Tag: Burt Lancaster

The Leopard (1963)

The Leopard (1963)

Possibly the most luscious film ever-made, Visconti’s epic is a beautiful film of rage against the dying of the light

Director: Luchino Visconti

Cast: Burt Lancaster (Don Fabrizio Corbera), Alain Delon (Prince Tancredi Falconeri), Claudia Cardinale (Angelica Sedara), Paolo Stoppa (Don Calogero Sedara), Rina Morelli (Princess Maria Stella of Salina), Romolo Valli (Father Pirrone), Terence Hill (Count Cavriaghi), Serge Reggiani (Don “Ciccio” Tumeo), Leslie French (Cavalier Chevalley), Pierre Clémenti (Francesco Paolo Corbera), Lucilla Morlacchi (Concetta Corbera), Ida Galli (Carolina Corbera), Ottavia Piccolo Caterina Corbera)

There might not be a more visually ravishing film than Visconti’s The Leopard. Every detail of costume and set design is perfect in this gloriously stately, carefully crafted adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s only novel. It’s a perfect match for the autumnal melancholy of Visconti’s elaborate work, as an ageing prince in the Risorgimento rages quietly against the dying of the light. The Leopard is a delicate and carefully-paced film that carries a sweeping romanticism.

It’s 1860 and if the Sicilian aristocracy “want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”. Italy is forming itself into a nation and Sicily is in a state of civil war. On one side, the forces of the revolutionary republican Garibaldi – on the other, the old-guard of Francis II of the Two Sicilies, clinging to keep Sicily part of the Bourbon empire. Watching all this, Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster), scion of a noble family, watching the inevitability of change but clinging to tradition. His nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) embraces first the fervour of Garibaldi, then Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) the radiant daughter of nouveau riche Don Sedara (Paolo Stoppa). But is there a place for the prince in this new world of democracy and the power of the middle classes?

The Leopard hails from the same wistful remembrance of things past that powers Brideshead Revisited in the English language. In Visconti, son of Milanese nobility, it found its perfect director. Visconti didn’t just know the world behind the declining place for the nobility: he’d lived it. He brings every inch of that to the luscious beauty of The Leopard, a mournful final hurrah of a generation and way of living that has no place in the present and is only an echo of the past.

The Leopard is crammed with simply stunning period detail. Visconti shoots this with a calm, controlled, observant camera, that moves and pans slowly through sets, carefully following its players. It’s set in a world of elaborate drawing rooms and stunning vistas. Costumes are intricate in their period detail. Dinners are grand celebrations of the opulence of this bygone era. Every detail in the set is perfect to the minutest detail – you feel a drawer could be pulled open and only period-appropriate props would be contained inside.

Visconti though never makes the film a slave to its period trappings. The careful details of the prince’s life serve to stress how bygone and dying these days are. It’s a film full of moments of small but telling undercutting that stress how this world is crumbling. In church, wind blows dust across the gathered Corbera family, coating them in dirt. They mock the newly empowered Don Sedara – and the pompous chap’s ineffectiveness is hammered home when a band keeps interrupting his attempt to declare the results of a rigged unification plebiscite – but Fabrizio is desperate to secure a marriage alliance with him and it’s clear Sedara is very much in the political ascendancy.

Could Fabrizio have done more to preserve his way of life if he wasn’t so clearly entering the twilight of his years? He’s virile enough, dashing from the family home (priest in tow) to spend a night in town with his mistress. He can climb the hills and hunt with the best of them. He half considers that it’s not outside the realm of possibility for him to have a crack at Angelica himself. But this is truly the Lion in Winter. He’s powerless to defend the traditional position that guarantees his influence and lacks the drive and youth Tancredi has to fashion himself a new one. For all his wry wit and handsome features, he becomes a sweaty, mournful figure at a celebration ball watching the young people dance all night and musing on where his own vitality went.

That long ballroom sequence – a near 45-minute extended scene that ends the film – is one of the triumphant tour-de-forces of cinema. A gorgeous culmination of the beauty of the entire piece, Visconti also manages to present it as a final hurrah of a whole way of life. This celebration is crammed with military figures who call the shots and filled as much with older people struggling to keep the pace as it is young ones with an eye on something far more modern than the pleasures that thrilled their parents. At the heart of this, Visconti’s camera carefully follows the prince as he moves from room to room, a quiet, lonely observer, tears in his eyes at moments, reflecting on his mortality and rousing his youthful fire only for a single dance with Angelica.

As this rusting monument to the old ways, Visconti was gifted with a Hollywood star. To be honest, at first he was far from happy when he received Burt Lancaster. But – once you get over the oddness of Lancaster being dubbed by a plummy Italian accent – it’s a near perfect marriage of actor and role. Always a graceful and elegant actor, Lancaster becomes Italian – there is more than a foreshadow of the Godfather to him – and his genteel, noble face is perfect for this bastion, just as his expressive eyes are perfect for the part’s delicacy and sadness. It should be a bizarre miscasting, but it lands perfectly and much of the success of the final ball sequence is his ability to communicate so much from such small moments.

Visconti places him at the heart of this languid, precise film and contrasts the prince’s gentle moving out-of-step with the future with the dynamism and openness to compromise of his nephew. Tancredi – a youthful and passionate Alain Delon – is energetic and with a casual ease switches passions personal and political. Starting the film as a red-shirted revolutionary, he ends it as a uniform-clad member of the elite. Professing his love for the prince’s daughter, he ditches her on a sixpence for Angelica. Not that anyone can blame him: Claudia Cardinale is gorgeous but also shows the elemental charisma that Leone was to use to such great effect in Once Upon a Time in the West. Cardinale also feels like someone between two eras: attracted to the casual and flexible Tancredi but perhaps more drawn to the elegant grandeur of the prince.

The Leopard works as extraordinarily well as it does because it is so well paced. This is a film that requires an inordinate length, lingering shots and scenes, and for action to be happening elsewhere. Our single burst of action is to see Garibaldi’s forces fight in the streets of Palermo: other than this, momentous events happen elsewhere off-screen. The camera moves instead to study the scenery or the passing of normal people on the streets. We are always given the sense of this family and its world being cut off and left behind by real events. Tancredi starts the film explaining his conversion to Garibaldi in detail: later he will barely mention why he’s changed uniforms or feel the need to say why he is accepting positions the revolutionaries reject.

It’s not a surprise that a cut-down version of The Leopard was a major bomb when released in America. The three-hour run time is needed to truly understand the drift and ennui Visconti’s film is exploring. It does it in a film dripping with gorgeous period detail and full of scenes awash with interest, but the point is this is a film of slow, deceptive but finally overwhelming impact. The quiet, controlled, predictable life that generations of the prince’s family has known, dies with the same polite, grand silence as it largely lived. The Leopard is a stunning tribute to the passing of an era.

Atlantic City (1981)

Atlantic City (1981)

A never-was romances a dreamer in Malle’s low-key film, full of neat observations

Director: Louis Malle

Cast: Burt Lancaster (Lou), Susan Sarandon (Sally), Kate Reid (Grace), Michel Piccoli (Joseph), Hollis McLaren (Chrissie), Robert Joy (Dave), Al Waxman (Alfie), Moses Znaimer (Felix)

Lou trundles around Atlantic City taking a few cents for bets and wanting anyone who listens to know that back in the glory days of the Boardwalk Empire he was a big shot. Bugsy Siegel roomed with him in the slammer. Meyer Lansky asked his opinions on the latest scores. When he killed someone, he dove into the sea to wash the exhilaration from his body. Not his fault the glory days are gone, and his life has crumbled as much as the worn out city around him. He’s still a player.

Only of course he’s not. Played in a fine autumnal performance by Burt Lancaster, Lou has the front of an ageing star, but is a dyed-in-the-wool loser. He trades on a past that never happened, full of tall stories that only the dimmest and most impressionable would consider believing. He’s essentially a kept servant of Grace (Kate Reid), a former local beauty queen (third place) and spends his nights spying on his neighbour Sally (Susan Sarandon), while she washes away the stench of the hotel fish counter she works in.

When the chance comes to spin a fantasy that means Lou could actually impress and seduce this women, he jumps at it. That chance is Dave (Robert Joy), Sally’s pathetic dweeb of an ex-husband who believes Lou is the perfect to peddle his stolen cocaine around town. Dave winds up dead, Lou pockets the money, impresses the naïve but determined Sally (training to be a croupier) and very firmly considers letting her take the rap when the cocaine’s owners turn up looking for the money.

Both Lou and Sally are dreamers – or fantasists – at the opposite end of life’s scale. Lou dreams big about a past that never was. Sally is dreaming of an impossible future – one of French class, Monaco high-rollers and earning a future as a flash croupier. Really, we know both of their dreams are fantasies. After all it should be clear only losers wind up in Atlantic City. The casinos are dumps and even the criminals are pathetic, easily out-matched by Philadelphia hoods. Louis Malle’s film captures this perfectly in a crumpling city that looks like mouldy leftovers.

Malle’s film is a marvellously structured, low-key but highly effective character study, very well acted and shot with an intelligent, detailed eye. It’s a showcase for Malle’s subtle but intelligent camera work and composition. As Lou serves Grace early in the film, he is kept constantly in the centre of the frame, the camera jerking up and down to match his movements as he fetches and carries for the bed-bound Grace. Dave is frequently shot from above, looking even more pathetic and irrelevant with every shot. This is framing that speaks volume for status and character. The camera fluidly shifts across large spaces – the boardwalk, a casino – to show different interactions in different plains, characters either unaware of each other or using events elsewhere to escape notice.

Grimy and fabulously capturing the collapsing grandeur of a city fallen on very hard times, the setting is the perfect metaphor for the disaster of the character’s lives. None more so than Lou. You can argue Malle’s film may be too sympathetic to Lou – and, indeed, contemporary reviews discussed Lancaster’s inherent dignity mistaking it for the character. Lancaster however is smarter. Lou is a pathetic, sad figure. Look how he delights in puffing himself up as a big shot for the feeble Dave. Watch the childish excitement he takes in the notoriety he collects late in the film. Lancaster perfectly understands the desperate need to dress the part, longing to be something you are not: the grand, well-dressed sugar daddy who solves problems for his moll by unwrapping the elastic band from a roll of dollar bills.

Lancaster never allows this fantasy to be mistaken for reality. When danger comes, Lou almost always freezes or looks to keep himself safe. When he spins his stories of daring or classy confidence, Lancaster shows us a Lou who is replicating behaviours he has seen elsewhere. After completing his first cocaine deal, he has to wash his face in fear in a bathroom – then instantly condescends to an old friend who has been reduced to toilet attendant.

Sally is fooled for a while. But then we know she has a weakness for glamour. After all we’ve seen her indulge the pervy whims of casino trainer Joseph, a lecherous Michel Piccoli. In a clever performance by Sarandon, Sally is naïve enough to be sucked in but guileful enough to just about keep afloat. She tends to trust anyone who oozes confidence. She’s a little star-struck by the idea of Lou perving at her across the window (as if happy that she’s sexy enough to win the attentions of this seemingly classy old guy). But, turned, Sarandon makes clear she’s righteously furious when cheated and far more adept at confidence-tricksterism than the increasingly hapless Lou.

Because when crime comes Lou is out of his depth. But what would you expect from a man who is a live-in cook, dog-walker and sometime-stud for Grace, entombed in her kitsch-nightmare room. Kate Reid is very good as this clear-eyed bully who needs but also despises Lou, who knows all about what an unreliable and cowardly fellow he is deep-down but jealously guards his attentions.

Malle’s film plays out like a sort of noir short story, an adept study of its characters more focused on their damage and flaws than on the crimes at its nominal heart. This is about fantasy and the lies we tell ourselves. Just like Atlantic City kids itself it’s still a gambling mecca, so Lou and Sally believe they still have chances in life. It makes for an intriguing, engrossing film as they lie to themselves and each other, denying the truth until it hits them squarely and unavoidably in their face.

Atlantic City muses on familiar themes, but does so with freshness and intelligence. Perhaps Malle is a little too sympathetic to its characters (Lou in particular), but he is very clear-eyed about the Dennis Potterish fantasy world they are clinging onto and the shabby decline and disrepair that clutters their existence. It makes for a very fine, well-made and fascinating little film, full of sharp observations and wonderfully played beats.

Airport (1970)

Airport (1970)

Disaster awaits in the sky in this ridiculous soap that is less exciting than Airplane!

Director: George Seaton

Cast: Burt Lancaster (Mel Bakersfied), Dean Martin (Captain Vernon Demerest), Jean Seberg (Tanya Livingston), Jacqueline Bisset (Gwen Meighen), George Kennedy (Joe Patroni), Helen Hayes (Ada Quonsett), Van Heflin (DO Guerrero), Maureen Stapleton (Inez Guerrero), Barry Nelson (Captain Anson Harris), Dana Wynter (Cindy Bakersfeld), Lloyd Nolan (Harry Standish), Barbara Hale (Sarah Demarest), Gary Collins (Cy Jordan)

A busy Chicago airport in the middle of a snowstorm. Workaholic Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) doesn’t have time to prop up his failing marriage to his humourless wife: he’s got to keep the flights moving, clear the runways and solve the problems other people can’t. He’s not dissimilar to his brother-in-law Vernon Demerest (Dean Martin), who hasn’t got time for his plain-Jane wife at home when he’s got a flight to Rome to run and a saintly pregnant air hostess girlfriend Gwen (Jacqueline Bisset), to deal with. Tensions will come to a head when depressed former construction worker Guerrero (Van Heflin) joins Demerest’s flight, planning to blow himself up so his wife can profit from his life insurance. Disaster awaits!

“A piece of junk”. That was Burt Lancaster’s pithy review of this box-office smash that was garlanded with no fewer than ten Oscar nominations. He’s pretty much spot on. Airport is a dreadful picture, a puffed-up, wooden soap opera that never takes flight, stapled together with a brief disaster plotline that only really kicks in during the final act of the film and is solved with relative ease. Other than that, it’s all hands to the pumps to coat the film in soapy suds, which can be stirred up by the strips of wooden dialogue that fall from the actors’ mouths.

Seaton adapted the script from a popular low-brow novel, though it feels as if precious little effort went into it. It’s corny, predictable dialogue does very little to freshen up the bog-standard domestic drama we’re watching in a novel setting. Both lead actors juggle loveless marriages with far prettier (and much younger) girlfriends. Those girlfriends – Jean Seberg for Burt and Jacqueline Bisset for Dean – play thankless roles, happily accepting of their place as no more than a potential bit-on-the-side and very respectful of the fact that the job damn it is the most important thing.

The film bends over backwards so that we find Burt and Dean admirable, despite the fact that objectively their behaviour is awful. Burt treats his home like a stopover, barely sees his kids and seems affronted that his wife objects he doesn’t attend her important charity functions and doesn’t want the cushy job he’s being offered by her father. Just in case we sympathise with her, she’s a cold, frigid, mean and demanding shrew who – just to put the tin lid on it – is carrying on behind Burt’s back. We, meanwhile, applaud Burt for showing restraint around the besotted Jean Seberg, merely kissing, hugging and chatting with her about how he’d love to but he can’t because of the kids at home damn it!

He looks like a prince though compared to Dean. Only in the 1970s surely would we be expected to find it admirable that a pregnant girlfriend happily takes all the blame – the contraceptive pills made her fat and she knows the deal – begs her boyfriend not to leave his wife and then urges him to not worry about her. Dean’s wife doesn’t even seem that bad, other than the fact she’s a mumsy type who can’t hold a candle to Bisset’s sensuality. That sensuality is overpowering for Dean, who at one point pleads with her to stay in their hotel room because the taxi “can wait another 15 minutes”. Like a gentleman his reaction to finding out Bisset is pregnant, is to offer to fly her to Norway for a classy abortion (rather than the backstreet offerings at home?).

This soapy nonsense, with its stink of Mad Men-ish sexual politics (where men are hard-working, hard-playing types, and women accept that when they age out, he has the right to look elsewhere) is counterbalanced by some laboriously-pleased-with-itself looks at airport operations. Baggage handling. Customer check-in. Customs control checks. Airport maintenance. All get trotted through with a curious eye by Seaton. Just enough to make parts of the film feel briefly like a dull fly-on-the-wall drama rather than a turgid soap.

Soap is where its heart is though. Helen Hayes won an Oscar for a crowd-pleasing turn (from which she wrings the maximum amount of charm) as a seemingly sweet old woman who is in fact an expert stowaway. Van Heflin and Maureen Stapleton play with maximum commitment (Stapleton in particular goes for it as if this was an O’Neil play rather than trash) a married couple whose finances are in the doldrums, leading the husband to take drastic steps.

It’s all marshalled together with a personality-free lack of pizzaz by Seaton, who simply points the camera and lets the actors go through their paces, with a few shots of humour here and there. There are some interesting split-screen effects, but that’s about the last touch of invention in the piece. It’s mostly played with po-faced seriousness – something that feels almost impossible to take seriously today, seeing as the structure, tone and airport observational style of the film was spoofed so successfully in Airplane (a much better film than this on every single level, from humour, to drama even to tension – how damning is that, that a pisstake is a more exciting disaster thriller?)

It smashed the box office in 1970 and got nominated for Best Picture. But its dryness, dullness and lack of pace mean it has hardly been watched since. Although it can claim to be the first all-star disaster movie, it’s not even fit to lace the flippers of The Poseidon Adventure, which far more successfully kickstarted the cliches that would become standard for the genre (and is a tonne more fun as well as being a disaster movie – this has a disaster epilogue at best). An overlong, soapy, dull mess.

From Here to Eternity (1953)

Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity’s most famous moment

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Cast: Burt Lancaster (First Sergeant Milton Warden), Montgomery Clift (Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt), Deborah Kerr (Karen Holmes), Donna Reed (Alma Burke/Lorene), Frank Sinatra (Private Angelo Maggio), Philip Ober (Captain Dana Holmes), Mickey Shaughnessy (Sergeant Leva), Harry Bellaver (Private Mazzioli), Ernest Borgnine (Staff Sergeant James “Fatso” Judson), Jack Warden (Corporal Buckley)

Dominating the 1953 Oscars, From Here to Eternity is exactly the sort of sweeping, highly-professional studio epic Hollywood at its best produced in its Golden Years. Everything turned out pretty much right, with iconic imagery and characters, and skilled production and acting turning a soapy story into something quite profound. From Here to Eternity is entertainment-as-art, a sharply intelligent film that sails along smoothly. It feels like a generational progression from Casablanca – it may not quite hit those heights, but it deserves to be in the same conversation.

It’s 1941 at Pearl Harbour and three soldiers discover going their own way, rather than conforming to rules and expectations, causes no end of trouble. Private Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) is repeatedly hazed by his comrades (with the support of his CO) for refusing to join the boxing team. A champion boxer, Prewitt retired after accidentally blinding an opponent and nothing will persuade him to go back. His only comfort is with local social club ‘hostess’ Lorene (Donna Reed). First Sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster) is persuaded to try for officer – because otherwise he risks prison for his love affair with the CO’s unloved wife Karen (Deborah Kerr). Private Maggio (Frank Sinatra), Prewitt’s only friend, is a loyal wild-card who can’t stick to the rules and is targeted by brutal stockade sergeant “Fatso” Judson (Ernest Borgnine).

From Here to Eternity sounds like a great big soap, a sort of 1980s glossy TV mini-series made before its time (it was later remade exactly as that). It’s got that in its DNA, but is made with such luscious, professional, old-school Hollywood excellence it becomes something special. Superb craftsmen work in every position to produce a classic melodrama with touches of romance, thriller, war drama and tragedy. With excellent performances across the board (Sinatra and Reed both won Oscars, while Lancaster, Clift and Kerr were all nominated), FHtE tells emotive, empathetic stories about genuine characters trapped in situations beyond their control.

The film is a masterclass in adaptation. The original novel – a popular tome of its day – tells a story crammed full of sex, STDs, homosexuality, bad language and violence across its 800+ pages. No wonder it was a hit – and no wonder, under the Production Code, it was thought impossible to adapt it into a film. Screenwriter Daniel Taradash carefully reworked and ‘hinted’ at several things that could not be explicitly said (for example, no one calls Lorene a prostitute, but you’d have to be pretty dense not to realise she is doing more than pouring drinks in that bar). Restraint, as it often did, demanded invention and bought out the best (and subtle work) in people. The film’s requirement to focus on dialogue and character rather than controversy hugely works to its benefit.

Zinnemann was the perfect director for the material. Drawing wonderful performances from the actors, he also keep the film intimate, drawing us closer to the characters over scale, despite the temptations of the film’s location shooting in Hawaii (Zinnemann pushed strongly against shooting in technicolour and widescreen). The film also fits perfectly with one of Zinnemann’s key pre-occupations: the struggle of principled men (most strikingly Prewitt) in a society that demands them to say or do something against those principles. Just as the townspeople wanted Marshal to run and the Tudor court wanted More to swear allegiance, so our characters buck against conforming with the roles they are expected to play.

You can see why the military – after supporting the project – were less happy when they saw the film. The individual is championed at the cost of the machine. Prewitt’s principles are praised, while his regiment is hopelessly corrupted by his incompetent and careerist commander. The hazing is endemic, and supported from above – and no one even notices or cares that Fatso is also abusing his position to brutalize Maggio. The CO is so useless – as well as ruining his wife’s life, rendering her infertile and cheating on her all over town – that the company is effectively run by First Sergeant Warden, the only NCO with the courage of his principles. Under pressure from their army sponsors, the film does see the chain of command cashier the CO (a scene Zinnemann hated) – but the sympathy is with the individual rather than the system.

From Here to Eternity is also a highly effective romance. Its most famous image will always be the clinch between Lancaster and Kerr, kissing and embracing while the turf washes up around them. But the film is also realistic – its why it remains so effective. Warden and Karen are made as miserable by their growing love as they are happy (they even comment on this). Relationships are never an easy ride, and demand constant dedication. Lorene and Prewitt’s relationship is far from rose-tinted, with the two of them constantly forced apart by their own mistakes and choices.

It’s melodrama told with emotional intelligence and realism – and Zinnemann gets great performances from great actors. Lancaster brings immense strength and purpose to Warden, but also a concealed vulnerability and decency. Kerr – revitalising her career after a string of “good wives” – brilliantly conveys Karen’s desperation and misery, along with her wary hope her life could change. That moment on the beach, the surf washing around them as they make-out is a rare moment of relaxed happiness. Other than that, its one tough conversation after another – stolen moments in bars or cars, where the two of them confront the difficulty of their situation, but also their need for each other. That’s old school romance for you – unavoidable, but never-endingly difficult and even a little painful.

Sinatra (in the role that changed his career – and the debate around how he got the role inspired that horse’s head in The Godfather) brings charm, cheek and tragedy to Maggio. How did Maggio end up in this man’s army? He’s quietly fun loving, but bucks the rules like almost no other character in the film. Sure he’s an upstanding guy – the only one who sticks by Prewit and defends him – but he can’t follow a simple order. Mostly because he’s not really disciplined enough. Plus he makes enemies – worst of all Borgnine’s bruising sergeant. He’d be so much happier running a bar for soldiers than he ever is being a soldier himself.

This makes him very different from Clift’s Prewit. Clift gives one of his finest performances as this fully-realised tragic hero. Prewit is a man of principle who, for the best reasons, makes choices that have a terrible impact on him. He’ll stand by his decision not to box, even though it opens up a bucket load of unpleasantness for him and Maggio. If that leaves him with one friend and no supporters, so be it. He may not look like a boxer (the studio wanted a more muscular lead), but he is every inch the emotionally conflicted, guilt-plagued and confused GI, stubborn but profoundly sincere, with the strength of character to stand alone, but the vulnerability to need affection from Lorene (and respond like a lovesick kid when he thinks she has spurned him). It’s a complex, mature and excellent performance.

All these events are eventually dwarfed by the outbreak of war. If there is one thing that Zinnemann will accept is bigger than the individual, it’s world war. The film quietly counts down to the attack on Pearl Harbor (without the characters realising it), sneaking us peaks at calendars and reports to let us know how close we are to the fateful day. When it comes, it reveals the characters of the people we’ve been following. Warden takes command in a way his CO never could. Prewit, hiding out with Lorene (Reed by the way is marvellous, her investing Lorene with a real world-weary sadness), decides its his mission to return from AWOL, despite the dangers this will cause him. The attack is grippingly but simply filmed.

From Here to Eternity is a complex film, made with real professional skill, and a rewarding character study. Zinnemann gets the tone right at almost every single point and draws out brilliant performances from a very strong cast. As an example of Hollywood Studio film making, it’s hard to beat.

Seven Days in May (1964)

Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas find themselves on opposite sides of a military coup in Seven Days in May

Director: John Frankenheimer

Cast: Burt Lancaster (General James Mattoon Scott), Kirk Douglas (Colonel Jiggs Casey), Fredric March (President Jordan Lyman), Ava Gardner (Eleanor Holbrook), Edmond O’Brien (Senator Ray Clark), Martin Balsam (Paul Girard), Andrew Duggan (Colonel Mutt Henderson), George Macready (Secretary of the Treasury), Whit Bissell (Senator Fred Prentice), John Houseman (Admiral Barnswell)

President Jordan Lynman (Fredric March) has completed his signature policy: a nuclear disarmament treatment with the USSR. Some are thrilled, others are horrified. In the latter camp are the Joint Chiefs of Staff, none more so than chairman General James Mattoon Scott (Burt Lancaster). General Scott has a plan: a coup to be launched in seven days time, during a training op. But word leaks to his assistant Colonel Casey (Kirk Douglas) who, however much he admires Scott, won’t be party to treason. Casey warns the President – and a race against time begins to stop the coup.

Seven Days in May opens with documentary style footage of clashing crowds outside the White House (one pushing for peace, the other for war) and then carefully balances that style with an unsettling sense of paranoia throughout. People suddenly disappear (once from frame to frame), most of the action takes place in confined spaces. When characters do head outside, they constantly seem to be looking over their shoulder, with the camera watching like a distant observer. The lack of music all adds the eerie feeling that this could just happen.

And, of course you, feel it could. Because we’ve not lost a tingling sense of unease at an over-powerful military. It’s a shame therefore that Seven Days in May doesn’t grip quite as much as it should. I think a large part of that is because the plot is exposed very early – and when Casey goes to the authorities with his suspicions, they are instantly acted on. Thrillers like this often work best with a “one man stands alone” vibe – it’s missing here, and instead we get the President and the cabinet laboriously investigating different elements of this conspiracy looking to turn up enough evidence to prevent the coup before it starts.

The drop in tension could have been counter-balanced if the film had more successfully explored the conflicts and contradictions in America. This is after all a country priding itself as being the home of freedom and democracy – but since George Washington, has had a fondness for installing military men in a job role pointedly called “Commander-in-Chief”. This is a film that could have explored how different parts of American society might admire either an Adlai-Stevenson-style intellectual or a blood-and-guts ‘simple’ soldier. But the film dodges this – and works hard to stress both men act within what they define as honour and the needs of the country. The film is to nervous about any suggestion that Scott’s coup could lead to a proto-dictator vetoing the electorate.

There is also a naivety about the film. A long subplot (not particularly interesting) features Casey being side-lined into uncovering evidence of Scott’s long-term affair. Ava Gardner does her best with a largely thankless part as the woman in question, but there is a touching faith that evidence of this will be enough to destroy Scott. It’s a faith in the system: while the public might be shaken slightly in their belief that Scott is like King Arthur reborn, finding out he’s actually Lancelot is hardly going to weaken his hold over many of his followers – or his military machine.  For a conspiracy film, Seven Days believes conspiracies are a relatively simple matter to defeat.

What’s best about the film – not surprisingly since it’s largely a chamber piece – is the strength of the acting. Produced by Douglas (who generously cast himself in the most thankless role as the decent-but-dull Casey), a cast of stars was assembled. Lancaster was perhaps the only choice as the holier-than-thou Scott, arrogant, morally-superior, cold, distant but capable of inspiring immense loyalty – it’s the perfect role for him and he plays it to the hilt.

The film’s finest sequence is a late confrontation between Scott – Lancaster oozing moral superiority and unhidden contempt – and Fredric March’s intellectual President. March is brilliant, a born negotiator and compromiser – all the skills you need to be a successful politician – with just the right edge of irritation, arrogance and pride for you to know that, even if he is right, he’s no saint. March also gives Lyman an old-school sense of honour and moral principle that makes him unable to cross lines Scott can leave behind him, while still be jittery and waspish to colleagues and friends.

Filling out the cast, O’Brien gives a wonderful (Oscar-nominated) turn as a hard-drinking, good-old-boy Senator who turns out to have principles of iron and the guts to match. Martin Balsam delivers one of his patented put-upon functionaries, struggling to keep stress at bay. Macready is great value as a bombastic cabinet member while Houseman glides above it all as an Admiral to smart to say anything certain either way.

Acting is eventually what powers Seven Days in May and if it never becomes the white-knuckle conspiracy thriller or the insightful political commentary it should be, it just about has enough entertaining scenes to keep you watching.

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

Burt Lancaster excels in prison drama Birdman of Alcatraz

Director: John Frankenheimer

Cast: Burt Lancaster (Robert Stroud), Karl Malden (Harvey Shoemaker), Thelma Ritter (Elizabeth Stroud), Neville Brand (Bull Ransom), Betty Field (Stella Johnson), Telly Savalas (Feto Gomez), Edmond O’Brien (Thomas E Gaddis)

What is prison for? Is it just a cage – or should it offer reform and self-improvement? Debates like this have existed from the moment the first mass-prison opened. Birdman of Alcatraz taps into this, presenting a romanticised image of the life serving time of Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster), a double convicted murderer (including killing a guard in prison) who narrowly escapes a death sentence, sentenced to a lifetime in solitary confinement. Stroud develops a passion for ornithology, eventually becoming one of the world’s experts on avian disease – all while confined to his cell.

Front and centre in Birdman of Alcatraz is Burt Lancaster. Made by his production company, and hand-picked director (after firing Charles Chrichton), Lancaster’s prickly persona and patrician distance is wonderfully re-directed as a man who, for much of the film, carries a strong whiff of danger and violence. Surly, bitter and unrepentant, Lancaster brilliantly captures Stroud’s monomania which blossoms into a realisation his own life has been wasted. Oscar-nominated, Lancaster makes Stroud hard-to-like, but one who we slowly relate to as his brutality into a sort of recognisable humanity, however sharp-edged and un-appealing he can be.

Frankenheimer’s well-made film – it’s strikingly less flashy than much of his early work, instead using a restrained sense of documentary realism – is one I found both entertaining and involving, but also strangely troubling. But first the positive: there is no doubt this is a great “prison” movie, perfectly capturing the monotony and boredom long-term solitary confinement brings. It reduces the world into something small and oppressive – Stroud has a cell, a corridor and an exercise yard – and Frankenheimer pours on the sympathy for prisoners who are caged in a system that removes any individuality from them to turn them into docile drones.

Stroud faces a permanent struggle to win the right to keep and study his birds – including going into business selling his bird illness remedies – in the face of a system that wants him to sit in his silently in his cell. It’s hard not to be engaged with Stroud, and the lengths he must go to sustain the new hobby that has given him a reason for living. A birdcage is fashioned out of a crate after months of work. Endless variations on cures are attempted to deal with an outbreak of disease. There is even a bureaucrat warden – well played by Karl Malden as a functionary who is all duty and no imagination – who strongly believes indulging this nonsense is letting him off lightly. And maybe he’s right.

And it’s that issue which I find troubling at a film. This is a conscious attempt to turn Stroud into a sort of Mandela of Ornithology. But, scratch the surface of researching the film, and you discover Stroud was a man repeatedly diagnosed as a psychopath, who committed acts of brutal murder. This is a film that asks us to look at a man and sympathise with him, based on his passion for his hobby – like a Herman Goering biopic that focuses on his love for art. Reflecting real life, in the film Stroud never expresses a jot of regret or remorse for his crimes. The film argues his work with birds shows he has been rehabilitated – but I would argue his utter inability to recognise any moral responsibility for his actions, shows he is in no-way suitable for release.

Let this idea trip into your head and then, no matter how well made the film is made – or how well acted or engaging the story is – you suddenly twig this is a film about a man who forms stronger relationships with birds than he does with other human beings. Stroud will slave for months to save his bird – but barely bat an eyelid at the death of a man. His closest bond seems to be his antagonistic relationship with Malden’s warden, while even his closest prisoner companion (an Oscar-nominated Telly Savalas) is someone who passes out of his life for years at a time with no reaction from Stroud, and who seems capable of more regret and reflection than Stroud.

Fitting his sociopathic profile, Stroud’s only real human contact is formed with his mother. And, like White Heat’s Cody Jarrett, they have the same all-encompassing (and damagingly facilitating) relationship. His mother – played with a skilful sense of control and emotional manipulation by Thelma Ritter – constantly excuses her son’s sins, while demanding she remain his principle (ideally only) personal contact. To her, all other people – especially women – are a dangerous corrupting influence. This is not a healthy relationship, but the film doesn’t explore it, other than positioning the mother as a beast, who furiously drops her son when he decides to marry (for convenience so she can visit him) a fellow ornithologist, played by Betty Field.

In real life, Stroud was a brutal killer – not the rogueish old man he becomes by the film’s end, charming journalists – but his personality is re-positioned to take a stance on the ethics of prison reform. The film has, not surprisingly, an optimistic 1960s feeling that free-will and independence should be prioritised and that the system only crushes those feelings. Life isn’t as simple as that, however much Birdman of Alcatraz wants it to be. However, it shows you can still hugely enjoy a film that you disagree with. I guess that’s the sort of oddity that makes us human.

The Killers (1946)

THe Killers
Ava Gardner draws Burt Lancaster into a world of crime in The Killers

Director: Robert Siodmark

Cast: Burt Lancaster (Pete Lund/”Swede” Anderson), Ava Gardner (Kitty Collins), Edmond O’Brien (Jim Rearden), Albert Dekker (“Big Jim” Colfax), Sam Levene (Lt Sam Lubinsky), Vince Barnett (Charleston), Virginia Christine (Lily Harmon Lubinsky), Charles D Brown (Packy Robinson), Jack Lambert (“Dum-Dum” Clarke), Donald MacBride (RS Kenyon), Charles McGraw (Al), William Conrad (Max)

Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Killers” is 3,000 words of tension and atmosphere, as a pair of hitmen turn up at a diner looking for a former Swedish boxer. They leave and a fellow diner runs to warn the Swede. He meets the news of his impending demise with a stoic acceptance that nothing can be done. That’s basically it. Siodmark’s film consumes the entire content of the source material in the first fifteen minutes. So the film basically expands and explores this set-up. The gripping opening is just our entrée into the film, that will explain to us why the killers are here, who the Swede was and why he needs to die. It makes for a tight, atmospheric and very well-done film noir.

Because there is no doubt that this is a classic film noir. The Swede’s backstory ticks all the boxes you would expect of the genre. Of course, all his troubles are rooted in a Femme Fatale (needless to say his former girlfriend is a saint). There’s a heist gone wrong, double crossing gangsters, a dedicated investigator and a range of locations from seedy nightclubs to rundown hotel rooms. The Swede (Burt Lancaster) is an easily-led handsome man, duped by a beautiful woman. Of course, it all finally leads to a series of shoot-outs, where the wicked are punished for their crimes. In many ways, the script (by Anthony Veillor, heavily polished by John Huston) simply turns the short-story into a familiar piece of genre work. What makes it work is the freshness with which it’s told.

Siodmark is not the biggest name director out there. But he’s a skilled professional and he elevates the material into something with deeper meaning. Perhaps it’s the Hemingway in its DNA, but this story plays like a Greek Tragedy. Fate intervenes at frequent moments, with chance and minor decisions circling back to reveal all. The Swede is a sympathetic heavy, out-of-his-depth, with the fateful flaw of being too trusting. Even the villains are vulnerable figures, while the femme fatale is only doing what she must to try and survive. It’s a neat structure.

And Siodmark shoots it with a beautiful, unobtrusive and pacey smoothness. Nothing in the film draws overt attention to itself, but every moment beautifully combines with those around it to create an absorbing whole. The pace works perfectly, and the film’s structure works very well. Throwing us essentially into the middle of the story increases the mystery – and also means that as we hear the story of each person who knew The Swede, we are constantly invited to rethink and reappraise events and characters we have already met.

It’s a film about the lasting impact of disappointment and disillusionment. Why doesn’t the Swede run a mile when he hears there are killers after him? Because its clear he died inside years ago – the bullet is just a formality. There is a rather touching romanticism to this. This strangely gentle boxer turned thug, who is so smitten by Kitty Collins that he can’t take his eyes off her during their first meeting. Who willing serves jail time for the stolen necklace she’s wearing. Who trashes his hotel and nearly flings himself out of a window when she leaves him. This is a shell of a man. And its not just him. Most of the crooks live out lives of disappointment and fear, while even our investigator seems to have very little in his life beyond chasing down insurance claims. If there is a message in this film, it’s that life is tough.

A lot of that impact comes from the sad-sack vulnerability in Burt Lancaster’s eyes. In his film debut here, Lancaster is at times a little raw. But what he conveys fantastically is the sense of a little boy lost. The Swede always looks out of his depth, dragged from pillar to post by other people, constantly unable to control the situations he finds himself in.

No wonder he’s so easily suckered by Ava Gardner’s gloriously savvy and fiercely determined Kitty – the character with the most drive and determination in the film. She’s smart enough to fool all the characters at least once – and ruthless enough to not give a damn about any of them. Gardner’s performance is spot-on here, with Kitty emerging as possible the most ruthless femme fatale this side of Double Indemnity – with Lancaster as much her gullible patsy as Fred MacMurray was. Gardner’s icy cool is so well done, that it adds even more weight to her performance of a last act switch to desperation, as events finally spiral out of her control.

Carrying most of the narrative is Edmond O’Brien in the slightly thankless role of the investigator piecing it all together. O’Brien however plays the role with a real savvy and drive, as well as with a growing sense of moral outrage – making his role much more than what it could have been (a feed for other characters). The rest of the cast is also very strong.

The Killers isn’t overtly flashy or eye-catching in the way of other films. But it carries with it a large degree of intrigue and more than a dash of hopeless tragedy. With sharp, efficient direction and some fine performances, it’s possibly one of the finest film noirs ever made.

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Maximilian Schell on a misguided attempt to salvage his country’s dignity in Judgment at Nuremberg

Director: Stanley Kramer

Cast: Spencer Tracy (Judge Dan Haywood), Burt Lancaster (Dr Ernst Janning), Richard Widmark (Colonel Ted Lawson), Maximilian Schell (Hans Rolfe), Marlene Dietrich (Frau Bertholt), Montgomery Clift (Rudolph Peterson), Judy Garland (Irene Hoffmann), William Shatner (Captain Harrison Byers), Howard Caine (Hugo Wallner), Werner Klemperer (Emil Hahn), Joh Wengraf (Dr Karl Wieck), Karl Swenson (Dr Heinrich Geuter), Ben Wright (Herr Halbestadt), Virginia Christine (Mrs Halbestadt), Edward Binns (Senator Burkette)

“I was just following orders”. It’s a statement you instantly associate with people who know they are doing the wrong thing, but cling to the idea it’s not their responsibility because they’ve been told to do it. The Nuremberg trials – which started with the major surviving war criminals, but then investigated every level of German society from the army to industry to doctors to the judiciary – exploded this as an excuse. But the trials also raised wider questions, ones that Judgment at Nuremberg explores: how do you make judgments for individuals when, arguably, nearly everyone in the country holds some sort of moral responsibility? What happens when justice collides with political reality? What price is put on getting justice for the few against the need to move on?

These, among others, are fascinating questions explored in Stanley Kramer’s engrossing – if at times a little dry and on-the-nose – film. In 1948 Judge Dan Hayward (Spencer Tracy) arrives in war-torn Nuremberg to judge the trial of four senior German judges. The most prominent of the accused is internationally renowned Dr Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster). Janning’s passionate advocate Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell) believes the trial is about the Allies punishing the Germans and wants to show “we were not all like them”. Prosecuting laywer Colonel Ted Lawson (Richard Widmark) wants the trials to continue until all the guilty have been punished. But with Cold War tensions rising – and Berlin already under blockade by the Soviets – the politicians back home want the trials to wind down, particularly as the Germans could be key allies against the USSR. How will Hayward balance these pressures as the trial progresses?

Kramer’s film is a brilliant reconstruction of the detail of the trials. He had wanted to film the entire thing on location – but, when the trial room was unavailable, Kramer had the trial room rebuilt in exact detail in the studio (the production design is absolutely spot-on by Rudolph Sternard). The film stages all the issues of simultaneous translation, headphones and trial procedure in loving detail. His technical direction is well managed – even if the camera perhaps once too often pans around those involved in the trial while they speak. The trial drama is structured around three key witnesses (rather than documents), and brings out impressive performances from the entire cast.

Abby Mann’s screenplay wisely focuses in, not on the primary Nuremberg trials, but one of the many sub-trials. Little known, this works so well dramatically, because they both delve deeper into how every facet of German life was corrupted by Nazism – that in this case, leading judges condemned those they knew were innocent to death – and also allow an exploration around the purpose of the Nuremberg trials themselves. Were these trials crucially about justice at all costs and should continue indefinitely – as some characters clearly believe? Or were they meant as representative affairs, demonstrating the guilt of a selected few, at which point their purpose was done?

Kramer’s film is an educative piece, which explores this. Crucially several German characters are introduced, each of them unsure as to how much the national guilt should apply to them. Should Hayward’s household staff consider themselves guilty? As Hayward points out, Dachau was only about 20 miles away: not to know of its existence at all, was surely be wilful ignorance. Marlene Dietrich (excellent as an austere widow), is bitter that she has lost everything after her husband (a German general) was executed (an execution that many of the characters feel was harsh). He never liked Hitler, and he wasn’t a Nazi: how bad could he have been? He only did his duty right?

Meanwhile, firebrand lawyer Hans Rolfe believes that he must salvage some sense of German identity from the trial: he needs to show that “we were not all like that”. And rescuing the reputation of Dr Janning as “the Good German” is crucial to that. An Oscar-winning Schell (the part is perfect for his grandiose style) superbly captures the agonised guilt that has transformed into anger in this man: the desperation to protect his country that leads him to undertake the same brutal interrogations of witnesses during the trial that his clients are accused of doing. Repeating the same actions of the past that he hates, with a misguided goal of restoring pride to his country.

And why does Dr Janning become the focus of this desire to show not everyone was bad? One of the interesting things the film raises is questions of class. Rolfe sees him as the model Good German and Hayward struggles to see why he was involved in miscarriages of justice, because he is very much “one of us”. Ramrod straight, he’s no fanatic (like one of his fellow accused), he’s a noble, world-renowned lawyer. Lancaster’s Janning, with his rigid physicality, clearly thinks himself a world above his fellow accused. He has touched pitch, but feels he’s not really been defiled at heart: that there were clear reasons why he did the things he did. He has no sympathy for the crudity of Nazism, but still feel ashamed that he allowed himself to get tied up with it. He starts the trial trying to be above the entire process, as if not engaging will somehow stop him from feeling corrupted, even while his haunted face drips with shame.

It’s a nobility that many on the US side find appealing. It appeals to the same minds that deems Richard Widmark’s combatative Colonel Lawson as not quite gentlemanly, but vindictive. Never mind that Widmark’s lawyer wants justice done, regardless of the cost. It’s the same sympathy many now feel for Dietrich’s dignified widow, who feels so classy and noble that she can’t really be implicated in any nastiness. Janning unnerves Hayward and others, because if he can fall so can they. It also makes him a perfect candidate for rehabilitation. And, with the Soviets closing in on Berlin, many among the Americans want such a fate as much as Rolfe does, so that Germany can be rebuilt as a bulwark against Communism. But are we kidding ourselves? Janning may be the face of decency, but how decent can he be when he decided justice was an optional extra in his courtroom?

The film carefully explores these questions of politics being the art of compromise: of the need perhaps to end one era in order to start another. They’re attitudes I think the film acknowledges as legitimate, but also questions: “What was the war for?” Widmark’s character asks. When you have horrors such as those in the camps – and the film plays one of the key films to powerful effect during the trial – surely politics as normal can’t be allowed to continue? (Interestingly the film allows Dietrich and Schell’s characters to both, legitimately, question the inclusion of this evidence as too emotive and not relevant to the actual crimes of the accused.) Hayward himself comes under pressure to deliver light sentences which will be better for the country. Will he do so?

How can he when the evidence of suffering is so clear to him. The two key witnesses bought into the film are a man with learning difficulties and a woman who had been accused (falsely) of being seduced by a Jewish neighbour. The roles are played by Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland – and a lot of the emotion of these scenes partly comes from the tortured vulnerability of these two actors. These are people whose lives have been shattered – unjustly – and have paid terrible personal prices. Yes it might be expedient for us to look past these stories, but is it right?

Yes, you can argue Judgment at Nuremberg is a little preachy, but I think there are many more interesting ideas thrown up here than Kramer (usually denounced as a simple right-and-wrong director) gets credit for. The performances are superb: Schell is of course marvellous, but Spencer Tracy perfectly channels his ability to project morality as the unsettled judge who finds his easy assumptions challenged. And the film finally boils down perhaps to the simple question of right and wrong.

Even at the end Janning, while admitting the justice of his sentence, and the wrongness of his actions, is still desperate for everyone to know he wasn’t really one of them. That he never knew it would come to those horrors. As Hayward says “It came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death who you knew to be innocent”. Perhaps that the message of the film: justice is complex but needs to be done – and it doesn’t matter about your motives or thoughts, only the things you do.

The Train (1964)

Burt Lancaster takes on the Nazis and the schedule in The Train

Director: John Frankenheimer

Cast: Burt Lancaster (Labiche), Paul Scofield (Colonel von Waldheim), Jeanne Moreau (Christine), Suzanne Flon (Miss Villard), Michel Simon (Pape Boule), Wolfgang Priess (Major Herren), Albert Rémy (Didont), Charles Millot (Presquet)

The German occupation of France draws to its close. Paris will fall in days to the Allies. As the Germans evacuate, Colonel von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) has other plans. All that fabulous modern art – all that stuff the Nazis call degenerate, the likes of Cezanne, Renoir and Monet –  that he has kept jealously guarded and locked up for years would be worth a tidy packet if he can get it back to Germany. Or is it that von Waldheim just loves the paintings so much he can’t let them go? Either way, he’s determined to load these priceless masterpieces onto a train and take them back into Germany – with rail network manager (and secret resistance fighter) Labiche (Burt Lancaster) bought in to lay on and then run the train. But will Labiche be willing to risk resistance and railway lives to prevent this looting of France’s cultural heritage?

John Frankenheimer’s rollicking, dark-edged war film mixes in serious questions amongst its compelling explosions and train wrecks. Namely – is any human life worth the cost of protecting a nation’s artistic heritage? Or in other words, what are we fighting for when we protect the nation – the people who live in it, or the ideas that underpin what a nation is? Because what von Waldheim is pinching here is a large chunk of France’s heritage – and it would be irreplaceable – and for many in the resistance it’s risks are acceptable to stop that. Even as the bodies start to pile up.

The Train is a slightly nihilistic war film, in which the vast majority of the cast wind up dead, leaving the survivors to wonder if those paintings were worth the dozens of lives lost to protect them. Frankenheimer even hammers it home in the conclusion by cross cutting between the bodies of the victims with the packing crates (each carefully labelled with an artist’s name), making the paintings seem even more like chilling tombstones. The Germans, rarely thinking for more than a second before gunning down resistance fighters or anyone caught working with them.

In this they take their lead from von Waldheim. Played with glacial chilliness by Paul Scofield, von Waldheim at first appears a reasonable, even decent man. But it becomes clear that this well-spoken, polite man has a mono-mania for art that trumps all considerations of human life. Von Waldheim believes art should belong only to those who can understand it, and clearly cares nothing for human lives around him, all of whom are disposable should he choose. Under his gaze, civilians are put against the wall without a second thought and soldiers instructed to meet all attempts at slowing the train with lethal force. Frankenheimer carefully builds over the course of the film von Waldheim’s unhinged amorality, culminating in a series of Dutch angles as he finally goes further than even his own soldiers will follow.

As his counterpoints we have the muscular humanity of Burt Lancaster. Focusing all his experience as an acrobat and circus performer in his youth, the film is a tribute to Lancaster’s athleticism. With Frankenheimer using a series of tracking shots and uninterrupted long shots, we are shown that without doubt it’s Lancaster jumping from moving trains, rolling down hills, jumping walls and bounding across roofs. Lancaster’s commitment also stretched to mastering many train engineering tasks with such success that he was able to perform them (uncut!) on film. 

Performance-wise the part falls carefully into Lancaster’s strengths as a tough-guy with a heart. And while at times he feels like what he is – a Hollywood star parachuted into the French countryside to do battle with the Germans – he nevertheless carries the film with a charismatic ease. His emoting – particularly in several speeches decrying the human cost of the operation – verges on the overly emphatic, but few other actors could have carried the near wordless final half an hour with such aplomb. Lancaster’s moral certainty and enraged humanity also makes a perfect contrast with Scofield’s distant amorality and coldness.

The action then takes place on a series of trains that have even greater impact because you know, unlike today, everything was done for real. Each of the crashes, explosions, de-railings and train-based stunt has the freshness and excitement of reality behind it. The real events that inspired the film saw the French Resistance prevent the art train leaving Paris through drowning it in red tape. But that’s a lot less exciting than an ingenious “wrong stations” routine or a desperate chase across the French countryside (and very few Hollywood directors shot France as well as Frankenheimer).

It all makes for an exciting cocktail, even if the central ideas of art vs. life are not explored as well as they could be. It captures that 1960s feeling of “war is hell” as bodies pile up, and Jeanne Moreau’s hotel owner gets a speech on the emptiness of men killing each other. Sometimes you feel The Train wants to delve deeper into the psychology and cost of its events – but then it slaps another train into a collision  and decides to be as much a “man on a mission” film. Either way, it adds enough depth to make it a rewarding watch. 

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Tony Curtis and Burt Lancaster have no scruples and no morals in the dark exploration of American culture, Sweet Smell of Success

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

Cast: Burt Lancaster (JJ Hunsecker), Tony Curtis (Sidney Falco), Susan Harrison (Susan Hunsucker), Martin Milner (Steve Dallas), Sam Levene (Frank D’Angelo), Barbara Nichols (Rita), David White (Elwell), Jeff Donnell (Sally), Joe Frisco (Herbie Temple), Emilie Meyer (Lt Harry Kello)

Is there a more cynical film in all the world than Sweet Smell of Success? Is it any wonder that the preview audiences, settling down to watch what they expected to be a Tony Curtis light comedy, went crazy? But Sweet Smell of Success is a film that captures the sweaty desperation of show-business, and the cut-throat ambitions of Manhattan. It’s a brutal, sharp, vicious black comedy, in which all our heroes are vile and everything can be bought and sold.

JJ Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) is a newspaper columnist, so influential that the slightest mention in his column can make or break careers. He rules the New York politics and arts scene with a ruthless fist – and press agents like Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) will do anything to get even the slightest sniff of a mention in the column. Hunsucker has a job for Falco: Hunsecker’s sister Susan (Susan Harrison) wants to marry jazz musician Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), and Hunsecker doesn’t approve – he wants the relationship finished. Falco may feel some qualms – but they don’t last long, and he’ll do anything he can to wreck the couple’s happiness.

Sweet Smell of Successis all about the grimy effort and lack of morals that sit under the surface of getting to that success. Because to achieve it in the big time you need to be as sinister, controlling and bullying as Hunsecker – and to try and get up there you need to be as conniving and weaselly as Falco. Both these characters are, in their own ways, almost totally reprehensible – and the film makes no attempt whatsoever to mitigate this. The film is appallingly ruthless and cynical, and its two lead characters are, to put it bluntly, complete shits and total bastards.

It’s a film that says the American Dream doesn’t even remotely exist in the way we like to think it can – that there is as much class and control in America as there ever was in the old world. And being decent and honest doesn’t get you anywhere – and sometimes even being conniving and doing whatever you’re told to do doesn’t either. It totally captures the bitter, cruel and imposing mood of New York high society at the time – unwelcoming, unfriendly, judgemental and brutal. For all its glamourous New York location, who on earth would look at this and say “I fancy a piece of that” – it’s the exact opposite of what American films often try to do.

This was Alexander Mackendrick’s first American film, and it’s perhaps his outsider’s eye that really helps the film to really go for it. Mackendrick’s Ealing films weren’t afraid to pull their punches – from the commentary on the corruption of big business in The Man in the White Suit to the dark comedy of The Ladykillers – and (working with genius cinematographer James Wong Howe) he creates one of the darkest (in every sense) film noirs ever. His camera prowls along the streets and he wonderfully captures both the bustle of New York clubs, and the menace of New York behind the glamour. He also shoots both Curtis and Lancaster in a way they never had been shot before – and both of them rise to the richness of the material to give possibly their finest performances.

Burt Lancaster’s Hunsecker is a total monster: a bully and a sadist, vicious and aloof. Lancaster’s stillness here really sells the part – he doesn’t move, everyone else does – and the film brilliantly uses his slightly patrician voice. Hunsecker’s cold, dead-eyed stare pierces through character and desperation, and the contempt he feels for Falco (and every other character) is there in every moment, from looks to subtle physical put-downs (even lighting a cigarette is a power play, laced with an almost sexual sense of control). He “loves this city” because he owns the place, lock stock and barrel. Hunsecker only has one weak point – his clearly incestuous love for his sister – but even that is just the excuse for more controlling, domineering behaviour in which people are only objects for his manipulation.

And no-one is more willing to be manipulated than Tony Curtis’ brilliantly sycophantic Sidney Falco. Hunsecker is vile, but Falco might be worse. Is there a less likeable lead in a movie? Falco has no principles, no morals, no conscious – he’s the worst sort of follower, the sort of kid who stands behind the bully and laughs loudest at every joke. On top of that, Curtis is incompetent and untrusted – the scene where he attempts to blackmail another columnist and is firmly smacked down is wonderful for its discomfort. Curtis is twitchy, desperate, always on the move and will do anything – from lying to planting evidence to openly pimping his secretary. Far from the “young man working his way up” that you might expect, he’s a ruthless, unprincipled opportunist, perhaps the best inverted presentation of American can-do ambition you’ll see on screen.

That’s where the film really works: the scenes between Hunsecker and Falco are simply marvellous: Hunsecker savouring every verbal blow and smooth smackdown – and Falco sitting, edgy and jittery, on the edge, laughing loudly to try and make sure he doesn’t become the target. The marvellous restaurant scenes – with Hunsecker barely able to bring himself to acknowledge Falco’s existence – are the film’s heartbeat: brutal battles where Hunsecker wins everything and lives are destroyed. “A man has just been sentenced to death” Falco gleefully points out – “You’re dead son. Get yourself buried” is Hunsecker’s smoother version.

Ah yes that dialogue. Written by Clifford Odets at incredibly short notice (pages were literally taken straight from the typewriter to the actors’ hands in front of the camera), this might be one of the sharpest, waspiest films ever written. So many quotable lines, with Curtis and Lancaster relishing every dynamic and scintillating one-liner that the script gives them (and there are many). “I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic” – who wouldn’t want dialogue like that? It’s a sensationally written film, and every scene offers a new delight.

It’s not perfect of course. Milton and Harrison are as lightweight and forgettable as Lancaster and Curtis are sensational, too strait-laced and conventional to really seize the interest. The second half of the movie is weaker than the first: the pay-off doesn’t quite match the build-up. Really a film that just followed Hunsecker and Falco about as they went about their daily work, without the sister plotline, might have been even more effective. But it’s probably a quibble on a film that works every time – and has such dense, wonderful dialogue you’ll want to wind back most of the scenes to watch them again. And those two lead performances: simply perfect.