In the late 1950’s, Hollywood turned hopefully – or perhaps, desperately – to subject matter considered incendiary and titillating. To be perfectly fair, the dream merchants always had a warm soft spot for the lewd and lascivious; mostly because they knew it could sell tickets. A quick TripTik through pre-code Hollywood perfectly illustrates a cinema landscape populated by social-climbing sluts and scheming vagabonds, murderous cutthroats and unscrupulous powerbrokers from the seemingly untouchable realms of both politics and business. Gangsters, trollops, rues and cads; loosely translated - sin in soft focus. It all came to an end in 1934, however, with an outcry for ‘moral decency’ spreading like wildfire through a wheat field; the Catholic League of Decency and the industry’s self-governing board of censorship conspiring to cut the legs out from under Hollywood’s hedonism: effective too, in elevating the overall tenor of our popular entertainments for decades to follow. Don’t be mistaken or fooled. Sin was still in vogue. It just had to be drawn out from the darkened recesses of the mind; the implication, rather than its illustration, proving far more tantric when it tickled the imagination first, with other appendages optional.
The world of literature, unbound by such laws, would continue to explore the duskier undercurrents of mankind; a prime example being Sinclair Lewis’ satirical 1926 novel, Elmer Gantry. So shocking, it was banned in blue-blooded Boston and other major cities in the Bible belt as an affront to organized religion (one cleric even suggesting Sinclair Lewis ought to be arbitrarily imprisoned for five years), Elmer Gantry became the #1 bestselling novel of 1927: proof positive of the general public’s appetites. It wasn’t all a success, mind you. Lewis would receive death threats aplenty for his wit, carefully observed and stealthily gleaned from his time spent with various preachers in Kansas City. No doubt, they saw more than a faint parallel between themselves in those sin-drenched pages.
Flash forward to 1960; the last gasps of the establishment – the studio system imploding, the rise of independent producers, and, the waning authority of the production code: in hindsight, the perfect storm for Richard Brooks’ Elmer Gantry (1960). Burt Lancaster gives the most magnetic performance of his career as a slick middle-aged conman out to bastardize the precepts of organized religion to suit his own purpose. The novel’s Gantry was a college-bound narcissist who abandons ambitions of becoming a lawyer (another ‘dishonorable profession’) to romantically pursue Sharon Falconer, an itinerant evangelist. This Gantry was a mostly unsympathetic, womanizing alcoholic; immoral, passionate, reckless and wholly lacking in integrities of any kind. He is enticed by the power of the pulpit merely for the profit in can derive; never viewing his congregation as anything better than mindless sheep fit for the shearing. The novel’s Gantry is, in fact, directly responsible for the cruelest demises of several key figures, including the untimely death of Frank Shallard – a true man of God. In the novel’s epilogue, Gantry attains even greater renown as a minister in the fictional city of Zenith.
Considered fairly progressive in its day, Richard Brooks’ Elmer Gantry is still marginally impugned by the code; Burt Lancaster’s magnetism marginally blunted; recast as the protolithic failed con of the piece. Gantry’s unethical resolve, out to seduce Sharon Falconer as merely one in a long queue, is derailed when he becomes inexplicably reformed; an unanticipated compunction invading the tabernacle of his own heart. And Brooks is circumspect about Gantry’s past too. When first we meet this complicated anti-hero, he is fairly drunk and undeniably full of himself, using his trademarked persuasive powers to cajole like-minded rummies into contributing nickels and dimes to a Salvation Army worker with her outstretched tambourine. Lancaster’s sheer presence tempts us with elements from the novel’s Gantry without actually giving up most of the details. Sense the animal in Lancaster; or rather, the demon; the proverbial fox in the henhouse, or in this case, Lucifer preaching to the choir; Lancaster, Gideon Bible firmly clasped, reaching across the aisle with all the hellfire and brimstone of a Jimmy Swaggart and just as Janus-faced in his apoplexy. This film belongs to Lancaster and he owns it with an Oscar-winning grandstand that continues to rivet the audience to their seats almost from the moment Gantry begins to shuck and jive his way through the seedy speakeasy at the start of the picture; conniving diehard boozers and a wayward gal to see things his way. It’s a persuasive argument in the novel – but in a sort of academic way; Lewis’ writing the real star of the piece rather than the character. But Lancaster makes it genuine. He is a very cogent actor when he wants to be. And, in Elmer Gantry Lancaster never allows the bit to drop from his teeth, investing in the vacuous, though ultimately self-destructive nature of the beast. To misappropriate a line from the eloquently ‘fast and loose’, Mae West: “Goodness has nothing to do with it!”
It’s too easy to dismiss Elmer Gantry as the Burt Lancaster show, primarily because director Brooks has perfectly cast his movie with a trio of enigmatic performers in support; Jean Simmons as the ill-fated, sexually repressed Sister Sharon Falconer; Shirley Jones, leaving behind her squeaky clean ‘girl next door’ image as the disturbingly jealous prostitute, Lulu Bains; and Dean Jagger as the novel’s Frank Shallard, inexplicably renamed William L. Morgan in the movie, perhaps because, unlike the novel’s counterpart, Morgan lives on and, in fact, proves to be something of a vague comfort to Gantry after a hellish fire destroys Sister Sharon inside her newly inaugurated tabernacle.
Ironically, Falconer’s surrender and unapologetic devotion to Gantry directly leads to her downfall; the movie supplanting the novel’s notion of the ‘good woman’ corrupted and therefore destined to be destroyed because she has divided her most sacred love between the Almighty and this unworthy sinner. Lancaster’s Gantry is, for all intent and purposes, a changed man by the end of the film – something the novel’s Gantry is not. Having valiantly attempted – but again, failed – to save Sister Sharon from the fire, Gantry is now resigned to give up his own contemptible daydreams of exploiting her religious teachings to his own advantage. In the novel, Gantry picks up where Sister Sharon left off, his motives as impure as ever. Perhaps this is Brooks’ concession (one of many); meant to appeal and appease the holy naysayers, protesting the movie’s representation of God-fearing Christians as easily swayed and mindless; following any false prophet on the horizon.
Lancaster’s Gantry bears unpardonably little resemblance to the hedonist bastard in the novel, Brooks’ screenplay directly referencing only about a hundred pages of its text. And yet, Brooks manages to bottle the essence of this byzantine protagonist; tempting us with hitherto glimpses of Gantry’s former self; Lancaster teasing too, gritted teeth chomping at the bit of self-discovery; bringing an actor’s awareness that never seems forced or rehearsed. This devilish spontaneity is what sells Lancaster’s performance as legit; blistering even as it burrowing under our skin, so very like the word of God, only reconstituted by this dastardly fellow, who enigmatically assures us he believes in the gospel even when we damn well know he does not.
Like all of Richard Brooks’ best films, this one bears the hallmark of an accomplished storyteller unaccustomed to sentimentality and even more abhorrent to falling back on its precepts, merely to satisfy the prevailing public appetite for the proverbial ‘happy ending’. In its place we get ‘bittersweet’; the caustic Brooks well known for steely-eyed proficiency, but able to dissect what could so easily have devolved into rank melodrama with razor sharp insight, as unapologetic in tackling this taboo subject matter as he enlightens us to the devil incarnate. Master cinematographer, John Alton evolves a rare visual style that is gritty, yet slickly accomplished. Through his lens, we get the ‘American gothic’ landscape of Midwestern morality, faintly reeking of blindsided adherence to that ‘old-time religion’. We get the hypocrisies of it too; Alton remaining steadfast on a close-up of the thoroughly demoralized and emasculated Gantry being pelted with day-old lettuce and rotten eggs after parishioners are appalled to learn Gantry has fallen from grace with a woman of ill repute. There’s a delicious irony at work herein; almost conspiratorial between Alton’s visual flair, Brook’s deft direction and Lancaster’s sublime performance.
Only during the movie’s climactic inferno does this triumvirate fall apart; Brooks acquiescing to Alton for shock value; the bravura moment as Sister Falconer’s religious paradise burns to a crisp in a tinderbox of flames; a very vengeful God indeed, exacting His pound of flesh from this fallen angel’s hide. It’s a delirious moment; Brooks turning his camera on anything and everything ignited by a wayward cigarette for maximum effect; the screen flooded with uncomplimentary – and thoroughly unrealistic – hues of lurid orange and red; Falconer’s heaven on earth transformed into a terrifying crimson-bathed hell. Ironically, this extreme stylization is untrue to the rest of the picture; Gantry recast as a rather foppish gallant, carried out of the burning tabernacle on waves of panicked extras before being deposited into the sea. Like the blaze that caps off Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), Brooks attempts to give us an impressionistic but omnipotent vantage of this looming catastrophe – albeit, without De Palma’s reckless usage of the split screen. It’s an ill fit for Elmer Gantry, however, the moment amplified with lighting effects to unnecessarily punctuate the ironic dismay, terror and audacity of it all.
After a rather apologetic prologue and gripping main title sequence, we enter a speakeasy where Elmer Gantry, a fast-talking, slightly inebriated traveling salesman, is charismatically wooing potential clients (Dale Van Sickel, Ray Walker) with some off color tales of his misadventures. With oily charm, Gantry segues into a flirtatious scamp, attempting to pick up a prostitute (Marjorie Stapp), then, as effortlessly, working the room to secure donations for a Salvation Army worker (Mary Adams Hayes). In no time at all, Gantry has lightened the purses of these unsuspecting patrons, preaching his own corrupt brand of hellfire and brimstone. In the middle of his sermon we can see the wheels of Burt Lancaster’s mind at work. It strikes Gantry one could make a serious buck peddling that ‘old-time religion’ instead of vacuum cleaners. Alas, before the piety comes the celebration; Gantry awakening the next morning next to the prostitute still passed out (and alas, fully clothed), sneaking into the bathroom to telephone his mother on Christmas Day. While Mrs. Gantry is never seen, Burt Lancaster gives us a heart-rending account of the sort of maternal guilty she’s capable of reviving within him with just a few quiet sobs on the phone.
Gantry makes off with the prostitute’s purse, hitching a ride aboard a moving train with a bunch of hobos (Charles Horvath, Sol Gorss). They are impressed with Gantry’s shoes, also his luggage, electing to confront him and take his belongings by force. Gantry makes out alright. He usually does; pummeling the hobos and escaping with his badly battered luggage, but no shoes; jumping the train and winding up in a forgotten backwater. Taking notice of a poster advertising the arrival of Sister Sharon Falconer, Gantry next stumbles into an all-black congregation; his sudden appearance, disheveled and unshaven, met with skepticism until he bursts into a chorus and verse of the hymn currently being sung. Not long thereafter, Gantry is drawn into Sister Sharon’s revival tent, attempting to sweet talk Falconer with a pitch to join their menagerie as…well…a sort of PR man. Sharon is not so easily fooled. She can see plainly what is on Gantry’s mind; thwarting his deceptive advances at every possible turn; escorted through the eagerly waiting crowds by her devout protector and mentor, William Morgan.
It’s no soap with Sharon; so Gantry turns his oily charm on her impressionable assistant, Sister Rachel (Patti Page). In no time at all, Gantry coaxes the details of Sister Sharon’s past from Rachel, using the particulars of an incident relayed to him in their conversation to make believe he and Falconer have already met. Sharon remains hesitant, until Gantry reasons he used to be a sinner and very bad salesman until he witnessed the proverbial ‘light’ of ‘God through commerce’. Still unconvinced, Sharon tells Gantry he must confess his sins and preach his story at their next revival. This, he convincingly does, falling back on his grandstanding ways that nevertheless connect with the congregation, the fervor stirred by Gantry’s rather ridiculous account of false redemption causing Morgan to call Gantry out as a charlatan after everyone has gone home. Morgan is rightfully disgusted by Gantry’s shameless exploitation of religion and pleads with Sharon to ignore Gantry’s proposal to accompany their traveling show. Gantry tries to discredit Morgan; then makes an even more half-hearted attempt to befriend him. For a time, a fragile détente is reached; Sharon insisting even if Gantry’s heart is not yet in the right place he has illustrated a remarkable ability to hypnotize their audience. After all, it’s converts Sister Sharon is after.
Hence, Gantry becomes a part of Sister Sharon’s travelling menagerie; the group’s success at gaining converts bringing Falconer to the attention of the Church Council in Zenith; by far the most progressive and biggest city not yet on Falconer’s itinerary. Morgan cautions. After all, their venues have always been the outlying towns and villages where people of character and quality still believe in the word of God. City folk are too sophisticated – or perhaps, too jaded to believe. But Gantry pumps Sharon full of praise and promises. Alas, their meeting in Zenith does not go entirely as planned. While the board’s chairman, George F. Babbitt (Edward Andrews) is ebullient and supportive, individual ministers like Rev. Philip Garrison (Hughe Marlowe) are vehemently opposed to the idea. Babbitt eventually wins out and the die is cast. Sharon will preach in Zenith.
But is she ready for it? Morgan doesn’t seem to think so. Alas, Falconer has bigger fish to fry; Jim Lefferts (Arthur Kennedy) for one; the big-city newshound torn between his outright atheism and legitimate approbation for Gantry. Observing the extraordinary impressionability of the masses (at one point a deaf man played by Max Showalter claims to being cured by Sister Sharon’s laying of hands upon his ears), Lefferts cruelly attempts to diffuse the momentum in Falconer’s arrival to Zenith by writing a scathing article, pointing out neither she nor Gantry are ordained ministers. In the meantime, Gantry and Sharon become lovers; a complication met with an even more startling revelation when Gantry is reunited with the prostitute, Lulu Baines, who knew him when and isn’t about to let him forget it. In fact, she’s out for blood – sweet payback for Gantry ruining her reputation with her own minister father; also, for taking her virginity, then dumping her.
After Gantry invades the brothel Lulu works in, as part of a PR stint against sin and corruption in Zenith, he is confronted by Lulu, who procures a clandestine meeting with Gantry in her seedy little apartment. The two engage in a heated discussion about their past indiscretions, Gantry refusing to consummate the affair for old-time sake. In fact, he is already a changed man – hardly pure, though desperately in love with Sharon. Sensing the genuineness of his feelings, Lulu cannot help but respect Gantry. They gingerly embrace; a photo snapped by the photographer/reporter (John McKee) Lulu has hidden in her boudoir. Lulu blackmails Gantry, asking for $25,000 in exchange for the negatives. Gantry resists, but upon learning of Lulu’s motives Sharon willingly offers to buy off Lulu. The money would have been alright; except Lulu really wants to destroy Gantry. And so, she refuses the payoff; the pictures printed in the newspaper along with the insinuation Gantry and Sharon were in on the payoff together. The couple’s credibility destroyed, the sycophantic worshipers turn into an ugly rabble, tearing apart Sister Sharon’s tent and offices and pummeling Gantry with rotten eggs and other garbage.
What ought to have been a moment triumphant for Lulu degenerates into a despicable display of abject despair and embarrassment for everyone. Upon returning to the brothel, Lulu is confronted by her pimp, who demands to know what has become of the $25,000 payoff. When Lulu explains she refused the money, the pimp severely beats her; Gantry coming to her rescue. Realizing the error of her ways, Lulu retracts her story, declaring she maliciously framed Elmer Gantry. The vacillating public now champion Sister Falconer and welcome her revival; raising enough money for Sharon to open a tabernacle on the boardwalk; a true temple of God where all who thirst for salvation may come in peace to worship.
The last act of Elmer Gantry is an oddity; Gantry encouraging Falconer to abandon her soul-saving so they may start a life anew and away from the spotlight. Sharon refuses; seemingly imbued with the spirit of divine goodness and explaining she believes both of them have been brought together to fulfill God’s work. Reluctantly, Gantry acquiesces. But for the first time his heart isn’t in it. Director Richard Brooks suggests a sort of derelict mania inflicting Sharon, white-robed as though she were the very embodiment of the ill-fated Joan of Arc. It’s a fitting parallel too, as one of the attendees inadvertently tosses a lit cigarette into the backroom, near the translucent silk bunting, drapes and open cans of left over paint. A fire ignites, spreading with rapacious tentacles throughout the auditorium; the terrified attendees scurrying in all directions as Sharon fights to reach them with prayer. Gantry is carried out of the auditorium by the frantic rabble, forcibly pushed over the edge of the boardwalk and plummeting into the sea.
He swims back to shore but is too late to save Sharon from the inferno. In the steely gray of dawn we bear witness to the smoldering ruins of their evangelist dream gone up in smoke - literally; Morgan comforting an emotionally wounded – though hardly distraught – Gantry, encouraging him to take up Falconer’s spiritual cause. But all Gantry can do is shake his head, citing 1st Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a child, I understood as a child and spake as a child. When I became a man, I put away childish things.” With his weather-beaten valise in one hand and a Gideon Bible in the other, Gantry offers a half-hearted grin as he strides from the blackened wreckage, his future uncertain and unknown.
Elmer Gantry falls into the unflattering category of movies once thought of as ‘trending’ (long before the term was ever coined) but since suffered in reputation, mainly because it isn’t seen enough. This is a shame since, save his performance in Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Burt Lancaster has never been better. Nor, arguably, would the actor ever scale such dramatic heights again – or at least, as convincingly. Lancaster’s shyster is the real deal; a man so perverse in his motives, at once he’s the sort of fellow other men pretend to admire to his face, but secretly despise behind his back; if only because they wish they could get away with half the larceny Gantry is able to flippantly pass off as par for the very reckless course of his life.
The even bigger surprise is that this Elmer Gantry manages a miraculous semi-conversion from his total lack of principles. It isn’t true to the novel, but Richard Brooks and Burt Lancaster endeavor to make it plausible for the character, and, in fact, it does work. We believe Lancaster’s Gantry, facing the music after being exposed in the tabloids by Lulu; Lancaster’s look of utter castration, all servility having left his schmoozing/boozing façade. He has nothing to say to these angry masses, lobbing day old fruit and pelting him with raw eggs; not even a glint of venom caught in his eye to rescue from complete surrender and thorough defeat. Lancaster lets Gantry’s softer underbelly show only a few times, but never with more prophetic honesty, admitting – if only to himself – just how shameless and wasteful his whole life has been. Perhaps knowing what a tough sell it will be, Brooks gives us a bit of foreshadowing early on, in the moment when Gantry calls his mother Christmas Day; unable to play the good-time Charlie with her when she begins to sob at the thought of spending another holiday alone; his lies of success abroad keeping him away fooling no one – not even himself.
There’s only one other opportunity for Gantry to be a man instead of a con; the penultimate blaze – Gantry gallantly fumbling his rescue, defeated by the rabble charging him off the edge of the pier. Gantry’s farewell at the end of the movie, his inability to carry on as being ordained by God with even a modicum of sincerity, hints to better things in store: perhaps Gantry has finally seen the proverbial ‘light’ and will make the attempt to mend his ways. Sinclair Lewis’ Gantry would not have been pleased to see his alter ego give in; an unscrupulous rake to the bitter end. Yet, in tapping into this faint whiff of rawer humanity, Brooks and Lancaster give us a more fully formed Elmer Gantry; still insincere and imperfect, but not so far gone that redemption might still be possible in the future. It’s a very sentimental gesture on Brooks’ part – the director usually not prone to such bouts of maudlin introspection – and perhaps unintentional to a point. For in the end Elmer Gantry is still a failed mensch, tired of losing life’s daily battles, although not yet entirely ready or willing to surrender the war.
Kino Lorber needs to get with the program. There was a moment during the infancy of hi-def when such crummy transfers would have been marginally tolerated. And yes, I realize Kino Lorber is neither alone nor responsible for the mastering efforts put forth herein. They are mere third party distributors like Twilight Time and Criterion. But the time has come to expect more from our Blu-ray experiences where catalog titles are concerned. Elmer Gantry looks about as unattractive as I could expect; wildly fluctuating colors, orangey flesh tones, color bleeding, fading (at times, severe) and a hint of vinegar syndrome creeping in around the edges, age-related artifacts everywhere, etc., et al. It’s properly framed in 1.66:1, but grain id unnaturally heavy. Overall image softness is another issue, and it has absolutely nothing to do with John Alton’s dreamily lensed close-ups of Jean Simmons.
So where’s the good news? Well, you really have to look, but occasionally this 1080p rendering gives up something that vaguely resembles what the movie must have looked like in 1960. I’d shed a few tears over the video, except the audio is deserving of more pity. It is DTS 2.0 mono, with some thoroughly aggravating speed fluctuations during the main title sequence; André Previn’s score sounding as though someone is having a whale of a time with the attenuation controls. This would be a minor quibble (and, in fact, it does correct itself by the time we get into the movie proper) but alas, the rest of Gantry’s sound field is undistinguished and fairly flat. Extras? Give ‘em a great big Donnie Brasco “forget about it!” We get a brief interview with Shirley Jones. It’s seen better days. Otherwise, nadda, and such a tragedy for this Oscar-winning movie. Bottom line: pass.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)