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August 10, 2005

Burt Lancaster

The Young Savages
John Frankenheimer - 1961
Turner Classic Movies

Valdez is Coming
Edwin Sherin - 1971
MGM Region 1 DVD

Michael Winner - 1971
MGM Region 1 DVD

When I was much, much younger, I decided that Burt Lancaster was my favorite movie star. I was so determined to see Birdman of Alcatraz that I petitioned my parents for several weeks before they finally allowed me to see the film. Buying and reading Thomas Gaddis' book was no problem, but at that time in my life, I couldn't see movies without parental approval. I loved the film as much as I thought I would. I saw Birdman again on television, in part with my parents. My mother got sarcastic when Lancaster and Edmond O'Brien, playing Tom Gaddis, embraced. Like a lot of other people, I found out later that Gaddis' biography idealized Robert Stroud, and that the real Birdman remained imprisoned for several very good reasons. I saw A Child is Waiting, The List of Adrian Messenger, and Seven Days in May theatrically. After those films I saw Lancaster films mostly on television. As a budding auteurist, I only saw films starring Lancaster based on who the director was primarily, which is why I didn't see Burt Lancaster in a theater again until he made Ulzana's Raid.

As part of my constant stream of rental DVDs, I've been catching up on Burt Lancaster films. I also read the biography, Burt Lancaster: An American Life by Kate Buford. A lot of research went into the book which is not always flattering. There are little errors that make we wonder if there were some other, larger errors. Executive Action, which I saw theatrically, is in color, not black and white. The Colorado town is Canon City with a ~ above the n, not Canyon City. The U.S. version of The Leopard was not in Cinerama, but CinemaScope, the format of virtually all 20th Century Fox films until 1967.
Still, the book is most interesting in showing the history of an actor who not only became a star almost overnight, but one who immediately took control of his career as his own producer. I got around to seeing a couple of films Lancaster made in his transistion to mature character actor, as well as seeing an earlier film on cable.

The Young Savages was Lancaster's first film with John Frankenheimer. Aided in no small part by Lionel Lindon's black and white cinematography shot in the streets of Spanish Harlem, the film is visually striking. In spite of being a box office failure, Frankenheimer not only was asked to work with Lancaster again, but had the remarkable year of 1962 which saw the release of Birdman, All Fall Down, and The Manchurian Candidate. The Young Savages is sometimes described as West Side Story without singing or dancing, which may in part explain why it was not commercially successful.

Based on a novel by Evan Hunter, The Young Savages could be categorized as the type of socially conscious film that United Artists seemed to specialize in until the late Sixties. Lancaster plays an Assistant District Attorney who is set to prosecute three punks who have stabbed a blind young Puerto Rican man. It's not quite Rashomon, but Lancaster learns that the truth is more complicated than what the various people affected by the killing acknowledge. Liberal and humanistic impulses are challenged, as is the desire for swift, severe justice. The film was something of a homecoming for Lancaster who was born and raised in the part of New York City known as Spanish Harlem, an area predominantly Italian in the years of Lancaster's youth. Shelley Winters portrays the mother of one of the accused punks as well as Lancaster's former flame. According to Buford, Lancaster and Winters were intensely involved ten years earlier. The film appears to have been shot entirely on location including the interiors of the slum apartments. Frankenheimer had a great eye for composition which is why The Young Savages is still worth watching.

Ten years after The Young Savages, Burt Lancaster was doing what many of his contemporaries were doing, making Westerns. Especially after The Wild Bunch, westerns were the most commercially viable films for male stars of Lancaster's generation. In Lancaster's case this also meant doing films that still served as a form of social commentary. Buford makes it interesting to speculate on what Valdez is Coming could have been. The film originally was planned to star Marlon Brando in the title role, with Lancaster as his nemesis, Tanner, with direction by Sydney Pollack. Pollack and Lancaster had worked several times previously. The screenplay is credited to longtime Pollack collaborator David Rayfiel, and Roland Kibbee, an associate of Lancaster's since Ten Tall Men in 1951.

Based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, none of the characters are the likeable sleazebags of Leonard's crime novels. Bob Valdez is a constable who is manipulated into killing an innocent man by Tanner. Attempting to collect one hundred dollars to benefit the innocent man's wife, Valdez finds himself shooting it out with Tanner's men and kidnapping Tanner's wife. The film is not particularly visually interesting with novice film director Edwin Sherin doing better work on television, most notably Law and Order. With Lancaster as Valdez, the role of Tanner went to Jon Cypher. In this film, Cypher looks suspiciously like a thinner version of Lancaster, with the sideburns and mustache similar to how Lancaster appeared in The Leopard. One could argue that the oppressed Indians and Mexicans of Valdez is Coming are the American equivalent to Visconti's poor Sicilians.

Lawman is interesting for watching Lancaster with veterans Robert Ryan (the second of three films together), Lee J. Cobb and Joseph Wiseman. Michael Winner was a bit zoom happy with this film, his first of two with Lancaster. Lancaster is the marshal who comes to the town of Sabbath to collect several men wanted for an accidental murder. Lancaster's character has echoes of his previous roles in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Vera Cruz. Ultimately, the ending undermines Lancaster's declaration of movies being "the hero business".

As inconsistent as his films after Airport were, Lancaster remained interesting to watch. I remember seeing Cattle Annie and Little Britches in a theater where it played with no advertising. Being part of the audience was like being in a secret club, with members with special knowledge. I'm not sure how meaningful Burt Lancaster is to a generation that knows him mostly as an old guy in Field of Dreams, but in his words: "We're all forgotten sooner or later. But not films. That's all the memorial we should need or hope for."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at August 10, 2005 07:01 PM


Girlfriend of mine walked up to me the day after she saw From Here to Eternity, and said "Burt Lancaster! why did no one ever tell me about this man? I don't think I have EVER seen a sexier man in any movie!"

Off-screen he reportedly wasn't much of a catch. But in a movie ... hubba, hubba, hubba.

Great actor too. Guess I shouldn't forget to mention that. ;)

Posted by: Campaspe at August 11, 2005 05:32 PM