Day 2 of Noirvember: Remembering Burt Lancaster
He began his career as a circus acrobat, became an Academy-Award winning star of the silver screen, and helped launch one of the most successful independent production companies of his time.
And he was the star of seven first-rate examples of the classic noir period.
On the 103rd anniversary of Burt Lancaster’s birth on November 2, 1913, I’m devoting today’s Noirvember post to his contributions to film noir. Here goes!
The Killers (1946)
Lancaster made his film debut in this feature, which begins as Lancaster’s character, Pete Lund – better known as The Swede – is shot and killed by the gunmen of the title. Although he is warned of the killers’ impending arrival, however, the Swede seems resigned to his fate, telling a friend, “Once I did something wrong.” In a series of flashbacks, the feature shows the circumstances that led to the Swede’s murder, centering on his involvement in a payroll robbery and his obsession with a beautiful but double-crossing dame, Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). After the film’s release, Lancaster became an overnight star. Years later, Lancaster said there was “no question about the good fortune of being ushered into films in that kind of role.”
Brute Force (1947)
Here, Lancaster played prison inmate Joe Collins who, spurred both the dehumanizing treatment of a sadistic guard and his desire to return to his wheelchair-bound girlfriend, joins with his cellmates to plan an intricate prison break. (“Nothing’s okay,” he tells his fellow prisoners. “It never was and it never will be. Not ‘til we’re out. You get that? Out.”) Although Lancaster was slammed by one critic as “an overplaying ham,” most critics loved his performance and the film was a bonafide hit.
I Walk Alone (1948)
Lancaster starred in this film as bootlegger Frankie Madison, who emerges from a 14-year prison stretch to learn that his former partner, “Dink” Turner (Kirk Douglas), is now the successful owner of a swank nightclub – and Frankie wants his piece of the action. In an early scene, Frankie bitterly reveals that he was all but abandoned by Dink during his imprisonment. “My pal, Dink. He sent me a carton of cigarettes a month. I was 63 minutes away by the new parkway – he never drove it once.” I Walk Alone is probably the least impressive of Lancaster’s noir output, but it’s still time-worthy. And it marks the first of the six feature films in which Lancaster and Douglas starred during their careers.
Sorry, Wrong Number (1948)
Based on a radio play, Sorry, Wrong Number told the story of Henry Stephenson (Lancaster), whose domineering wife, Leona (Barbara Stanwyck), uses her heart condition as a means to keep her spouse under her thumb. The bedridden Leona, who keeps constant contact with the outside world via telephone, overhears a conversation one night in which two men are discussing the murder of a women. Through a series of calls, Leona not only discovers that Henry is involved in the crime-to-be, but that SHE is the intended victim. Although his co-star, Stanwyck, earned an Oscar nomination for her performance, Lancaster earned his share of applause from critics, including one who labeled him “grimly persuasive.”
Kiss the Blood Off My Hands (1948)
In the film – the first offered by Lancaster’s company Hecht-Norma Productions – Lancaster played Bill Saunders, whose luckless existence in post-war London spirals downhill when he accidentally kills a bartender in a local pub. He begins to turn his life around after meeting a lonely young woman (portrayed by Joan Fontaine), but his bliss is shattered when he is blackmailed by a pub patron who knows the circumstances surrounding the bartender’s death. Lancaster was hailed for his performance, and the film itself was praised as “an exceptionally well made Hollywood production.” I agree – except for the last five minutes. But up to then, it’s the bomb dot com.
One of my very favorite films noirs, Criss Cross stars Lancaster as Steve Thompson, who finds himself caught in a triangle of passion and murder involving his ex-wife, Anna (Yvonne DeCarlo), and her new spouse (Dan Duryea), a gambler with underworld connections. Returning to his hometown after a year’s absence, Steve is swiftly lured by Anna’s charms: “A man eats an apple, gets a piece of the core stuck between his teeth. He tries to work it out with some cellophane off a cigarette pack – what happens? The cellophane gets stuck in there, too. Anna – what was the use? I knew one way or the other, somehow I’d wind up seeing her that night.”
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
In Lancaster’s final noir – and another personal favorite of mine – he played one of the most venomous roles of his career, powerful Broadway columnist J.J. Hunsecker, who is described by one character as possessing “the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster.” The story centers on Hunsecker’s abnormal possessiveness toward his kid sister (Susan Harrison) and his obsession with ending her engagement to a local musician (Martin Milner). Hunsecker hires a self-serving press agent (Tony Curtis) to break up the romance, but his plan ultimately backfires. Replete with unsavory, unredeemable characters, Sweet Smell earned mostly raves from critics, and Lancaster was praised as well, with one reviewer describing his role as “cunningly played.”
If you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing Burt Lancaster’s noirs, give yourself a treat and watch them all! You’ll be glad you did.
And join me tomorrow for Day Three of Noirvember!