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|Burt Lancaster: Acting the right charisma (Part II)|
|Saturday, 02 June 2012 19:21|
LANCASTER’S first films during the 1940s are powerful examples of the decade’s unique Film Noir genre; but they do not deliver as yet his special intense cinematic characterizations consisting of athletic prowess; a fluctuating serious-to-funny demeanor; his especially brilliant charismatic speech tone; and an unforgettable aptitude for roles of leadership.
Nevertheless, these first five films: ‘THE KILLERS’ from Hemingway’s story, (1946); ‘BRUTE FORCE’ and ‘I WALK ALONE’ (1947); ‘SORRY, WRONG NUMBER’ (1948); and ‘CRISS-CROSS’ (1949) display that vital social quality, where the freedom of imaginative art explores topics of both psychological pitfalls, and moral lessons.
‘Brute Force’, a major film about the inhumane and sadistic attitude of certain prison staff towards inmates, and their brutal reaction would change the American prison system instantly towards better and more humanitarian conditions, proving the ability of purely creative art to affect society for the better.
From Here to Eternity
It is 1953’s audacious ‘FROM HERE TO ETERNITY’, directed by Fred Zinnemann, from the equally audacious novel by James Jones, that first brought out Lancaster’s special knack for portraying a liberal and sensitive authority figure.
As the sergeant who not only shoulders all the responsibilities for his superior officer, even providing necessary romance for the officer’s neglected wife, Lancaster subtly used this role to explore his multiple screen qualities of seriousness, duty, irony, humor, camaraderie, risqué romance, and even physical violence, acting as a morally superior and preventative of others’ anarchic personal violence.
Lancaster’s experience as a Special Forces soldier in World War II was translated productively on many levels under Fred Zinnemann’s sensitive and honest direction of ‘From Here To Eternity’. 1954 brought Lancaster’s special gift for exploring the limits of physical and mental attractiveness to a new level in two unique Westerns he made, back-to-back, under Robert Aldrich’s direction: ‘APACHE’, co-starring the gorgeous Jean Peters, and ‘VERA CRUZ’, co-starring Gary Cooper as Lancaster’s upright partner.
‘Apache’ is not a routine Western at all, since it explores the significance of a specific tribal member (convincingly played by Lancaster because he sympathizes with it) who refuses to adjust to the emasculation of his original free lifestyle, and who personifies the perennial realism of any non-Western person coming to grips with the encroaching ups and downs of a new Westernized lifestyle.
‘Vera Cruz’, on the other hand, remains a glorious Western which shows us Lancaster’s ability to portray an arbitrary and sinister personality cloaked in an attractive physical and mental charisma.
Lancaster in 1957
Lancaster’s career is a bit haphazard, due to the multiple directions his multiple talents offered, so apart from the commercial benefits his athletic prowess brought in various films like ‘HIS MAJESTY O’KEEFE’ and ‘THE KENTUCKIAN’ of 1955, and ‘TRAPEZE’ of 1956, we should not lose sight of his other more intense film roles.
One of the best of which is that of Wyatt Earp, the legendary and truly great real Marshal, who, in the late 19th Century, with his three brothers, took on the responsibility of bringing lawlessness to an end in frightening real frontier towns whose names like ‘Tombstone’ and ‘Dodge City’, spell out their violent and criminal character.
Lancaster is an ideal creative depiction of Earp in one of his greatest humane roles in ‘GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL’ of 1957, directed by the outstanding John Sturges, whose films, especially his Westerns, form one of Hollywood’s best oeuvres about friendship, loyalty, justness, anti-racism, and social integrity.
Lancaster, as Earp, achieved a milestone in his film career, because one can see and feel his belief in the role, where, along with the steadfastness of his authority as a Lawman, there is also a gentlemanly, sensitive heroism (the real Earp was known for using pacifist psychology on his opponents) beneath his stern exterior.
Lancaster stands at the centre of the perfect acting this film achieved, with Kirk Douglas, unforgettable as Doc Holiday, Earp’s troublesome but precious gambling friend; the wonderful Earl Holliman, one of Hollywood’s best supporting actors of the 1950s, as Earp’s young Deputy; the hot, voluptuous red-head Rhonda Fleming, as Earp’s strong-willed love interest; Lee Van Cleef, in the front seat of villainy with profound realism; Dennis Hopper, charting an early ability to portray the pitfalls of blind family and group following, all make ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ a masterpiece from start to finish, including the unforgettable opening images on the screen, to the last pieces of dialogue between Lancaster and Douglas, and most original of all, perhaps the greatest Western theme song, sung with gusto and earnest conviction by the touching Western voice of Frankie Lane.
This is a film which moves us throughout, and Lancaster holds it together, both in form and content.