Forty years after his debut in The Killers ( Robert Siodmak, 1946), Burt Lancaster toplines a major studio film (Disney´s Touchstone Pictures), capping a legendary partnership with Kirk Douglas. They starred together in I Walk Alone (Byron Haskin, 1947), Gunfight at the Ok Corral (John Sturges, 1957), The Devil´s Disciple (Guy Hamilton, 1959), Seven Days in May (John Frankenheimer, 1964), did cameos for John Huston in The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) and appeared together in the Victory at Entebbe (Marvin Chomsky, 1976) ‘event’ TV Movie. This was their seventh time together and, as you can see in the charming clip below, they were widely perceived as a team by the public, appearing several times together at the Oscars and in this particular clip below bringing down the house with their banter and performance:
I saw Tough Guys when it came out and found it pleasant but not very good. This time around I enjoyed it even more. I now know their personas better, can flesh out all the echoes of and rhymes with the different epochs of their careers, get the joke when the film makes references to their previous films such as Gunfight at the OK Corral and so on. But, if anything, I found the film even worse than the first time around.
Tough Guys is a very typical and typically overblown comic action movie of the 80s, with the gym sequence then so prevalent, the throwaway humour, the car chases, the things being blown up behind the protagonists as they throw themselves towards the camera, the action sequences tied together by a song to add up to a video clip the producers hoped would get heavy rotation on MTV and help market the movie, the ugly synth score and the stuffing of the movie with songs so as as to have an extra revenue and promotion resource from the soundtrack (see the pre-packed ‘MTV montage’ below).
All of the above made me realise that stars not only develop and change over time, that meanings accrue and change, that they´re different for each generation of filmgoers and across social formations, but also that stardom inhabits forms. As argued and characterised above, Tough Guys is High Concept 80s cinema, it´s ‘Burt and Kirk as tough guys, but they´ve been in jail for 30 years so they and the audience can hark back to their film noir days in the late forties, and the comedy will come from age and cultural dislocation´. I could have cut the tagline to one sentence had I wanted to.
The plot revolves around Harry Doyle (Burt Lancaster) and Archie Long (Kirk Douglas). The film begins as they come out of prison after 30 years for a failed train robbery, the last attempt at one in America, with their late forties/ early 50s hats, sharp suits, and two-toned shoes (see montage of images above). The guard taunts them by saying they’ll be back within the week. Their parole officer, Richie Evans (Dana Carvey), a fan, quickly explains the set-up, sends Archie to a welfare motel and Harry, whose older, to an old folks home. Everything in this new world is strange to them and they can’t abide by the rules, which seem to infantilise and dismiss the old as asexual, brainless and without agency. Moreover, they have two people on their tail, a hit man who’d been hired to kill them 30 years before and has been waiting ever since (Eli Wallach) and the cop responsible for sending them to prison in the first place, who believes they’ll never reform and is merely waiting for them to set up the next hit (Charles Durning).
To pursue this idea of stardom inhabiting forms, just think of how the very first scenes immediately recall the 4:3 underworld of shadows and crime that is Lancaster’s first star persona, the guy from The Killers, Brute Force, Criss Cross, Kiss the Blood of My Hands, and with Kirk, also in a narrative about an ex-con let loose in a world he doesn’t recognise, I Walk Alone.
Then think too about the ´Muscles and Teeth’ roles in The Flame and the Arrow and The Crimson Pirate, still in 4.3 but now in vibrant technicolour. One can also chart Burt Lancaster’s development as a star in Westerns, the move from the 4:3, black and white of Vengeance Valley in ’51, through the Technicolour SuperScope of Vera Cruz, right up to the Cinerama of The Hallellujah Trail, and then, as his stardom diminished, back to the then standard widescreen of Valdez is Coming or Ulzana’s Raid.
Think too of how the seriousness Burt Lancaster signified is so often associated with John Frankenheimer’s wide-screen black and white aesthetic, the experimentation with compositions and angles, as well as with the seriousness of theme. Or how seeing Lancaster pictured in Richard Aldrich’s fractured, suspenseful and imaginative split screen in Twilight’s Last Gleaming also communicates aspects of Lancaster’s persona in the late 70s, purposeful, serious, committed, an old pro trying to be newly dynamic and ‘with it’.
In Tough Guys, Burt and Kirk are newly burnished for High Concept stardom but see above how the big spectacular finale, harks back to Westerns, but now with helicopters on the chases instead of Indians.
Even from behind and past 70, Burt walks gracefully. Kirk is the other one. Kirk’s always doing bits of business, Burt is relatively minimalist, paired down: that’s why their chemistry is so good, perfect counterpoint. And that is and was evident to even those who´d never seen them in anything else together. The film is a very pleasurable, if not good, send-off to a legendary team.