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Tag: burt lancaster

Million Dollar Movie

Burt Lancaster had been a movie star for nearly forty years when he appeared in Scottish director Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero, but it’s probably the film that first made me a Lancaster fan. I’m sure I’d seen him before on TV – a movie of the week airing of The Island of Dr. Moreau, or on HBO’s heavy rotation of Zulu Dawn – hell, maybe even a Million Dollar Movie broadcast of John Frankenheimer’s excellent thriller, Seven Days In May. Regardless, while I knew the name and face of Burt Lancaster, he’d never meant anything to me until Local Hero hit cable TV a short while after its 1983 release. I was just old enough to appreciate its charms and to become a fan of its legendary star.

Local Hero finds a Houston oil company yuppie, MacIntyre (Peter Riegert), sent to Scotland by his employer, Knox Oil & Gas, to purchase an entire town and its bay for a new refinery. The research and planning has been done, all that’s left is for the deal to be made with the locals. MacIntyre gets the job due in part to last name. However, he confides to his friend that his parents were Hungarian and they adopted the name MacIntyre because they thought it sounded “American.” That detail gives you some sense of the world view of Forsyth’s film.

This is a true gem of a movie: gentle, but pointed, moody, but hopeful and eccentric and funny without trying too hard. Local Hero gives the viewer the illusion of comfort of familiar terrain while actually being quite unlike any other film.

Forsyth, who had already had one sleeper hit the previous year with Gregory’s Girl, has said that without Lancaster’s star power, the film would likely not have been made. Lancaster plays the CEO of Knox Oil, Felix Happer and though he’s on screen far less than Riegert, he creates a truly memorable character. Lancaster was no longer the acrobat or chiseled tough guy of his youth, but he’d grown into an even better actor.

Happer has some of the qualities we’d expect of the CEO of a massive oil company: he’s a narcissist and a bully. However, he’s got a couple of somewhat endearing quirks, most prominently his fascination with astronomy. When MacIntyre visits Happer for last minute instructions on the deal before flying to Scotland, Happer seems only interested in making sure MacIntyre will call him personally at any time if he witnesses anything unusual in the heavens – especially in Virgo. This sets up the beautiful sequence of a drunken MacIntyre’s rapturous phone call to Happer as he witnesses the aurora borealis for the first time.

Lancaster and Riegert both deliver layered, nuanced performances that keep the delicate balance of whimsy and cold reality in play. (Happer may be a boorish oil billionaire, but you’d like to think that if he ran BP, the current disaster in the Gulf of Mexico would never have played out like this.) Lancaster’s comic touch in his dealings with his quite possibly deranged psychoanalyst is especially deft and charming.


Million Dollar Movie

In one of Burt Lancaster’s finest roles he had the misfortune, and then the great fortune, to go head-to-head for the audience’s affection with Susan Sarandon’s lemons.

Louis Malle’s Atlantic City (1980) traces the decay and rebirth of a city and a man as Lou (Burt Lancaster), an aged one-bit-hood who’s sniffed but never tasted a life of crime, bumbles his way into his beautiful neighbor’s screwed-up life. That neighbor is Sally (Susan Sarandon), and her daily work in a casino oyster bar leads to the ritual cleansing of her bare breasts and arms with lemon juice each night. Watching the painstakingly thorough application of said juice through Sally’s kitchen window, we share a voyeur’s perch with Lou from his darkened room next door. Thus begins our identification with Lou–through our common depravity.

The first fifteen minutes spread out silently, setting the plot and place like a gentle ocean wave lapping the shoreline. Such sustained quiet in a film is striking in its own right, but all the more unlikely when you realize it was written by a playwright. This is John Guare’s only attempt at conceiving a project explicitly for the silver screen, and you wonder if he just got bored with the medium because it came so naturally to him.

Louis Malle has juxtaposed much of the opening action with scenes of demolished and decayed buildings. Old Atlantic City was razed and rebuilt with the legalization of gambling in 1976, a metamorphosis etched in the lines of Lou’s rumpled suits. Gone is the city’s axis of organized crime, replaced by the glitz of the legal jackpot and the free-for-all drug trade. Lou is just another decrepit structure, waiting for the wrecking ball. Watching Lou running numbers through the poverty stricken parts of town, or trying to hock a shamefully stolen cigarette case, he seems outside of time–like a guy selling Christmas trees in May.


Millon Dollar Movie

Flipping Reality The Bird

I probably shouldn’t admit this given that I consider myself relatively well versed in classic cinema, but I’ve seen alarmingly few Burt Lancaster films. In fact, out of the 86 titles listed on his IMDb page, I’ve seen exactly two, and one of them is Field of Dreams. Not that Lancaster’s performance in that flick was unworthy, his Moonlight Graham was the most fully realized character in that film, but by that point Lancaster was 76 and in his final theatrical release.

The other Lancaster film I’ve seen came after my wife and I visited a friend in San Francisco and hit the usual tourist traps including the dormant island prison of Alcatraz. When we got back home, we watched Clint Eastwood’s Escape from Alcatraz (which is exactly what it sounds like, was filmed on location, and matched the description of the real-life events we were given while touring the prison) and Lancaster’s Birdman of Alcatraz, which was shot on stage sets and could more accurately be said to have been “inspired by” rather than “based on” the life of the titular character.

The actual Birdman of Alcatraz was Robert Stroud, a teenage runaway who became a pimp in Alaska and, ten days shy of his 18th birthday in 1909, shot another pimp during a scuffle and was convicted of manslaughter. Various incidents during Stroud’s incarceration, including the murder of a guard, increased his sentence, ultimately to death, but in 1920, his mother appealed to President Woodrow Wilson for a stay of execution and was given one. Stroud instead spent the next 23 years in solitary confinement at Leavenworth Federal Penitentary before being moved to Alcatraz. While at Leavenworth, Stroud took an interest in some injured birds in the courtyard and, over the years, turned himself into one of the leading ornithological minds in the world and the author of the classic text, Stroud’s Digest on the Diseases of Birds, among other titles.

The film, released in 1962, a year before Stroud’s death, is a fictionalization of Stroud’s story with Lancaster playing a stoic, heroic version of the brilliant psychopath who wasn’t actually allowed to keep birds after being transferred to Alcatraz in 1943. As biography, it’s bunk. As a tale of rehabilitation and self-motivation, it’s inspirational, thanks largely to the quiet dignity of Lancaster’s performance.


Million Dollar Movie

Guest Writer: John Schulian

It is a sign of the times that our movie heroes no longer go traipsing off to Mexico to scratch their itch for unlikely nobility, filthy lucre, or good old-fashioned trouble. The show-me-your-papers crowd in Arizona would have us believe there are so many illegals heading north that even celluloid mercenaries looking south of the border better stay home lest they be trampled. Myself, I’d suggest that the abundance of lead being slung in Mexico’s drug wars makes telling stories about brave yanquis, especially the contemporary variety, about as plausible as having Madonna sing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Once, however, the land of Villa welcomed Humphrey Bogart so he could die a greed head’s death in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and Robert Mitchum, fresh out of a very real jail, as he tracked down a missing Army payroll in “The Big Steal.” You should know about “The Magnificent Seven,” of course, just as you should “The Wild Bunch”: two classic Westerns that sprang from the idea of American bad men finding something good inside them under Mexican skies, the former ending with a triumphant ride out of town, the latter with a fireball of dark glory. And then there is a hugely entertaining Western that is too often forgotten, “The Professionals,” which is about early 20th Century mercenaries who are crazy brave but not stupid. Four of them, to be exact: Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode, each possessing more testosterone by himself than there is in all of Hollywood today.

Lancaster was a former circus acrobat who did his own stunts and, legend has it, could handle himself in a street fight. Marvin fought his way through World War II as a marine in the Pacific, and, with a mug like his, he must have put up his dukes a few times as a civilian, too. Ryan boxed in college (and was nothing less than splendid in the fight racket noir “The Set-Up”). Strode played football at UCLA, broke the NFL’s color line (alongside college teammate Kenny Washington), wrestled professionally, died a righteous death in “Spartacus,” and, though he was 52 when “The Professionals” was released in 1966, looked like he was made of steel cable.


Million Dollar Movie

Because “Bitter Smell of Vicious, Cynical Self-Loathing” Would’ve Been a Hard Sell at the Box Office

I love this dirty town.” That’s the only line from Sweet Smell of Success that I quote on a regular basis, but only because I don’t quite have the presence to pull off “You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried.” For that, you need Burt Lancaster.

Sweet Smell of Success is one of the most brutal movies I’ve ever seen that includes almost no physical violence at all; it’s just funny enough to keep you from slitting your wrists afterwards, but with humor so cold and sharp you could use it for a razor blade. Anyone who thinks of the 1950s as a Norman Rockwell era of innocence should be sat down in front of this paean to cutthroat cynicism and soul-destroying ambition, then given a nice mug of warm milk and a hug.

Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster, two good-looking actors with charisma to burn, have never been less attractive. It was a brave choice by both of them (and the studio was opposed to Curtis taking the role of smoothly sniveling Sidney Falco, a press agent who’s had all the empathy, dignity, and morality burnt out of him by a lifetime of humiliations), but I think especially by Lancaster. Sidney Falco is at least occasionally pitiable, but Lancaster’s Walter Winchell-esque monster J.J. Hunsecker is one of the least redeemable characters ever committed to film. (See his inclusion on the AFI’s list of all-time movie villains, although that is, now I look at it, one terrible list — if you think Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were the “villains” of Bonnie and Clyde, you missed the whole damn point. And “Man” in Bambi as an all-time villain? Please. But that’s a whole separate post).

I first remember seeing Lancaster in Atlantic City, a favorite VHS rental of my dad’s (mostly for the line “You should’ve seen the Atlantic Ocean back then… it was really something.”). Later I saw him in From Here to Eternity and the cheesy fun western Vera Cruz, with his magnetic appeal on full display, and in the film noir classics Criss Cross and The Killers, where he was a dark, flawed, but handsome and charismatic figure. He is still my definitive Wyatt Earp in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral – which came out in 1957, the same year as Sweet Smell of Success, but takes place in a staggeringly different America. Lancaster was a gorgeous young man, and still quite an eyeful in his forties, but J.J. Hunsucker is too despicable to have even a shred of sex appeal.

Words are the weapons in Sweet Smell of Success (written by Ernest Lehman and blacklisted lefty Clifford Odets, and directed by Alexander Mackendrick), and J.J. Hunsecker is its serial killer; Freddy Kreuger and Mike Myers earn more viewer sympathy. This is all by design, of course, and the merciless screenplay doesn’t pull a single verbal punch:

It’s a dirty job, but I pay clean money for it.

The cat’s in a bag and the bag’s in a river.

Like yourself, he’s got the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster.

Son, I don’t relish shooting a mosquito with an elephant gun, so why don’t you just shuffle along?

My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in thirty years.

Match me, Sidney.

Those last three are Lancaster’s, and only a handful of the movie’s best. (For full effect, of course, the last one needs to be quoted while holding an unlit cigarette). According to rumor the script was brilliantly rewritten by Odets months past deadline, while he was in the midst of a nervous breakdown, and then rushed scene by scene directly from his typewriter to the set.

The movie was shot on location in New York, and I’m not sure you could say it has any affection for the city — really, I’m not sure you could say this movie has any affection for much of anything — but it certainly gets a jolt of jittery energy from its setting. The story could be transplanted to Los Angeles easily enough, I expect, but it wouldn’t be same without the rushing crowds its characters struggle past, or the packed bars and restaurants where glamor and power and desperation and slimy cunning are jostled together.

If Sweet Smell of Success has a flaw, it’s that the female lead, J.J.’s sister Susan, around whom the whole plot turns, is never really developed as a character, at least not compared to the devastatingly etched male leads. But on reflection I believe this is not really a gender issue – not because she’s a woman, but rather because she’s moral and kind. These are not the human facets that Sweet Smell of Success is interested in, and god bless it for that. Nice people are almost never any fun to quote.

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