Today, November 2, 2013, is the centennial of Burt Lancaster’s birth. When I was growing up, Burt Lancaster was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. He was capable of making highly entertaining genre pieces, but was also considered a serious actor with Oscar nominations in his resume and one Oscar for Best Actor (ELMER GANTRY). He had his own production company and gave boosts to the careers of certain directors he’d worked with (e.g. Robert Aldrich, John Frankenheimer) and he’d also directed on his own (THE KENTUCKIAN). He co-starred in five films with Kirk Douglas and, indeed, the first film I saw Lancaster in was his fourth co-starring turn with Douglas, John Frankenheimer’s political thriller SEVEN DAYS IN MAY. Lancaster was an imposing presence who played larger-than-life roles—his Wyatt Earp in GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL is a mythical presence on a par with the heroes of ancient Greek tales—and had an athletic background that informed even his non-action roles. As he got older in the 1970s and 1980s, he turned to less showy, more character-oriented roles, with more than a touch of introspection and weariness, such as his grizzled army scout, McIntosh, in Aldrich’s cavalry western, ULZANA’S RAID (1972), and the Mexican-American sheriff, Valdez, who embarks on a quest for justice against a powerful rancher in VALDEZ IS COMING (1972), based on a novel by Elmore Leonard. I was lucky to see a lot of Lancaster movies on the big screen when I was growing up and then a lot of his older movies on television. He’s always been one of my favorite movie stars (second only to Robert Mitchum) and I’d like to recall some of my favorite movies of his.
There were three distinct phases of Lancaster’s career that I most enjoyed: his westerns, his swashbuckling adventures, and his early film noir period. Of the westerns, my favorites are Aldrich’s VERA CRUZ (1954) and John Sturges’ GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL (1957), with two more by Aldrich, APACHE (1954) and ULZANA’S RAID and Richard Brooks’ THE PROFESSIONALS not far behind.
VERA CRUZ was filmed in Mexico and told the story of a revolution engineered by Benito Juarez against the regime of Emperor Maximilian and the involvement of American mercenaries in the year 1868. The mercenaries are initially hired by one of Maximilian’s officers (played by Cesar Romero) and assigned to escort a French countess (Denise Darcel) to the title port, little knowing that the countess is spiriting three million dollars in gold coins to France in a hidden compartment of her stagecoach. When two of the mercenaries, Ben Trane, a Southern colonel late of the Civil War, played by Gary Cooper, and Joe Erin, a wanted outlaw from the north played by Lancaster, get wind of the gold, they make a deal with the countess to spirit it away themselves, just the three of them.
Eventually, though, the revolutionaries intervene and the mercenaries join the rebels in a battle with French troops in Vera Cruz, with gatling guns, cannon and grenades among the exotic weaponry employed. More than any other film, this one set the template for so many similar westerns set in Mexico to follow, from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN to MAJOR DUNDEE to THE PROFESSIONALS to THE WILD BUNCH to Sergio Leone’s westerns. There’s a showdown at the end between Cooper and Lancaster that clearly influenced Leone. Lancaster himself went on to star in THE PROFESSIONALS, while some of the co-stars here made names for themselves in later westerns. Charles Bronson went on to become one of the Magnificent Seven and starred in Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, while Ernest Borgnine was one of the Wild Bunch. Jack Elam, also in VERA CRUZ, would turn up in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST where he’d get shot down by Bronson. Archie Savage plays a black union veteran who joins the mercenaries (making this the first “group western” to include a black member) and would later turn up in the Italian western DEATH RIDES A HORSE, alongside Lee Van Cleef.
Lancaster is a charming rogue in this one, but he is an unabashed bad guy. “One million’s enough for me,” the countess declares, to which Erin responds, “It ain’t for me. I’m a pig!” When Trane shoots his lame horse, Erin derides his soft spot. Trane is smart enough to recognize that an alliance with Erin will help him survive, but he’s principled enough to know when to stand up to him. Through it all, Lancaster flashes his trademark toothy grin, brought out more vividly here by his unshaven face.
There’ve been plenty of films about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, but none gave them star treatment on such a grand scale as GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL.
I wrote about this film here on August 10, when I did a 90th birthday tribute to Rhonda Fleming, but from the standpoint of her character, Laura Denbow. Lancaster’s Earp is a self-righteous, crusading lawman in the best western tradition, if somewhat ahistorical given the real Earp’s willingness to straddle the fence on either side of the law to make a profit. The real Earp never had the high positions Lancaster’s Earp has here and never threw his weight around the way he does in this film. But Lancaster gives it real force and conviction, making us wish the legendary western lawmen had really been like this. In his first scene, Earp lambastes veteran lawman Cotton Wilson (Frank Faylen) for allowing the wanted men Earp is pursuing to pass through his town without arresting them, despite Earp having wired him ahead of time to do so. Wilson claims he had no quarrel with the men and Earp angrily decries him for turning yellow.
What’s most interesting about this version of the story is the way the friendship between Earp and Doc Holliday (Kirk Douglas) develops. Early on, Earp needs information that Holliday, a gambler and heavy drinker who frequently attracts troublemakers, can deliver so he gives Holliday a tip that will help him survive his impending encounter with angry, drunken gunslinger Ed Bailey (Lee Van Cleef), who’s got a derringer hidden in his boot. When Holliday doesn’t reciprocate, Earp can’t stay mad at him. The two wind up in a symbiotic relationship, helping each other out during key confrontations, as when Earp tries to arrest a saloon full of drunken cowboys led by arrogant trail boss Shanghai Pierce (Ted de Corsia), who’s got Holliday’s gunman rival, Johnny Ringo (John Ireland), at his side. Holliday enters unexpectedly at a key moment, gun drawn, and wings one cowboy going for his gun. Holliday declares, “The next one’s for you, Ringo!” and it’s clear he really means it, thus tipping the balance in Earp’s favor. Later on, after Earp has ended his relationship with Laura to go to Tombstone to help his brothers out, Holliday goes along for the ride and proves to be a crucial gunhand in the title gunfight. When Holliday’s on-again-off-again relationship with Kate Fisher (Jo Van Fleet) is sputtering again, she derides his friendship with Earp, prompting Holliday to assert that “Wyatt is the only true friend I’ve ever had.” In real life, Bat Masterson, another legendary western lawman and also a character in this movie, lived long enough to chronicle his days in the west and he once wrote that the oddest thing about the whole Wyatt Earp story was his friendship with Holliday, a man no one else could get along with.
Lancaster had a circus background and a brief career as an acrobat and we see these skills of his amply displayed in two swashbucklers, THE FLAME AND THE ARROW (1950) and THE CRIMSON PIRATE (1952). In both films he’s joined by his onetime circus partner, Nick Cravat, who plays a mute in both films. Lancaster does his own stunts throughout both films and he’s quite impressive, giving Douglas Fairbanks Sr. a run for his money as the most athletic swashbuckling star in Hollywood. THE FLAME AND THE ARROW is set in medieval Lombardy (now a part of northern Italy) and involves a rebellion against Germanic occupiers by local rebels led by a Robin Hood type named Dardo (Lancaster), a single father with a young son named Rudi (Gordon Gebert), a spunky lad who’s clearly a chip off the old block. When Rudi is kidnapped by Count Ulrich, aka “the Hawk,” who seeks to suppress all dissent within the local populace, a young maiden in Ulrich’s court, Anne de Hesse (Virginia Mayo), tries to tame the boy and make a little nobleman out of him. Eventually, she falls in love with Dardo and helps him turn the tables on the Hawk and his vicious sidekick, Marchese Alessandro de Granazia (Robert Douglas). THE CRIMSON PIRATE is set in the Caribbean in the late 1700s and Lancaster’s character, Vallo, is a pirate who seeks to play both ends against the middle in a local revolution and get rich in the process, but who has a change of heart after falling for the rebel leader’s daughter (Eva Bartok).
Both films played down the violence and bloodshed inherent in a swordfighting movie and emphasized humor and acrobatics. They were uncharacteristically lighthearted for Lancaster movies. I haven’t seen either one in a long time and remember enjoying both immensely, but I’ve always favored FLAME AND THE ARROW, because of its more unusual setting and time period and deliberate use of a Robin Hood template, but also because it’s got Virginia Mayo, one of my favorite leading ladies from that time, and a subplot involving a troupe of traveling players. At one point, Lancaster and Cravat infiltrate the castle of the Hawk by disguising themselves as acrobatic performers and doing a whole acrobatic act, mingling with an actual troupe of players. When they’re discovered and the guards attack, Norman Lloyd, playing a troubadour ally of Dardo’s, looks at the real performers and demands to know, “Are we going to let them do this—to players?!” thus prompting the rest of the troupe to join the battle.
Lancaster made three other films in this vein, TEN TALL MEN (1951), about the French Foreign Legion; SOUTH SEA WOMAN (1953), a south seas World War II adventure also co-starring Virginia Mayo; and HIS MAJESTY O’KEEFE (1954), a historical south seas adventure based on actual characters. While the first two of these three are perfectly enjoyable light entertainments, O’KEEFE is distinguished by a large, multiracial cast and location shooting in the Fiji islands. Lancaster plays the title character, an adventurer who seeks to harvest copra on the island of Yap and make a fortune, but can’t do it without the help of the natives, who have no incentive to strain themselves with such unrewarding labor. O’Keefe comes up with a novel way to do it and soon makes enemies in the process. The native chief, Boogulroo, is played by black American dancer Archie Savage, who also shows up alongside Lancaster in VERA CRUZ the same year. O’Keefe has a native girlfriend, played by Jamaican actress Tessa Prendergast, until a half-white girl shows up (played by English actress Joan Rice) and takes over the leading lady spot. Benson Fong plays O’Keefe’s Chinese sidekick. Charles Horvath plays an actual historical figure who was one of O’Keefe’s more prominent antagonists, Bully Hayes, an American pirate operating in the South Seas from the 1850s to the 1870s. It’s a grand adventure and Lancaster plays it with good cheer, with the multiracial cast giving it a whole different tone than most similar Hollywood adventures. There’s a true sense of different cultures at play, negotiating with each other rather than one dominating at the others’ expense.
Lancaster had a good run in a string of film noir crime classics made from 1946 to 1949. THE KILLERS (1946) was the first, Lancaster’s film debut, and he plays “Swede,” a boxer who gets caught up in a crime caper and eventually goes on the run. The opening ten minutes of the film offers a near letter-perfect adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s short story of the same title, a sequence culminating in Swede’s murder in a small town by a pair of hired killers who’ve tracked him down. The rest of the film shows how he got there in a series of flashbacks provided by an insurance investigator’s determination to find out who Swede was and why he was killed. Ava Gardner co-stars as Kitty Collins, the femme fatale who gets Swede into all that trouble. Edmond O’Brien plays the insurance investigator and Sam Levene, Albert Dekker and Jeff Corey are among the many supporting players. The film was directed by German emigré film noir specialist Robert Siodmak.
Lancaster plays a young man who’s basically decent at heart, but gets pulled to the wrong side of the law, chiefly as the result of the mutual attraction between him and charming bad girl Ava Gardner (in her first major film role) and despite the efforts of his longtime buddy, cop Sam Levene, to keep him on the straight and narrow. We like Burt’s character, Ole Anderson, and we root for him. We get pulled into his turbulent life even if he acts bone-headed a lot of the time. Lancaster is smoldering throughout and proves he was a movie star from the start.
BRUTE FORCE (1947) was a prison film presenting a maximum security prison as a stand-in for a totalitarian state run by a Nazi-like captain of the guards (played by Hume Cronyn). Lancaster, in his second film, plays one of a group of prisoners whose stories are told in flashback and all involve one gorgeous Universal actress or another (Yvonne De Carlo, Ann Blyth, Ella Raines). It all culminates in a jailbreak that was astonishing at the time for its graphic violence and bleak finale. The film was directed by Jules Dassin who later left the U.S. to work in Europe (RIFIFI) after being blacklisted in Hollywood.
Lancaster’s third film is remarkable for how his miscasting in it shifts the whole balance of the film—in a good way. DESERT FURY (1947) is what I call color noir. When I first saw it on late-night TV three decades ago, I was astounded to learn it was in Technicolor. By all rights, it should have been in black-and-white. The main characters are played by Lizabeth Scott and Mary Astor, as daughter and mother in a Nevada gambling town, where Astor, as Fritzi, runs an illicit establishment but wants the best for Paula, her daughter who’s been sent to the finest finishing schools but has come back home drawn by something she can’t get elsewhere. John Hodiak is the male lead, Eddie Bendix, a gambler/racketeer on the run, a former lover of Fritzi who now takes a shine to Paula and she to him. (She’s got father issues.) Wendell Corey plays Johnny Ryan, Hodiak’s jealous sidekick who apparently wants Hodiak all to himself. Lancaster is the fifth wheel, a boy-next-door type deputy sheriff who loves Scott and waits patiently, or not, for her fling with Hodiak to end.
Lancaster doesn’t get much to do except scold Scott from time to time, but his intensity and physicality overpower the film and make Hodiak and Corey look like minor thugs indeed. What does she see in Hodiak when she’s got this hunk panting after her? And Lancaster comes off as much stronger than either of the two so-called tough guys. He clearly has nothing to fear from them. Just compare this to OUT OF THE PAST (1947) the same year, where they made a much more conventional (but still compelling) situation out of similar material. In that film, Robert Mitchum is the tough guy on the run who attracts the love of a small-town girl (Virginia Huston) who is, in turn, loved by the local deputy sheriff, a cleancut, straight-arrow guy (played by Richard Webb) who’s dependable but quite a dullard compared to smooth-talking, unflappable, sleepy-eyed Mitchum. In DESERT FURY, Hodiak’s surliness and lack of charisma, which makes his character much more realistic, is overshadowed by Lancaster’s star power, which makes Scott’s attraction to Hodiak even more petulant and off-kilter, which makes the whole thing somehow more dramatically interesting than it might have been. (Scott’s husky voice and melancholic demeanor are perfectly in sync with the character here.) In any event, DESERT FURY’s dream-like mix of Technicolor, keenly played melodrama (supplied by screenwriter Robert Rossen) and Miklos Rozsa’s feverish score make for quite a delirious cinematic experience.
After a cameo appearance in Paramount’s all-star VARIETY GIRL (1947) where we see Lancaster in his DESERT FURY costume, but in black-and-white, Lancaster’s next starring film was I WALK ALONE (1948), a crime drama that pairs him for the first time with Kirk Douglas. It’s the old tried-and-true plot about the criminal who takes the rap for his buddy and expects to be compensated when he gets out. Here Lancaster is the one who goes to jail, while Douglas builds up his criminal enterprise while Lancaster is gone and hides it all behind an array of legitimate fronts. When Lancaster gets out and expects a piece of the action, Douglas has his accountant explain why exactly none of the action is his. It was the fourth major film for each of them and the intensity of two young stars in their prime and battling it out overcomes any clichés in the script. Wendell Corey is on hand as Lancaster’s brother who now works for Douglas, while Lizabeth Scott is the romantic interest for both the two stars. It’s the first of Lancaster’s noirs not to be scored by Miklos Rozsa.
KISS THE BLOOD OFF MY HANDS (1948) is a more conventional romantic melodrama with crime and noir elements, but Lancaster is truly the star of it and has a much more central role than in his previous films. For once, he’s got a thoroughly clean and wholesome girl as his female lead, rather than a femme fatale, and she’s played by Joan Fontaine. The film is set in London and Lancaster plays an American war veteran who gets into trouble with the law and is helped by a shy nurse, played by Fontaine, and attempts to get his life into order. A blackmailing criminal tries to draw him into a caper and he almost goes along with it until the nurse intervenes. Further complications ensue but a happy ending is in store, making this one a little different from most of Lancaster’s noir. It’s not a great movie, but Lancaster is compelling in it and has a gripping monologue about his troubled past and always being on the run, which he delivers to Fontaine, who responds with love and understanding, which is all he really needed all along. It’s quite moving, as I remember it. And Miklos Rozsa did the score.
Finally, we get a reteaming with Robert Siodmak, CRISS CROSS (1949), which is notable for some incredible location filming in Los Angeles and its own unique flashback structure. The film begins near the end of its story, with Lancaster about to embark with a gang of shady characters on a robbery of the armored truck he happens to drive for a living. The flashback shows us that he’s an L.A. man who’s come back to town years after divorcing his wife, Anna (Yvonne De Carlo) only to find out he’s still got a yen for her. They start dating again, but she soon marries a local gangster, played by the ever-snarling Dan Duryea, whom she’d been seeing while Lancaster was away. When Duryea catches the two together, Lancaster has to save himself from Duryea’s homicidal wrath by contriving an armored car caper with himself as the inside man. From there, things keep spiraling downward. This was the last Lancaster film to feature a score by Miklos Rozsa. This and THE KILLERS are arguably the best films of Lancaster’s noir period, THE KILLERS having the best plotting, while CRISS CROSS is the most masterfully directed with its intricate choreography of the two leads’ star performances amidst the locations, cinematography and music, as well as the most complex characters of the bunch and an adult relationship that clearly smacks of the way two attractive young adults in postwar L.A. might have actually behaved.
And I still haven’t gotten to so many other great Lancaster movies, including FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953), APACHE (1954), THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957), ELMER GANTRY (1960), THE YOUNG SAVAGES (1961), JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961), THE SWIMMER (1968), CASTLE KEEP (1969), ULZANA’S RAID (1972), TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING (1977), and, of course, the very first one I saw, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY. Plus, there are some I’ve never seen in their entirety, including ALL MY SONS (1948), SORRY, WRONG NUMBER (1948), COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA (1952), THE ROSE TATTOO (1955), TRAPEZE (1956), THE RAINMAKER (1956), RUN SILENT RUN DEEP (1958), SEPARATE TABLES (1958), A CHILD IS WAITING (1963), THE GYPSY MOTHS (1969) and CATTLE ANNIE AND LITTLE BRITCHES (1981). He was quite an active movie star during his peak years and had as nice a long and fruitful run as any of the great stars. He died on October 20, 1994 at the age of 80. (Nick Cravat died on January 29 that same year, at the age of 82. Kirk Douglas is still around, as of this writing, set to turn 97 on December 9.)
Here’s a link to Leonard Maltin’s report on Lancaster’s death as it aired on Entertainment Tonight on October 21, 1994:
Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is doing a tribute to Lancaster this month, airing 29 of his movies on Wednesdays in November, including several I cited above (THE FLAME AND THE ARROW, THE CRIMSON PIRATE, TEN TALL MEN, SOUTH SEA WOMAN, HIS MAJESTY O’KEEFE, THE KILLERS and BRUTE FORCE). There are a few I’ve never seen, plus a number I watched on TV a long time ago in the pre-VCR era and haven’t had a chance to see again. Now’s the time to record them.
Here’s the schedule:
Wednesday, November 6
8 p.m. – The Killers (1946)
10 p.m. – Come Back, Little Sheba (1952)
11:45 p.m. – From Here to Eternity (1953)
2 a.m. – The Swimmer (1968)
4 a.m. – The Gypsy Moths (1969) – TCM Premiere
6 a.m. – Jim Thorpe – All American (1951)
8 a.m. – The Flame and the Arrow (1950)
9:30 a.m. – Apache (1954)
Wednesday, November 13
8 p.m. – Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957)
10:15 p.m. – Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
12 a.m. – Elmer Gantry (1960)
2:30 a.m. – Seven Days in May (1964)
4:45 a.m. – His Majesty O’Keefe (1954)
6:30 a.m. – The Devil’s Disciple (1959)
8 a.m. – The Hallelujah Trail (1965)
Wednesday, November 20
8 p.m. – Mister 880 (1950) – TCM Premiere
9:45 p.m. – Judgment at Nuremburg (1961)
1 a.m. – Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
3:45 a.m. – The Train (1965)
6 a.m. – A Child is Waiting (1963)
8 a.m. – South Sea Woman (1953)
9:45 a.m. – Ten Tall Men (1951)
Wednesday, November 27
8 p.m. – Field of Dreams (1989)
10 p.m. – The Leopard (1963)
1:15 a.m. – The Professionals (1966)
3:30 a.m. – The Crimson Pirate (1952)
5:30 a.m. – Brute Force (1947)
7:15 a.m. – The Young Savages (1961)
9 a.m. – Vengeance Valley (1951)