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Grin, Smile, Smirk: The Films of Burt Lancaster

November 26, 2010 - December 11, 2010

The Swimmer, December 11

Burt Lancaster is known for his grin, but it’s a grin that contains multitudes. Though Lancaster may frequently ply that beaming kisser, something takes shape around his pearly whites, a smile or smirk, that’s not a routine gesture. He’s got a grin that can disarm or deceive, conceal or connive. Hang that ambiguous facade on an actor first trained as a professional acrobat and you have a mercurial mug atop a lithe athleticism. When first pinched for the pictures, Lancaster didn’t have that signature smile. His mid-1940s debut roles in The Killers and Brute Force were too hang-tough even for a sneer, but in time his bravado emerged. By the early 1950s, that grin came flooding forth in the swashbuckler send-up, The Crimson Pirate, showing off his physical daring, a characteristic he would trump in Trapeze, that soaring tribute to the Big Top. Sweet Smell of Success and Elmer Gantry presented larger-than-life roles that his trademark visage could barely restrain. Here, Lancaster’s smile is like a seawall holding back waves of sarcasm, duplicity, and an unexpected vulnerability. The 1960s saw roles of great command in which he subdued his more uninhibited gestures to acknowledge the disturbing depths of films like Birdman of Alcatraz, A Child is Waiting, and The Swimmer. With a career that spans four decades, this series barely plumbs Burt Lancaster’s forceful and committed presence. But these terrific examples—taut existential noirs, acrobatic extravaganzas, judicious social dramas—should still leave you with something to grin about.

Steve Seid
Video Curator

Friday, November 26, 2010
8:00 p.m. The Killers
Robert Siodmak (U.S., 1946). Two big-city toughs invade a small-town diner looking for “The Swede,” in this blood-pulsing noir, based on a story by Hemingway and costarring Ava Gardner and Edmond O’Brien. Lancaster’s first screen role. (103 mins)

Saturday, November 27, 2010
6:30 p.m. Trapeze
Carol Reed (U.S., 1956). The first Hollywood film from the director of British classics The Third Man and Fallen Idol, this circus drama finds Lancaster (a former acrobat in real life) in a high-wire love triangle with Gina Lollabrigida and Tony Curtis. (105 mins)

Saturday, November 27, 2010
8:40 p.m. Brute Force
Jules Dassin (U.S., 1947). Famed blacklisted director Dassin (Night and the City) teamed with Lancaster for this hard-hitting noir about life inside prison walls. “Part antifascist tract, part existential allegory.”—NY Times (94 mins)

Saturday, December 4, 2010
6:30 p.m. The Crimson Pirate
Robert Siodmak (U.S., 1952). Lancaster and fellow real-life acrobat buddy Nick Cravat add a bounding physicality to this tongue-in-cheek tribute to the swashbucklers of old, as the Crimson Pirate gets involved with rebels and beauties while evading the King’s Navy. “A slam-bang, action-filled Technicolor lampoon.”—NY Times (104 mins)

Saturday, December 4, 2010
8:40 p.m. Sweet Smell of Success
Alexander Mackendrick (U.S., 1957).
Burt Lancaster plays a ruthless New York City gossip columnist and Tony Curtis is a groveling press agent in this “pungent exploration of ambition and evil in the New York newspaper world. . . . A chilling and powerful picture.”—Village Voice (96 mins)

Sunday, December 5, 2010
4:45 p.m. Elmer Gantry
Richard Brooks (U.S., 1960). Burt Lancaster is the prototypical American huckster Elmer Gantry, who realizes he can sell God just as well as vacuum cleaners in this searing satire on evangelical corruption and the American way, adapted from a Sinclair Lewis novel. Photography by legendary cinematographer John Alton. (146 mins)

Thursday, December 9, 2010
7:00 p.m. Birdman of Alcatraz
John Frankenheimer (U.S., 1962). In jail for life, a double murderer transforms himself from caged man to bird expert in this thoughtful prison drama starring Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, and Telly Savalas. From the director of The Manchurian Candidate. “A powerful reminder of one of the deepest values of life, that of human dignity.”—Films and Filming (147 mins)

Saturday, December 11, 2010
6:30 p.m. A Child is Waiting
John Cassavetes (U.S., 1963). Cassavetes’s second studio production is a hard-hitting drama about the social reforms needed to care for mentally disabled children, with Burt Lancaster as a headstrong psychologist determined to fight for his charges’ rights, and Judy Garland as a music instructor. “Cassavetes elicits magnificent performances from his cast.”—Time Out (102 mins)

Saturday, December 11, 2010
8:40 p.m. The Swimmer
Frank Perry (U.S., 1968). A tanned Burt Lancaster plays a middle-aged suburbanite slowly reaching the deep end, one highball at a time, in this riveting drama based on the John Cheever story. “Has the shape of an open-ended hallucination... a grim, disturbing and sometimes funny view of upper-middle-class American life”—NY Times (94 mins)