental flick. This film still has a strong cult following that adore this movie even to this day.