Tag Archives: Burt Lancaster

Sorry, Wrong Number (Anatole Litvak, USA, 1948)

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Sorry Wrong Number is about a woman — bedridden, confined, and isolated — who overhears plans for a murder on a crossed telephone line and comes to realise that the victim of that murder is herself. It´s based on the eponymous radio play from 1943, one of the most famous of its time, in which Agnes Moorehead gave such a legendary performance that she would forever more be associated with it. She did many versions. The one that aired on CBSon  9/6/45 can be listened to here. Lucille Fletcher fleshed out her play for the movies, not too successfully. The film, a big hit in its time, remains a good watch, though it does drag in the last third, and there are too many unnecessary asides (the police inspector with the black child is particularly annoying).

It´s hard for me to think of any film star other than Barbara Stanwyck in the part of Leona Stevenson. Who else would have dared come across as so unlikeable? Leona is a spoiled, selfish, rich girl. A daddy´s girl used to getting everything she wants. And she´s not above buying her husband, Henry (Burt Lancaster) and then feigning illness to keep him. I was surprised to see Sorry, Wrong Number does not get even a mention in Andrew Klevan´s otherwise excellent Barbara Stanwyck from the BFI´s Film Star series (London:2013).  There are of course so many other great Stanwyck performances to choose from (Stella Dallas, Double Indemnity, The Lady Eve, and this to mention only a few that Klevan does deal with).  But this is one of her most famous and one of the four she received an Oscar Nomination for (Stella Dallas (1937), Ball of Fire (1941)and Double Indemnity  (1944) being the others.

But perhaps Klevan didn´t appreciate the performance. In Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman Dan Callaghan deems it her most flagrant Oscar bid: ´the showy role of bedridden neurotic Leona Stevenson calls for something more along the lines of the scenery-chewing style of a Bette Davis or a Joan Crawford than it does Stanwyck´s best life-or-death realness. …As of her high-pressure work in WrongNumber, I’m glad she didn´t win for this atypical, sloppy picture; it´s not at all representative of her talent, her artistry, or her overall style'(p.175). Perhaps, and Callaghan does a great job of dissecting what he sees as the weaknesses of Stanwyck´s performance in his book. But I don´t agree. It´s a fearless performance. She plays an unlikeable, controlling, possessive and neurotic woman so well, the audience ends up disliking the character whilst eliciting pity that a love that is deeply felt should take that form. I suppose I *can* see Crawford and Davis in the part but I can´t imagine them being better.

Callaghan notes that ´Lancaster is íll at ease in his role — great to look at but still green as an actor, (p.174). Callaghan´s criticism, that he lets Stanwyck push him around in their scenes together, is to me part of his success in the part.. However, according to Kate Burford in Burt Lancaster: An American Life: ‘When (Hal) Wallis described Sorry, Wrong Number — Henry Stevenson, a boy-toy weakling, tries to get out from under the control of his rich invalid wife, Barbara Stanwyck´s queen bitch, Leona, by having her murdered — Lancaster said, ´Why not me?’ Wallis objected that he was too strong for the part of Stevenson, but Lancaster insisted that the audience would be more interested in watching a strong man become weak. In the first of what would be a series of roles in which the star was cast against type, Wallis gave in. It was also the beginning of another career motif for Lancaster: getting himself cast opposite strong, experienced, intimidating women’ ((loc. 1695 on Kindle edition).

Burton himself was happy with his performance: ‘I really sweated bullets on that one’, said Lancaster. ‘This was the first part with which I couldn´t identify Lancaster on the screen. Usually there´s some movement, some characteristics which you recognise as your own. But not this one. Ten minutes after I walked into the theater I gave up looking for Lancaster. Seemed like a different person up there. It´s a good movie´ (Minty Clinch, Burt Lancaster, 1984,  pp.24-25)

 

The scene above is critical in establishing the dynamic between Leona and Henry. The camera moves in on Leona and dissolves on the voicing of Sally Hunt (Anne Richards), with a gleeful little smile as we dissolve into her memory of how she first met Henry. We see a crowded dance-hall as Henry and Sally come into view and we´re made to see Sally´s adoring look and Henry´s response to it: they´re a couple in love. And then of course Leona cuts in. This is a critical scene in that we need to see that Henry´s gorgeous, that he´s happy, and that he´s happily involved with Sally. This is the moment where Leona will begin to ruin his life. The film has to communicate what Leona sees in him, which as you can see in the scene above and in the gifs below, it does very well.

 

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Henry´s handsome, taken, ostensibly independent. But someone who can and will be bought. As the poster tell us, ´Heiress to millions….who bought everything she wanted…Including this man!

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The ability to buy anything, including love, means however that Leona is never sure whether he loves her or just her money. Thus the the increasing and not entirely psychosomatic illnesses: Leona gets progressively bedridden but it is tied to her not getting what she wants at all times,. It´s her way of manipulating people´s responses to her needs, which is all that she sees, acknowledges and thinks about; and will be what drives Henry to plan a murder he too will come to regret in the end.

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Sorry, Wrong Number was a prestige picture: and adaptation of a popular and critical success from another medium. According to Michelangelo Capua in Anatole Litvak: The Life and Movies, ´(it was) a 22 minute radio play….made popular by Agnes Moorehead in a tour-de-force performance in 1943. The play was so successful that it was rebroadcast seven times and translated into fifteen languages´(p.78). It is also, however a noir, with Burt Lancaster as the homme fatale, an interesting counterpoint to his Swede in Siodmak´s The Killers (1946). It´s about desire cutting through class, murder, a connection to the underworld, the night, drug trafficking, and, in its own way, an ode to the telephone. Visually, cinematographer Sol Polito encases the whole film in a world of shadows with a restlessly moving camera, evoking the jitteryness of things that lurk, are half seen, as is demonstrated in this great scene below

 

But the scene above though crucial — it happens just before the murder — is not an isolated instance and Polito tries to capture a consistent look and use of lighting throughout (see image capture below)

 

 

It´s a film that looks great, has terrific use of sound, a legendary central performance from Barbara Stanwyck, and one  that makes the most of Burt Lancaster´s appeal. However, it does also feel like a film that´s padded out, filled in, with sequences that seem extraneous. These are mostly the ones with Lancaster and it´s not his fault. These are the scenes that were largely added in to flesh out a short radio play into a feature-length film. I´m not sure how I feel about Anatole Litvak´s direction, some of the shots like the one I giffed above of Burt peeking, are superb, but this is yet another of his Hollywood films — like All This and Heaven Too, City for Conquestthat feels narratively bloated: terrific shot to shot but unsatisfying taken as a whole, inflated plots, convoluted structures, lethargic pacing.

 

José Arroyo

 

Brute Force (Jules Dassin, USA, 1947)

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I’ve now seen Brute Force several times, hoping to be persuaded by the claims others make for it but I remain unconvinced. The story of prison inmates suffering through the sadistic actions of a quasi-Nazi prison official (Hume Cronyn) and attempting an escape which ends in failure is excitingly rendered visually by Jules Dassin and cinematographer William H. Daniels.

It’s got very striking compositions (see below):

Some exciting set-pieces, like the final mow-down in the prison yard, or when inmates force the squealer into the industrial press with blowtorches: (see below):

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Daniels’ low-key lighting is really beautiful and expressive:

Particularly good at lighting actor’s faces:

I always like seeing scenes of people watching movies, such as here when the inmates watch The Egg and I, with Claudette Colbert and Fred McMurray:

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It’s also got an incredible cast of noir stalwarts, not only Lancaster and Charles Bickford but also Yvonne De Carlo, Anne Blyth and Ella Raines:

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The film also has the kind of gratuitous and extraneous chest baring I am also partial to:

 

And one which the film deployed to the market the film. The shot below was used in publicity but appears nowhere in the film:

 

So with all this going for it, why does it fail to convince? In the essay that accompanies the Arrow release, Frank Krutnik notes that the film was based on a botched escape attempt at Alcatraz in May 1946 and that producer Mark Hellinger, ‘enlisted the fiercely liberal novelist Richard Brooks, author of the sensational best-seller The Brick Foxhole (filmed y RKO in 1947 as Crossfire), who had crafted the original screen story for The Killers. Lik Hellinger Brooks was fascinated by Heminway’s tough, masculine ethos and, as a New York Times reviewer commented, his post-war screen work — Brute Force, Crossfire and Key Largo (1948) — consisted of ‘savage indictments of social wrong. melodramatic and hairy chested, they demonstrated the shock technique of the movie’s current approach to controversy.’

Brooks was praised for his ‘bristling and biting’ dialogue but the rest of his screenplay leaves a lot to be desired. The character of Calypso (Sir Lancelot), though in many ways a respectful representation of a black inmate (the lone one we see) is a ridiculous contrivance, embarrassingly singing every bit of action that he’s part of to a calypso beat.  The flashback structures to the women are also very poorly dramatised, the sections of the way in Italy being particularly embarrassing. And this ‘hairy chested’ and ‘tough, masculiine ethos’ also turns out to be very homophobic, not only making of Captain Munsey a Wagner-listening quasi Nazi, but also clearly coding him as homosexual. See the amount of ‘classic’ male nudes, pictures and statues, his prison office is furnished with:

and which help to explain glances like this in the film:

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According to Krutnik, the film was regarded as setting a new standard for screen brutality and Life magazine deemed it a ‘picture of almost unrelieved violence and gloom’ and by the ending scene, ‘the screen is drenched with blood and littered with corpses’. Standards for violence have now been raised, or lowered, depending on your point of view. A liberal denunciation of prison conditions, a great vehicle for Burt Lancaster, a huge hit in its day. But at best a mixed bag now, at least for this viewer.

 

The Arrow Academy edition is lovely to look at with a really interesting film in which Burt Lancaster biographer Kate Burford talks intriguingly of this noir period of Lancaster’s career.

 

 

José Arroyo

 

Burt serves his sentence in Kiss the Blood Off My Hands

Was Burt Lancaster ever a gay pinup? I mean he obviously is one to me now but I mean socially, amongst gay subcultures in the 40 and 50s? Kiss The Blood off My Hands has a great scene with Burt, in his prime and shirtless, being flogged senseless. It ostensibly was an approved system of punishment handed out by the courts in post-war Britain, where the film is set. It´s a scene that must have inspired many fantasies and clearly influenced many a subsequent gay sex shop.

PS on a more serious note, it´s also worth thinking about male action stars and scenes like these, where they do bear the burden of the look, where they are objectified, but usually via pain or suffering, a punishment unjustly meted out. Errol Flynn, the major action star of his day, had several scenes like this in the Michael Curtiz pirate pictures he did in the thirties for Warners. What´s interesting about this one, is that the punishment is just. It´s not quite the fault of the character Burt plays. He was a POW, he´s not being too successful at processing trauma, he´s lashing out with terrible consequences. He´s done the deed but the rages or red flags that lead to them are caused by the war and he´s just as much a victim as the people he ends up victimising. He´s mired in circumstances outside of his control that work against him.

 

José Arroyo

Burt and Lizabeth Scott kid their personas

Variety Girl is one of those all-star productions, usually featuring unknowns, that showcased a particular studio’s stars whilst raising money for a cause. Most of the famous ones — Stage Door CanteenThank Your Lucky Stars — were made during the war and in aid of the war effort. Variety Girl was made post-war, in 1947, in aid of the Variety Clubs of America, which itself had a history worthy of a movie. The Variety Club was initially set up as a show-business social club. However, on Christmas Eve 1928, a baby was left at the Sheridan Square Film Theatre with a note:

‘Please take care of my baby. Her name is Catherine. I can no longer take care of her. I have eight others. My husband is out of work. She was born on Thanksgiving Day. I have always heard of the goodness of show-business people and pray to God that you will look after her. Signed, a heartbroken mother’.

This could have been the basis of a great melodrama but is instead turned into the premise of a musical. In the film Catherine grows up, goes to Hollywood, visits the sights and ends up at Paramount, where we get to see all the stars there at the time: Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, Alan Ladd, William Holden etc.

The film is not good but it does have many treasurable bits. I wanted to share the clip above, where you can already see Burt Lancaster and Lizabeth Scott kidding their personas, because it’s surprising to think that this is only a year after Burt Lancaster became a star with his very first film, The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946). He’d also had a success with Brute Force (Jules Dassin, 1946). Desert Fury (Lewis Allen, 1947), with Lizabeth Scott had already been released, and the two had teamed up again for I Walk Alone (Byron Haskin, 1947). The bit above fulfills the function of giving audiences what they’d liked but also providing publicity for  one attraction that was still playing in parts of the country (Desert Fury) and the forthcoming I Walk Alone, another hit.

Burt Lancaster waited a long time to get into the movies. He was already 32 in The Killers. But his success was extraordinary and immediate. As Cosmpolitan said, “a star with a meteroic rise “faster than Gable’s, Garbo’s or Lana Turner.’ Thomas Pryor in The New York Times wrote that “even in a place where spectacular ascents are now more or less commonplace, the rise of Burt Lancaster is regarded as something extraordinary”. His name ona theatre marquee was now said to be good for at least 1 million in ticket sales (Kate Burford, loc 1625, Kindle).

In Variety Girl, he’s ‘Buffalo Burt Lancaster’ who puts a cigarette on the side of Lizabeth Scott’s mouth and will light it with just one bullet. Of course, he misses: it’s a spoof. One year into his movie career and Lancaster already has a persona to kid, a powerful one, aspects of which would cling to his stardom throughout the rest of his life.

 

José Arroyo

Bibliography: Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life, London: Aurum, 2013)

An idle thought on Burt Lancaster

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Burt Lancaster. I was idly glancing at the TV when Apache (Robert Aldrich, 1954) came on, and there´s a love scene there with Jean Peters that´s as sensual and perhaps more deeply felt than the famous beach scene in From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953). Then, I saw the beginning of Jim Thorpe: All American (Michael Curtiz, 1951) where again he plays a native person, a natural athlete, where his very grace in movement is a reproach to the system: ´when they win it´s a great battle, when we win it´s written up as a massacre’. Then the acrobatics in The Flame and The Arrow (Jacques Tourneur, 1950) are as joyous and exhilarating as any musical number. these bits made me think that whilst we tend to emblematise US culture through cinema as Brando or Marilyn or James Dean, Burt Lancaster is the star who best evoked how America was seen at home and abroad in the middle of the last century: the strength, dynamism, beauty, the plenitude expressed by his figure, the freedom in his movement, the chiclets teeth that gleamed like a new Cadillac and the shock of wavy hair that evoked the wildness of ranges and forests and beaches. And that he evoked all of that — and one only has to see what Anna Magnani says about him in Bellisima (Luchino Visconti, 1951) to know that he did, whilst still condensing a critique, truly makes him stand out for me, though perhaps others will say the same of Monroe, Taylor, Holden, Brando et al. A morning thought.

 

José Arroyo

Ten Films in Ten Days – Day Ten: In a Lonely Place

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In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1950)

I’ve heard people don’t like film noir. Perhaps it’s the fervour of a fanatic for the genre that prevents me from understanding how that could possibly be. How could you not love a murderous Stanwyck in angora and anklet; Rita Hayworth throwing herself and the ‘putting the blame attitude’ right on men’s faces with wild abandon; or Linda Fiorentino checking out the goods in The Last Seduction; how could you not like the swooney romanticism behind Mitchum’s ‘Baby I Don’t Care’; or Burt Lancaster’s beautiful face encased in shadows, resigned to die because he once loved a woman?

In Shadow of a Doubt, Joseph Cotten says, ‘the world is hell. What does it matter what happens in it?’ before the film itself shows us how it does indeed matter. Film noirs are films about light, its uses and meanings, expressing through the various ways light obscures. In noirs, there’s a wonderful mixture of the sad resignation to existential realities indicated by the shadows and a will to burn through them and bring light – or at leas the kind of sensuous excitement that makes life livable – via sex, desire, romance, nightclubs, music – and burn through them fast, maybe to an early death. It’s a genre where representations usually forbidden could find a place (it’s where most gays figured in classical Hollywood outside of comedy).

Today my favourite is Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place. ‘I was born when I met you; I died when you left me; for two weeks, I lived whilst you loved me’. Hadda Brooks singing ‘I Hand’t Anyone Til You’. Gloria Grahame, worldy-wise, delectable, possibly bisexual, and not quite ready to be killed yet. Humphrey Bogart as the innocent man who is nonetheless all too capable of killing and could all too easily have been guilty. And that apartment court-yard that symbolises the possibilities of meeting and the impossibility of finding a meaningful connection. It’s so beautiful