In his early films Burt Lancaster often played haunted, troubled characters – his career began in the brooding films of director Robert Siodmak.
He then turned to lighter subjects, becoming a smiling, gallant, swashbuckling hero before again reverting to the more thoughtful topics of films like Come Back. Little Sheba and Birdman of Alcatraz.
In his younger days Lancaster was a gymnast and an acrobat, touring with his diminutive friend Nick Cravat (who later appeared in his more energetic movies), as Lang and Cravat, but his career as a circus performer ended with a hand injury. After the war he found work on Broadway as an army sergeant in A Sound of Hunting. At this point he was spotted by the movie industry and made his film debut in The Killers.
Lancaster soon proved himself a shrewd operator and before long he had started his own production company, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster. with his agent Harold Hecht and the producer James Hill. They went on to produce such memorable movies as Apache, Trapeze and Sweet Smell of Success.
Lancaster received the Best Actor Academy Award for his role as the preacher in Elmer Gantry, and was voted Best Actor by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts for his superb performance in Louis Malle’s Atlantic City, proving that, though well into his sixties, he was still a compelling actor.
Here is our pick for five of his best movies.
The Killers (1946)
An insurance investigator (Edmund O’Brien) digs up crime, betrayal, and a glamorous woman (Ava Gardner in best femme fatale mode) behind an ex-fighter’s (and current gas-station attendant’s) death. Classic noir from Robert Siodmak, a master of the genre, scripted by Anthony Veiller with an uncredited assist from John Huston, based on a story by Ernest Hemingway. Lancaster made a sizzling film debut in the role of Swede, the murdered boxer. Rozsa’s main theme was later borrowed for the opening sequence of TV’s Dragnet. Ava Gardner said of Mark Hellinger, the producer who cast her in The Killers “Mark saw me as an actress, not a sexpot. He gave me a feeling of the responsibility of being a movie star, which I had never for a moment felt before.
Director: Robert Siodmak
Cast: Edmond O’Brien, Ava Gardner, Jack Lambert, Burt Lancaster, Sam Levene,
Come Back, Little Sheba (1952)
An attractive boarder stirs the barely hidden seeds of contempt between a tired, disappointed housewife and her husband, a washed-up alcoholic doctor. Great performances bring William Inge’s 1950 play to life on the big screen. Lancaster campaigned vigorously to win the role of the husband in Come Back, Little Sheba. At that point in his career Lancaster wanted to extend himself beyond the action heroes seen in such films as The Crimson Pirate. Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama: Shirley Booth. Academy Award Nominations: 3, including Best Supporting Actress: Terry Moore; Best Film Editing.
Director: Daniel Mann
Cast: Shirley Booth, Burt Lancaster, Lisa Golm, Richard Jaeckel, Terry Moore, Philip Ober
From Here to Eternity (1953)
Landmark example of Hollywood melodrama at its finest. An all-star cast brought what was considered an unfilmable novel to the screen with skill and grace. The story portrays the loves, hopes, and dreams of those in a close-knit army barracks in Hawaii shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Montgomery Clift plays a former boxer who refuses to fight after blinding a friend in the ring and is sent to the remote outpost as punishment for his insubordination. Donna Reed plays spectacularly against type as a bar girl who comforts Clift. Lancaster and Deborah Kerr have their illicit sprawl in the surf, and Frank Sinatra makes a remarkable movie-career rebound. A big story with performances to match. Based on the novel by James Jones. The film grossed well over $12 million in 1953, making it the third most popular movie that year. The first and second slots went to Peter Pan and The Robe, respectively. Golden Globes for Best Director; Best Supporting Actor: Frank Sinatra. Academy Award Nominations: 13, including Best Actor: Montgomery Clift; Best Actor: Burt Lancaster; Best Actress: Deborah Kerr; Best Score.
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Cast: Ernest Borgnine, Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster, Philip Ober, Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra, Jack Warden
Elmer Gantry (1960)
Fine adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s 1927 novel about a charismatic ex—football player who becomes an evangelist, plagiarizing speeches to promote himself above all else as he successfully exploits the folks of America’s Corn Belt during the ’20s. Of all the roles he played, Burt Lancaster said the philandering evangelist was “most like me.” Lancaster admitted using John Huston’s “mannerisms” to create the character Academy Award Nominations: 5, including Best Picture. Other awards include a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama: Burt Lancaster.
Director: Richard Brooks
Cast: Burt Lancaster, John McIntire, Jean Simmons, Edward Andrews, Dean Jagger, Arthur Kennedy,
Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)
A thoughtful study of the prison life of Robert Stroud, a convicted murderer who found a redemptive outlet in caring for wayward birds. Despite an unforgiving prison system favoring punishment over rehabilitation, Stroud went on to make breakthroughs in the treatment of bird diseases. Prior to director John Frankenheimer helming the movie, both Joshua Logan (South Pacific) and Charles Crichton (Ealing’s The Lavender Hill Mob) were engaged to direct. Crichton was fired after one week on the set.Academy Award Nominations: 4, including Best Actor: Burt Lancaster.
Director: John Frankenheimer
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, Hugh Marlowe, Neville Brand, Betty Field, Edmond O’Brien, Thelma Ritter