TCM is paying tribute to Burt Lancaster, whose birthday falls in November. Lancaster has been one of my favourite actors since I was a child. Lancaster has incredible screen presence: You simply can’t take your eyes off him, even if he is sitting quietly in the background. Few actors have had such a commanding presence on screen; obviously, his physicality played a part in this, as he moved with incredible grace, and had a powerful physique. More importantly, however, was the confidence and self-assuredness that Lancaster exuded; apparently this was true also of the man himself. Another aspect I admire about Lancaster was his willingness to play different characters, not all of which were heroic or admirable. Lancaster’s famous smile could be charming or menacing: You need think only of his character J. J. Hunsecker in The Sweet Smell of Success to see how that smile could be used as a weapon. Below are my favourite Burt Lancaster films:
Judgement at Nuremberg: Although Lancaster had very little dialogue in this film, his one speech to the Tribunal is memorable; even in his silence, he spoke volumes. The film itself is a masterpiece of acting, directing, and pacing.
The Sweet Smell of Success: Lancaster played a truly unpalatable, cold, and ruthless character, which I doubt too many leading men of his time would have been willing to do. The level of cynicism of this film is palpable, and it’s by far Tony Curtis’ best performance.
The Killers: It’s a good film in its own right, but made more special by the fact that this is Lancaster’s film debut. The opening sequence is memorable in the way it foretells the fate of Lancaster’s character. Lancaster and Ava Gardner are an impossibly beautiful pair.
The Crimson Pirate: If you had to equate fluff with Lancaster, this film would be it. It’s a joy to see Lancaster with that gleeful smile, having the time of his life performing the on-screen acrobatics for which he had trained as a youth.
Run Silent, Run Deep: A tense and taut thriller that pairs Lancaster with the iconic and legendary Clark Gable.
Seven Days in May: Lancaster’s character is frightening in its fanaticism and conviction. The scenes between Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, and Lancaster and Frederic March are particularly memorable
Elmer Gantry: Burt Lancaster at his best. No other film matches this combination of Lancaster charm, physicality, energy, determination, and pure magnetism.
It’s proving to be very difficult keeping this list small, as so many of Lancaster’s films were of excellent quality (e.g., The Train, The Leopard, etc.). Needless to say, Lancaster was one of a kind and we’ll never see his like again.