The Criterion Shelf: Starring Burt Lancaster

The handsome, virile movie star's filmography shows someone willing to test the limits of his screen persona.

Burt Lancaster (1913-1994) practically burst through the screen when he made his debut in Robert Siodmak’s The Killers, turning to acting after years as an acrobat in the circus. A tall, broad-shouldered lug with a swindler’s smile, equal parts intellectual and corporeal with an image that was easily changeable. Sometimes he was as sexy and soft as a pin-up, other times he was an ugly brute and it was only a matter of a simple change in facial expressions. By the early 1950s, Lancaster was a top of the line movie star after his iconic surf in the turf with Deborah Kerr, quickly starting his own independent production company to usher movies like Marty to movie theatres and give people more to choose from than just splashy CinemaScope garbage. By the 1960s, he was an Oscar winner who was also appearing in European classics (like The Leopard) and by the time of his death in 1994, he was a legend. The Criterion Channel has assembled fifteen of his films, and here they are in my preferred order, with Colin Biggs graciously contributing his thoughts on The Swimmer:

Sweet Smell Of Success  (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

Without a doubt one of the most exciting films of the 1950s, and one that still feels cool, The Sweet Smell of Success is about an amoral press agent (Tony Curtis) who has lost his soul thanks to even more amoral columnist, played by Burt Lancaster as a character based on Walter Winchell. Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker uses his influence to ruin the lives around him with sanguine ease, at delicious odds with Curtis desperately grasping for something meaningful. Gorgeously shot and featuring a terrific musical score by Elmer Bernstein.


The Train  (John Frankenheimer, 1964)

This film is often found high on lists of the best train movies and rightly so. Following his more complicated and brainy The Manchurian Candidate, John Frankenheimer proved he could make a masterful straightforward action film in this tale of a train conductor who thwarts Nazi orders to take the best of France’s priceless paintings to Germany. Buying Lancaster as a Frenchman is laughable, particularly when cast next to the likes of Michel Simon and Jeanne Moreau, but it’s an incredibly movie whose scenes of destruction are unforgettable.


From Here To Eternity  (Fred Zinnemann, 1953)

Lancaster became a star and Deborah Kerr melted the ice around her proper British veneer when they took a dive in the Hawaiian surf for a scene that is still everyone’s image of the perfect make-out session, earning Lancaster his first Oscar nomination. Fred Zinnemann’s romantic melodrama (and Best Picture Oscar winner) takes place just before the Pearl Harbour attack but it’s really about toxic masculinity, particularly the fact that the other privates make Montgomery Clift’s life miserable because he refuses to box.


The Professionals  (Richard Brooks, 1966)

Richard Brooks’ exciting western, somewhere between the era of John Ford and more modern spaghetti westerns, isn’t as well remembered now thanks to more violent and discussed films like The Wild Bunch. However, but it’s a terrific blend of detailed characters, smart storytelling, and exciting action sequences. Lancaster, Woody Strode, Robert Ryan, and Lee Marvin are hired by millionaire railroad tycoon Ralph Bellamy to cross the Mexican border and retrieve his kidnapped wife (Claudia Cardinale, marvellous). The plot thickens (to say the least) when they achieve their goal. Great stuff.


I Walk Alone (Byron Haskin, 1947)

This thoroughly enjoyable B noir features early performances by Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, playing former gangster buddies who are at odds now that Lancaster has been released from prison after 14 years. Douglas owes him half the business he has successfully built up in the meantime, and Lizabeth Scott is the sultry singer who gets between them. Gorgeous cinematography and a terrific ending.


Local Hero  (Bill Forsyth, 1983)

Billionaire oil manufacturer Burt Lancaster and employee Peter Riegert travel to Scotland to see about the purchase of land for an oil refinery they want to build. They become immediately getting caught up in the magical life of the nearby small town and its charming citizens. This starry-eyed, subtly beautiful comedy is graced with depictions of a laid-back life and its comparison to the empty drive of American industry, but it might be a bit too mellow for some audiences.


Conversation Piece  (Luchino Visconti, 1974)

Visconti had to leave behind giant epics after his nearly fatal stroke, and his first project after his illness is this visually sumptuous if intimate chamber piece. Lancaster plays a retired professor and art collector who reluctantly allows aristocrat Silvana Mangano to rent a room in his mansion, then befriends Mangano’s passionate, left-leaning lover (Helmut Berger). It’s dry, but it’s beautiful as the expression of a dying filmmaker who is no longer joining the fight and is happy to watch the world burn itself in endless struggle.


Brute Force  (Byron Haskin, 1947)

Brute Force prison film that is a forerunner in some ways to The Shawshank Redemption and Orange Is The New Black, but features a level of violence that at the time audiences found shocking. Burt Lancaster plays the prisoner wanting to lead an escape from the prison run by Hume Cronyn, who starts out wanting to be humane and understanding but is pressured into become a tyrant. Slow-going but satisfying.


Birdman of Alcatraz  (John Frankenheimer, 1962)

A follow-up in some ways to Brute Force, this one starts with Burt Lancaster as a violent murderer who figures out how to cure birds’ diseases while in solitary for decades. Based on the true story of Robert Stroud, this one feels dishonest in the manner that it softens up the tale of a dangerous criminal to manipulate an audience’s sympathy, but it features Lancaster’s best work and is a surprisingly easy 150 minutes to sit through.


Elmer Gantry  (Richard Brooks, 1960)

I prefer Burt Lancaster in his more subtle performances like The Swimmer, but I can’t begrudge him the pleasure of an Oscar for his turn as yet another con man. This time, he plays one who takes advantage of the popularity of temple revivalism in Depression-era America. He sells himself as a Bible-touting preacher while secretly remaining a beer-guzzling lout with loose women in his past (including Shirley Jones, who also collected an Oscar and tore up her wholesome image). I think Jean Simmons as an Aimee Semple McPherson-esque preacher is the more exciting performance, but it’s a solid film that manages to criticize organized religion without insulting the people who need something from it.


The Swimmer  (Frank Perry, 1968)

Bil Antoniou:  Lancaster gives a haunting performance as a man who, on a whim, swims from one pool to the next in his swanky Connecticut neighbourhood, encountering various aspects of his neighbour’s false upper-middle-class respectability. It’s based on a short story and plays like one, it’s too wrapped up in its themes to be full-bodied cinema, but Lancaster’s impressive physique (52 and still looking good in almost nothing the entire time) and a brilliant scene with Joan Rivers (in her first feature film) make it well worthwhile.

Colin Biggs: Before Don Draper coolly stepped into the public consciousness, Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) was the avatar of cultural malaise and nostalgia for a time long gone. Ned’s going to swim his way across the valley one pool at a time. This detour sounds whimsical, but the film reveals that Ned is a child wiling away the summer, putting off the growing up he has to do along the way. When Ned first appears, he embodies the virile icon of masculinity that he built his career on, but later that facade crumbles away into a sad man clinging to his youth. Lancaster’s ease at playing both halves of Ned Merrill is just another example of why he’s such a celebrated actor. The beauty of nature Ned pines for is real, but much of what he has to say can be waved away as an aging lothario desperately wooing his way into bed with every woman he can before he dies. But Ned isn’t alone in deceiving himself. Post-war America was plagued by social decay and the disintegrating value of human life. The Swimmer was a poke in the eye to a white, upper-class suburban America that saw the sky as the limit but settled for picket-fences and complacency. Left to face what remains of his life, Lancaster’s breakdown as Ned is what makes The Swimmer a lasting treasure.


Sorry Wrong Number  (Anatole Litvak, 1948)

Barbara Stanwyck’s last Oscar nomination was for this adaptation of the radio play about an ailing woman who overhears a murder plot on her telephone and tries, from her confined space, to prevent it. Burt Lancaster is still in his post-Killers era of playing the heavy, in this case her weary husband who has problems of his own, caught in a swindling scheme that sees him being blackmailed. It’s a minor film, but Stanwyck elevates it to something worthy of your time.


Seven Days in May  (John Frankenheimer, 1964)

Sort of the anti-Dr. Strangelove, this is Lancaster working with Frankenheimer again, as well as co-starring with Kirk Douglas. Douglas works for the president and starts to believe that right-wing general Lancaster is planning a military coup of the United States government. Dry and brainy, this one’s scripted by Rod Serling and is smart enough to make your head hurt. Not an easy watch but a good one.


The Rainmaker  (Joseph Anthony, 1956)

Burt Lancaster seemed quite comfortable playing a supporting role to a number of actress showcases in the 1950s. (He played the husband to two Best Actress winners: Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba and Anna Magnani in The Rose Tattoo.) This list includes romancing Katharine Hepburn in this adaptation of N. Richard Nash’s play. Lancaster plays a con man who comes to a land ruined by a drought and promises rain while also promising marriage to a spinster (Hepburn) whose prospects have dried up too. Rather mild fare for the fifties, but not boring.

Separate Tables  (Delbert Mann, 1958)

I already talked about this one in my column on Wendy Hiller, but suffice it to say that Lancaster, who produced the film, doesn’t exactly blend in with all the British toffs surrounding him.