Burt Lancaster (1913–1994) didn’t appear in his first film until he was in his early thirties. Prior to his breakthrough role alongside Ava Gardner in The Killers (1946), he had a highly successful career as a circus acrobat and as an entertainer in the Special Forces during World War II. But Lancaster’s impact in Hollywood was virtually instantaneous. He forged a career defined by his tough, hardboiled work in film noir (including 1947’s Criss Cross) and a series of wonderfully athletic and roguishly charming swashbucklers (best demonstrated by Robert Siodmak’s immortal The Crimson Pirate in 1952). But Lancaster’s long career went on to be defined by its diversity and dexterity as well as the actor’s willingness to play with and against type, his commitment to particular collaborations carrying over into his long-term dedication to various leftist causes. Over the next 40 years Lancaster would work with a wide range of major directors, carving out an extraordinary filmography incorporating such seminal roles as the acidic gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), the title role of the Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) – alongside four other collaborations with director John Frankenheimer including The Train (1964) – John Cheever’s subtly delusional middle-class salary man in Frank Perry’s The Swimmer (1968), and his pair of autumnal, beautifully modulated performances as ageing patriarchs in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) and Conversation Piece (1974). As David Thomson has argued, Lancaster was “brave, vigorous, handsome, and an actor of great range”, an ever-graceful presence who “never yielded in his immaculate splendor, proud to be a movie actor. He was one of the great stars. Perhaps the last.”
7:00pm SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
Alexander Mackendrick (1957) 96 mins – PG
Lancaster is brilliant in his iconic role as a steely, ruthless, muck-raking New York gossip columnist fed the dirt by an array of minions including Tony Curtis’ unctuous press agent. Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets’ searing, bracingly cynical and endlessly quotable script is wonderfully supported by James Wong Howe’s extraordinary low-key cinematography, a vivid array of bit players and supporting actors including Barbara Nichols and members of The Chico Hamilton Quartet, and one of the great jazz inflected scores composed by Elmer Bernstein.
“Match me, Sidney”: Burt Lancaster and the Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)
by Adrian Danks
8:55pm THE CRIMSON PIRATE
Robert Siodmak (1952) 105 mins – PG
Looking back to Douglas Fairbanks and forward to Jack Sparrow, Lancaster (in his third film with Siodmak, giving one of his defining performances) puts his acrobatic training to spectacular use in this much-loved comedic Technicolor swashbuckler shot around Naples but set in the Caribbean. The director’s great versatility is on show here in what became both a huge hit and his last Hollywood film; simultaneously the apotheosis of the pirate movie and a brilliant self-parody, it’s kicked off by a fourth-wall busting address from its titular hero.
35mm print courtesy of the National Film and Sound Archive, Australia.
7:00pm THE SWIMMER
Frank Perry (1968) 95 mins – M
Although not well received on release, this adaptation of a 1964 short story by John Cheever has gone on to become a cult favourite as well as provide a fascinating portrait of cultural and personal malaise in the well-heeled suburbia of late ’60s America. Lancaster fearlessly incarnates a subtly delusional middle-aged man swimming home via a “river” of backyard swimming pools. As he encounters an array of couples, families, gatherings and former acquaintances, it becomes evident that things are not quite what they seem. With Janice Rule, Kim Hunter and Joan Rivers.
“I used to believe in things”: On Frank and Eleanor Perry’s The Swimmer (1968)
by Eloise Ross
8:50pm CONVERSATION PIECE
Luchino Visconti (1974) 121 mins – M
A reclusive retired professor rents the upper floor of his luxurious palazzo to an aristocratic family who bring chaos, vulgarity, soap-opera intrigues and much-needed life to his musty existence. Visconti’s first film after his stroke is an intimate chamber piece that turns Lancaster (who previously collaborated with Visconti on The Leopard) into something of a director surrogate, his melancholic ambivalence regarding contemporary politics, art and his own impending mortality reflecting Visconti’s perceived position as the product of a bygone era. With Helmut Berger and Silvana Mangano.
35mm print courtesy of Cinecittà Luce.
No Sex Life in the Grave: Conversation Piece (Luchino Visconti, 1974) or Gruppo di famiglia in un interno
by David Melville
7:00pm CRISS CROSS
Robert Siodmak (1949) 84 mins – PG
The second great noir Lancaster would make with Siodmak (after his 1946 debut, The Killers). A potent sense of doom permeates this cynical portrayal of a postwar Los Angeles where no one can be trusted. With a visual style echoing German Expressionism (brilliantly shot by Franz Planer), it features a surreal, unforgettable heist scene whose spectral images of masked faces emerging from tear gas evoked wartime horrors. Concluding with one of the genre’s bleakest endings, this noir tour de force hurtles towards the inevitable double- and triple-cross suggested by the title. With Yvonne De Carlo and Dan Duryea.
“Stick around. You make it all so nice and sad”: Fatalism and Fantasy in Robert Siodmak’s Criss Cross (1949)
by Alexia Kannas
8:40pm THE TRAIN
John Frankenheimer (1964) 133 mins – PG
Lancaster and Frankenheimer’s fourth collaboration in three years is a fascinating, action-packed account of the Nazis’ attempts to freight modern art masterpieces to Germany prior to Paris’ imminent liberation in 1944. Lancaster stars as the ambivalent Resistance cell leader charged with the task of sabotaging a train carrying works by Picasso, Gauguin and many others. Shot on location and featuring a rich array of French and British actors including Jeanne Moreau, Michel Simon and Paul Scofield, Frankenheimer’s bold, ironic and handsomely detailed film weighs the human price of art.
“In his element”: Burt Lancaster and The Train (John Frankenheimer, 1964)
by Djoymi Baker