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(Credit: Hal Wallis Productions)

Film

Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Burt Lancaster

@Russellisation

“Take the feeling of hunger out of your gut, and you’re no longer a champion.” – Burt Lancaster

One of the many icons of early Golden Age Hollywood, Burt Lancaster joins the likes of Carrie Grant, Humphrey Bogart and James Stewart as a group of actors responsible for elevating Western cinema in the 20th century. With great versatility and career background as a circus acrobat, Burt Lancaster enjoyed a flourishing career of varying roles that each helped to build the mythos of his personality. 

With a refusal to be typecast, Lancaster enjoyed an eclectic career both in front of and behind the camera, becoming one of the very first Hollywood film stars to start his own production company. Through this, the actor was able to straddle a career in the studio system, lining his pockets with some of the era’s most significant releases, whilst working on independent projects that would further his creativity.

Winning an Oscar for his performance as the titular Elmer Gantry in the classic 1968 film, Lancaster enjoyed many decorated on-screen performances, starting from his very first performance in the Academy Award-nominated The Killers. As a self-taught actor, Lancaster enjoyed thirty years in the industry before his death in October 1994.

With that, let’s take a look back at his incredible career through his six definitive films. 

Burt Lancaster’s six definitive films:

The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946)

Bursting onto the scene with one of the most definitive films of post-war American cinema, the noir crime thriller The Killers saw Burt Lancaster’s debut film role, instantly catapulting him to industry success. 

A masterful example of the quintessential film noir, The Killers has gone down in history as one of the best works from the immensely popular genre. Based on a story by Ernest Hemingway, this was the film that landed Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner unprecedented fame and success. Sparking a great early relationship between Lancaster and producer Hal Wallis, the actor would go on to collaborate once more in Brute Force in 1947. 

From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953)

Seven years after Burt Lancaster’s seismic film debut, he found himself a staple of mid-century Hollywood, appearing in The Crimson Pirate and South Sea Woman both before his iconic performance in From Here to Eternity

Adapted from James Jones’ famous novel, Zinnemann’s take on the classic tale won eight Academy Awards in total, including Best Picture, elevating Lancaster’s profile even further in his appearance alongside Frank Sinatra and Deborah Kerr. Focusing on the attack of Pearl Harbour that occurred in 1941, From Here to Eternity follows the activity of an otherwise normal army base shortly before the attack. Appearing in this great ensemble cast would help consolidate Lancaster’s position in the industry. 

Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957)

Arguably Burt Lancaster’s finest film role, The Sweet Smell of Success saw the actor achieve industry supremacy, acting alongside Tony Curtis in a classic of Alexander Mackendrick’s glittering career. 

Starring as a ruthless newspaper columnist in Mackendrick’s film about the abuse of power in the New York press, Lancaster shines alongside Tony Curtis, standing shoulder to shoulder with one of the finest actors of the 20th century. Though the film bombed at the box office, as an executive producer on the project, Lancaster helped to further his artistry with Sweet Smell of Success, showing he was not just an individual focused on monetary gain. 

Elmer Gantry (Richard Brooks, 1960)

Shortly after Sweet Smell of Success, Lancaster enjoyed continued success, particularly in Separate Tables, where he starred alongside Rita Hayworth and David Niven in an adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s stage play of the same name. 

It was Elmer Gantry in 1960 that would prove to be one of Lancaster’s most defining roles, however, winning the actor a coveted Academy Award for best actor in a leading role. The story itself followed a fast-talking travelling salesman who convinces an evangelist that he could be an effective preacher for her. As Burt Lancaster said of his role, “Elmer really wasn’t acting. It was me”. 

Atlantic City (Louis Malle, 1980)

Thriving through the 1960s, Burt Lancaster enjoyed considerable success with titles such as The Leopard, The Swimmer and Zulu Dawn from director Douglas Hickox. Come 1980, it was his unlikely team up with Louis Malle in Atlantic City that would lead him to one of his most iconic performances. 

Collaborating with the same director behind A Very Private Affair and Au Revoir les Enfants, Burt Lancaster excels as an elderly gangster reduced to working as a nursemaid to a gangers widow. Suffused with the same nostalgic grief of Frank Perry’s The Swimmer, Atlantic City remains a modern classic, starring the likes of Susan Sarandon and Kate Reid in a change of pace for Lancaster who was seeing his career decelerate and embrace an all-new identity. 

Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson, 1989)

Embracing an altogether steadier career, the pace of Burt Lancaster’s career considerably slowed, appearing in several television projects as well as a handful of independent films before his final role in Field of Dreams in 1989. 

A fantastical cult classic, the film itself follows one man’s quest to turn his cornfield into a baseball field where he attracts ghostly legends of the sport. Whilst Lancaster only makes a cameo in the Kevin Costner-led film, his appearance acts as a reminder of the actor’s great on-screen presence and power, reminding audiences for the very last time of his everlasting charm.