By Linc Leifeste | September 27, 2014
Director: Richard Brooks
Writers: Richard Brooks (screenplay), Sinclair Lewis (novel)
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, Arthur Kennedy, Dean Jagger, Shirley Jones, Patti Page, Edward Andrews, John McIntire, Hugh Marlowe
My God, Burt Lancaster. Not to say that there aren’t a lot of other things to recommend director Richard Brooks’ 1960 loosely adapted take on Sinclair Lewis’ 1927 novel, Elmer Gantry, but really, Lancaster’s brash, nuanced, striking performance is more than enough all on its own. To be honest, my amazement might say as much or more about the Lancaster-shaped holes in my film-watching experience than about this one performance, but I have rarely been as floored by an actor’s performance. And for the record, it’s a performance for which he took home the Academy Award.
Lancaster plays the titular Gantry, a fast-talking salesman, drinker, con man and womanizer with a thing for Jesus. The character’s basic nature is perfectly set up in the opening scene when his coarse barroom card game banter is interrupted by a woman asking for donations for the poor. While his fellow carousers are less than receptive, Gantry takes the hat and passes it while giving a rousing sermon on Jesus’ virtues, in the process managing to part his fellow gamblers from some of their money while also arousing the gorgeous blonde drinking alone at the bar. The next scene is Gantry waking up in a hotel room next to said gorgeous blonde, then talking to his mother on the phone to make excuses for why he won’t be home for Christmas yet again before quietly slipping out of the room and forever out of the woman’s life (right after lifting a few bucks from her purse).
From his not being able to pay his bar tab to hopping a freight train for transportation after leaving the hotel, it quickly becomes apparent that all of Gantry’s brash confidence is merely a front and at this point, the viewer would suspect that Gantry’s barroom sermon was also mere bluster. But after he runs into trouble with some hobos on the train and is forced to make an abrupt shoeless departure, he wanders into a black church service, standing out for his disheveled appearance as much as for his skin color. That is, until he begins to sing fervently along to a spiritual, knowing the words and evincing earnest spiritual longing, making it clear that Gantry has had a lengthy and intense relationship with Christianity, and soon he’s a welcome visitor.
Soon after, Gantry attends a tent revival being held by traveling evangelist, Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons) and is smitten. But it’s hard to tell if he’s more taken by her looks, her preaching or her ability to hold sway in front of a needy audience, enrapturing them with her message of faith and in the process leading them to open their pocket books. In no time, Gantry has worked his way into her organization and secured a co-starring role preaching on stage, playing the shouting theatrical hellfire and brimstone yin to Falconer’s calm, peaceful salvation-offering yang, their combined one-two punch more than their rural audience can resist.
At the heart of the film is a stinging critique of American Christianity, tied intricately in as it so often is with capitalism and hypocrisy, especially in its more revivalistic and charismatic huckster variations. But the film is highly nuanced in its presentation of faith while also taking a long, hard look at how class issues play out within faith communities. Falconer for the most part seems to be operating from pure motives while some of her council of ministers are hypocrites simply using faith to help line their pocket books. Then there’s Gantry, who is a common man with a silver tongue and base desires who seems to possibly have a sincere belief in Jesus, even if he’s never going to be able to truly walk that walk. He’s a hard man to figure out, his motives nearly impossible to read, and Lancaster portrays him with an unparalleled blend of charm, menace, sadness and mania that’s truly awe-inspiring. Is he out simply to bed Falconer? Or to fulfill his dreams of standing in front of an adoring audience? Is he simply out to make a quick buck or to spread the Gospel message to a despairing people? It’s a testament to both the film and Lancaster’s performance that those questions are never easily answered.
The film’s examination of Christianity was surely somewhat controversial in 1960’s America (apparent by the film’s opening disclaimer and warning to not let impressionable children watch) but by today’s standards it’s treated with kid gloves. That said, the film still holds up remarkably well, if not as controversial still just as engrossing and masterful in its examination of human psychology. Beautifully shot, Kino Lorber Studio Classics had done a respectable job with its Blu-ray release, the picture strikingly crisp and vibrant. To be fair, there is some noticeable audio distortion during Andre Previn’s opening theme music but it’s the only flaw that I noticed in the video or audio quality.