Both parents the children of Irish immigrants, Burt Lancaster (1913 – 1994) was born into the overflowing, boisterous melting pot of New York’s East Harlem. Precociously garnering attention as a child in plays at the local Union Settlement House, Lancaster tried to escape his starry destiny, even rejecting scholarship offers by the famed American Laboratory Theater. Instead, a surprising growth spurt pointed the avid reader and restless student toward a more athletic vision, and he eventually left the confines of the classroom to join the circus. He and acrobatic partner Nick Cravat developed a vaudevillian act which the Army then applied toward Lancaster’s tour of duty in WWII entertaining troops and filling many roles in the fast-paced production of their half-improvised revues.
Not long after the war’s end, Hollywood quickly took notice of the tall, blonde Adonis in his first Broadway play and wasted no time shuttling him into the silver spotlight. Gleaming beneath the sharp shadows of Robert Siodmak’s master noir The Killers, the newborn star was instantly propelled to supernova status. As he sped to the top, Hollywood had little time to prepare for the actor’s outspoken confidence, indefatigable vigor, sincere sense of duty and cautious skepticism of Tinseltown’s glamorous machinations. Enthusiastic and eager to understand every aspect of movie-making, Lancaster became notorious for intellectually analyzing scenes and taking over productions. Though often resulting in spectacular clashes with his directors and co-stars, this also meant he maintained meticulous control of the action – performing all of his own stunts and developing an innate sense of staging. He also had what no other actor could claim: an acrobat’s grace and lithe, muscular body which he directed with subtle precision.
Despite his inexperience, the young Lancaster was galvanized by the new phenomenon of semi-independents who worked with studios yet maintained creative control. One of the largest actor-managed studios at the time, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster and its other incarnations and companies produced over twenty films with and without the star, including Kiss the Blood off My Hands, Run Silent Run Deep and the surprise success Marty – the first American film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The studio was fatefully run aground by its daring, icy exposé of the incestuous celebrity and press courtship in Sweet Smell of Success. One of their most brilliantly crafted works of art and one of Lancaster’s most chillingly corrosive roles, the film proved too much of a shock to starstruck 1950s audiences.
In acting, producing and in his few instances directing, Lancaster remained the fearless entertainer swinging from a great trapeze. Balancing popular films with “art pictures” and braving self-imposed challenges, Lancaster made a career of learning on the job through radical departures and intentionally chose roles against any mold that began to form too tightly around him. For every From Here to Eternity, Gunfight at the OK Corral or Crimson Pirate, there was Come Back Little Sheba, The Leopard or The Swimmer. Remaining invested in his audience and the bottom line as well as broader artistic and moral statements, he mixed his art and celebrity with his politics, often taking on projects that suited his various social causes. With varying degrees of success, he continued throughout his life to exercise his fame and power by attempting to push past his own limits as well as those of mainstream Hollywood. At the age of 47, he portrayed a Nazi in Judgment at Nuremberg and starred in the edgy, low-budget The Young Savages; that same year he was named the number one box office star in the U.S.
Gracefully poised between inordinate fame and quixotic reinvention, the uniqueness of his path through cinema may slip by unnoticed, while the stately figure of Lancaster pervades the legendary Hollywood statuary like a formidable Everyman. The quintessential Burt Lancaster mannerisms and clipped diction – plus the teeth and the physique – complete an undeniably commanding and distinctively American presence. Certainly, the consummate Lancaster character – with his independence, earnest openness and a dreamy introspection often taken to heroically idealistic heights – seems a manifestation of America’s ideal projection of itself. Perhaps his control over the finished product – combined with his less-than-glamorous risk-taking – contribute to his films’ direct reflection of his own maturation and that of his prime American audience. In the words of biographer Kate Buford, the span of Lancaster’s greatest work “charts the arc of postwar mainstream American life.”
In collaboration with the Brattle Theatre, the HFA is thrilled to celebrate the centennial of the fascinating American icon, Burt Lancaster. – Brittany Gravely
Special thanks: Joanna Lancaster; Greg Kachel; Paul Malcolm, Nina Rao – UCLA Film and Television Archive; May Haduong, Cassie Blake – Academy Film Archive; Rosaria Folcarelli – Cinecitta.
Film descriptions by Brittany Gravely, Haden Guest and David Pendleton
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick. With Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison
US 1957, 35mm, b/w, 96 min
Worried that he had been typecast as a comedy director, Alexander Mackendrick leapt at the chance to direct Ernest Lehmann and Clifford Odets' famously hard-bitten script about a dangerous megalomaniac newspaper columnist and the unscrupulous publicist who acts as his toady. Burt Lancaster, who was also one of the film’s producers, gives the film its nervous pulse, delivering an unsettling performance as a power hungry media star driven by a frightening instinct to destroy all enemies and protect his younger – and not so innocent – sister at absolutely any cost. The breathtakingly authentic vision of New York in the age of Walter Winchell is electrified by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe seizing all of the gritty glitter of the city between the glamorous incandescence and sordid shadows.
Directed by Jules Dassin. With Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford
US 1947, 35mm, b/w, 98 min
Soon-to-be-blacklisted director Jules Dassin's excoriating and angry prison drama uses the "big cage" as a metaphor for the lost innocence and spiritual malignancy of post-WWII America. One in a series of Forties’ films haunted by talismanic portraits of women, Brute Force uses a dreamy calendar model as the inspiration for a series of flashbacks that reveal Lancaster and his fellow cellmates to be united by bad luck, bad timing and impossible love. Lancaster's mournful yearning turns to embittered rage when a carefully planned break-out pits him against the messianic and warped ego of the Napoleonic prison warden made viciously real by the brilliant Hume Cronyn. During the film's furious, fiery climax of man against machine, Lancaster's expressive use of his body is harrowing and perhaps unsurpassed in his entire career.
Directed by Daniel Mann. With Anna Magnani, Burt Lancaster, Marisa Pavan
US 1955, 35mm, b/w, 117 min
Winning an Oscar for her portrayal of a grief-stricken widow, Anna Magnani spirals off into a bitter, sorrowful rage within the overheated darkness of Tennesee Williams’ play. While painfully extinguishing relationships with her daughter, her small business and her Sicilian community, she madly, masochistically obsesses. Midway through the film however, Lancaster’s Alvaro Mangiacavallo bursts into her anguished existence – an odd reflection of her dead husband – and brings with him a dramatic shift in tone. Alvaro’s statuesque form and simmering sexuality – which seem nearly accidental in the hands of the exuberant child-like clown – lead to a comic, awkward seduction. His naïve entertainer is as exhausting a force of life as her tragic diva, and together they set theatrical fire to every corner of Williams’ actual Key West neighborhood.
Directed by Robert Siodmak. With Burt Lancaster, Nick Cravat, Eva Bartok
US 1952, 35mm, color, 105 min
Joined with former circus sidekick and lifelong friend Nick Cravat, Burt Lancaster’s acrobatic past is in full swing in this rambunctious Technicolor spectacle at sea. Playing the lovable pirate with a loyal crew of bandits, the god-like Lancaster confidently, mischievously basks in the physical presence that made audiences so smitten. As Vallo, he easily overtakes the King’s ships, yet an island of oppressed rebels with more lofty goals and an intelligent beauty at the helm complicate his gold-driven navigation. During the hunt in Hollywood for any hint of a crimson-taint, the film’s merrily disguised political jabs fused with the defiant power of the newly independent producer/star – presenting a provocation to both the FBI and the Hollywood studio system. The handsome swashbuckler was successfully luring audiences while making new rules for outdated regimes.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Burt Lancaster, Bruce Davison, Jorge Luke
US 1972, 35mm, color, 103 min
Vera Cruz and Apache director Robert Aldrich situates the senseless, relentless carnage of the Vietnam War onto the stark stage of the American Western. Enlisted to hunt down a rampaging Apache leader and his gang, Lancaster’s wizened scout clashes with the young Christian cavalry lieutenant whose simplistic idealism is easily confused upon confronting extreme racism and violence on both sides. Well aware of the convoluted contradictions of war and an impassable cultural chasm, McIntosh – a character Lancaster admired deeply – lives between the white and Apache worlds judging no one, yet suffering no fools. As the allegoric action coils into a taut, bloody ring, the greater complexities within the subsequent confrontation perish unceremoniously amid a barren atmosphere of death, disillusion and indifference.
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Burt Lancaster, Helmut Berger, Silvana Mangano
Italy/France 1974, 35mm, color, 121 min. Italian with English subtitles
For his penultimate film, Luchino Visconti again cast Lancaster as a pensive man watching the world change before his eyes. Instead of an aristocrat, as in The Leopard, Lancaster plays an aging professor of art history whose peaceful, sequestered life is uprooted when a vulgar marchesa suddenly moves into the upper floors of his house in Rome. The film is in some ways an updating of Death in Venice by way of May 1968, as the professor finds himself drawn to the marchesa’s gigolo lover, who turns out to have a past in student activism. Out of this highbrow melodrama, Visconti fashions an elegiac meditation on politics, culture and sexuality, graced by one of Lancaster’s most poignant performances.
Directed by Fred Zinnemann. With Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr
US 1953, 35mm, b/w, 118 min
Lancaster found his biggest role of the Fifties leading Fred Zinnemann's rapturously celebrated and multiple Oscar-winning adaptation of James Jones's best-selling WWII epic set in a US Army base in Honolulu during the days leading up to Pearl Harbor. Seen today, From Here to Eternity is perhaps most remarkable for its stinging pessimism about American exceptionalism and its unvarnished critique of military hubris and blind hierarchy. As an uber-male career officer trying to be just within a system he knows is rigged – and while willfully falling in love with his superior's restless wife – Lancaster brings together the film's unprecedentedly frank depiction of adultery, power abuse and shattered dreams. Interweaving torrid melodrama with a cracked version of the service film, From Here to Eternity offers a sobering reassessment of the stakes and costs of the Second World War on the American psyche.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Charles Durning
US 1977, 35mm, color, 144 min
Lancaster’s final film with Robert Aldrich is among the director's least known masterworks, a taut political thriller about nuclear missiles in the hands of a rogue general determined to make the White House pay for the disastrous folly of Vietnam. Lancaster channels Aldrich's blistering anti-institutional ire into a portrait of an aging and steely-eyed veteran who has carefully, and symbolically, chosen his last and most perilous mission. Misunderstood and abused by critics at its original release, Twilight’s Last Gleaming was for many years a stubbornly unavailable holy grail of ardent cinephiles until the recent unearthing of the revelatory director's cut screened here in its Cambridge/Boston premiere.
Directed by Byron Haskin. With Burt Lancaster, Lizabeth Scott, Kirk Douglas
US 1948, 16mm, b/w, 98 min
A lesser known dark gem from Lancaster's noir period, I Walk Alone is a melancholy study of betrayal and male loneliness. Byron Haskin's debut feature offers Lancaster’s ex-con returning wide-eyed from an unjust prison term. An emblem of the old world petty gangster, he has been left behind by the new corporate criminal – embodied by his cunning ex-partner played with feline unctuousness by Kirk Douglas. The film's moody allegory of a changing world order points more to 1930s French poetic realism than the hard-bitten postwar American crime drama, a quality captured in the flickering moth-in-flame intensity of Lizbeth Scott's whispered lisp and the somnambulist sadness of Wendell Corey as Lancaster's ill-fated ally. Print courtesy of the Academy Film Archive
Directed by Luchino Visconti. With Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, Alain Delon
Italy 1963, 35mm, color, 187 min. Italian with English subtitles
Like the classic novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa on which it is based, Visconti’s masterpiece is an opulent evocation of a society in flux during the fight for Italian unification. Burt Lancaster plays the Sicilian nobleman of the title who attempts to maintain his power amid the escalating rise of the bourgeoisie. In a performance that intentionally embodies the character of his exacting, enigmatic director while suggesting the actor’s own proud, powerful yet uncertain standing at his age, Lancaster navigates the aristocratic realm on and off screen with weary acumen. The tragic and triumphant changing of the guard culminates in the long and famous ballroom sequence during which “The Leopard” reaches a summit of understanding and acceptance. Restored print from Fox.
Directed by Robert Siodmak. With Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien
US 1946, 35mm, b/w, 105 min
Not quite like anything the postwar screen had ever witnessed, Burt Lancaster’s first exposure to cinema audiences is primal, passive and explosive: a marked man lies in bed, stoically awaiting his assassination. As the story of “the Swede” cleverly unfolds through multiple characters’ flashbacks, his brutish and sensitive, simple and tormented soul materializes. Easily bewitched by Ava Gardner’s alluring femme fatale, Lancaster’s Swede quietly discloses a dreamy, frightened vulnerability with a hint of intelligent torment beneath his arresting features. The only Hemingway-based film of which the author approved, Robert Siodmak’s nihilistic vision of double-crossed double-crossers is tightly bound by moody nocturnal cityscapes, a potent Miklos Rosza score and a spry, brisk script by Anthony Veiller and an uncredited John Huston. The film’s opening death marked the extraordinary birth of a star, hurtling the thirty-two-year-old Lancaster directly into Hollywood’s legendary constellation. Print courtesy Universal Studios.
Directed by Louis Malle, With Burt Lancaster, Susan Sarandon, Michel Piccoli
US/France/Canada 1981, 35mm, color, 103 min
As if his 1940’s noir hoodlum had lived to see the 1980’s, Lancaster’s Lou Pasco catches only faint echoes of those glory days between his small numbers running and petty errand running for an aging widow of a notorious gangster. As Atlantic City disintegrates before him, Lou maintains – like the Leopard – his dignity and a tender awareness of the station to which age and cultural change have taken him. When a drug deal brings the crime underworld on his heels, money in his pocket and a charming young woman at his side, he accepts this second youth with a giddy astonishment and chivalrous self-possession tempered by the wisdom of age. Rather than fall into tried-and-true mannerisms, Lancaster embraces Louis Malle’s sweet rendering with the restraint of an actor humbly consenting to yet another reincarnation.
Directed by Robert Siodmak. With Burt Lancaster, Yvonne De Carlo, Dan Duryea
US 1949, 35mm, b/w, 88 min
Reunited with the great noir visionary and The Killers director Robert Siodmak, Lancaster returned to his first iconic role as a hapless yet willing victim, although now buffeted by even crueler tides of masochism, fatalism and callousness than their earlier film. The dark pleasures of Criss Cross that lie in its tightly coiled and sinisterly elaborate heist narrative and in the stabs of cruel humor inflicted by Daniel Fuchs' crackling dialogue are surpassed only by the sneering jester-like villain played by the always extraordinary Dan Duryea. Criss Cross is celebrated today as an elegiac documentary of sorts thanks to its remarkable location shooting in the now lost world of the decrepit Bunker Hill neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles which was shortly afterwards destroyed in the name of "urban renewal.” Print courtesy Universal Studios.
Directed by Norman Foster. With Joan Fontaine, Burt Lancaster, Robert Newton
US 1948, 35mm, b/w, 79 min
Underappreciated and rarely screened Kiss the Blood Off My Hands lives up to the dark evocative hyperbole of its title, delivering a sad and often touching portrait of a life fatally derailed and a love never consummated. Possessed by a murderous rage against the world, Lancaster is frighteningly convincing as a luckless criminal who is first tamed and then inspired by the quiet charms of the winsome nurse played with characteristic timidity by Joan Fontaine. The evocative score by Miklos Rozsa and the dramatic cinematography by Russell Metty (Touch of Evil, All that Heaven Allows) brand Kiss the Blood Off My Hands with the heady Romantic fatalism so essential to 1940s film noir. Print courtesy Universal Studios.
Directed by John Frankenheimer. With Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau
France/Italy/US 1965, 35mm, b/w, 133 min
Lancaster takes on the Third Reich and reshapes art history in this fascinating proto-action film about the French Resistance's efforts to rescue a train filled with artwork looted by the Nazis. John Frankenheimer maintains a brisk, at times furious, tempo to keep abreast with Lancaster's Sisyphean running man whose each obstacle is replaced with another even more extreme. Although Arthur Penn was summarily fired by Lancaster over "creative differences,” Penn's love of the nouvelle vague is apparent in his affectionate casting of Jeanne Moreau and Albert Rémy, Antoine Doinel’s father.
Directed by Robert Aldrich. With Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Denise Darcel
US 1954, 35mm, color, 94 min
Playfully alluding to the differences in the actors’ outspoken politics and studio-branded personae, Robert Aldrich places Burt Lancaster’s charming, coarse and unscrupulous rancher into an uneasy partnership with Gary Cooper’s civil and upstanding Southern military gentleman. Through multiplying twists and double crosses, the two mercenaries charge full-speed ahead on a special mission to Mexico to protect a charming countess. Aldrich’s second collaboration with Lancaster as actor and producer was endangered by its extravagant and unpredictable production riddled with sickness, improvised scenes and live ammunition. Encapsulated in Lancaster’s disarming smile, Aldrich’s fusion of the beautiful, volatile spectacle of the old Western with the complex morality and menacing absurdity of the genre’s modernist revisions blazed a deconstructive trail for the violent, cynical visions of Peckinpah and Leone.
Directed by Frank Perry. With Burt Lancaster, Janet Landgard, Janice Rule
US 1968, 35mm, color, 94 min
A cult favorite, The Swimmer is a striking and dreamy adaptation of an enigmatic John Cheever short story about a seemingly successful New England executive forced to look back over his life in the course of a long afternoon spent tracing a path through his neighborhood swimming pools. Cheever's keen eye for the alcoholic malaise and mid-life crises simmering just beneath the shimmering veneer of New England suburbia finds its match in the film's careful attention to the polite rituals and cruel insinuations that go hand-in-hand as Lancaster encounters a series of past loves and forgotten memories. After frequently clashing with director Frank Perry, Lancaster replaced him towards the end of the production with a young Sydney Pollack. Print courtesy Sony Pictures.
Directed by Robert Wise. With Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster, Jack Warden
US 1958, 35mm, b/w, 93 min
Lancaster cast himself as a frustrated, steely-edged naval officer in Robert Wise's gripping WWII combat film and study of tenacious masculinity set almost entirely upon a US submarine on a perilous mission deep in enemy waters. Sharing top-billing is Clark Gable as a veteran submarine captain driven by an Ahab-obsession to seek revenge on the same Japanese freighter that destroyed his submarine and almost scuttled his career, back at sea for a last stand whose dangerous gambit only second-in-command Lancaster fully understands. While ultimately an affirmation of military hierarchy and American naval puissance Run Silent Run Deep soberly resists an easy victory narrative by keeping palpable the sense that the submarine's mission is always just about to go terribly wrong.
Directed by John Cassavetes. With Burt Lancaster, Judy Garland, Gena Rowlands
US 1963, 35mm, b/w, 104 min
After Judgment at Nuremberg, Lancaster fearlessly tackled another dire social message that Hollywood had never dared to address in such a direct, frank manner. The director of an institution for mentally handicapped and emotionally disturbed children, Lancaster’s stern disciplinarian Dr. Clark challenges the sympathies of Judy Garland’s music teacher who is taken with one child’s particularly heartrending, challenging story. With a couple of exceptions, the cast is comprised of children who were actual residents at the hospital, and their unvarnished performances give the earnest film a palpable edge. Ultimately, John Cassavetes’ cinema verité treatment clashed with producer Stanley Kramer’s classic vision and the young director was fired toward the end of the production. Both attitudes inform the unique film’s entreaty that the children’s lives have meaning; the only tragedy is not facing the parts of our world that fail to fit into society’s officially-sanctioned countenance. Print courtesy Park Circus Films.
Directed by Stanley Kramer. With Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark
US 1961, 35mm, b/w, 190 min
Barely free from the Birdman of Alcatraz’ prison cell, Burt Lancaster plays Third Reich judge Ernst Janning in the torrential courtroom drama based on the trials of secondary war criminals at Nuremberg. The gnawing, complex questions of culpability and morality, allegiance and compromise passionately articulated and manifesting in various human incarnations crystalize in the figure of Janning, whose capabilities as an extraordinary thinker and sensitive human complicate a viewer’s hasty prosecution. Spending much of his time inscrutably silent in a courtroom packed with startling performances – including troubled stars Judy Garland and Montgomery Clift as heartbreaking casualties of the regime – it is the solid American movie icon as a Nazi that stirs deep unease for a US audience. By the time Lancaster delivers his scorching testimony, the focus has shifted back onto the viewer’s conscience and the film’s assertion that it was not simply Germany, but a world on trial.