23 August 2008

Burt Lancaster and The Art of Graceful Acting

Today I watched a film I'd not seen since I was a kid, The Professionals (1966) directed by Richard Brooks. As a 12 year old I loved it. As a lot more than 12 year old I thought it was okay. Ralph Bellamy is a Texas millionaire who hires four experts for a dangerous mission (great movie set up). They are to re-capture his young and lovely wife (Claudia Cardinale) who has been kidnapped by group of Mexican rebels. Their leader is the notorious Jesus Raza played by Jack Palance (what, they couldn't fight a Mexican actor?). Our heroes are Lee Marvin, Woody Storde, Robert Ryan, and Burt Lancaster. The story is set in the early 20th century Texas/Mexico.

The mission is fraught with peril but a pay off of $10,00 a man entices the foursome to attempt penetrating the enemy fortress and Raza's army.

The Professionals lacked the humor of Butch Cassiday and the Sundance Kid (1969), the boldness of The Wild Bunch (1969) or the vision of the Searchers (1958). The mid Sixties weren't a great time for American film particularly westerns and action films. The many action scenes in The Professionals were garden variety Saturday matinee stuff. A TV series of the time, Wild Wild West, did them better.

From 40 years in the future The Professionals seems a waste of an excellent cast. While the film is diverting enough, the wonderful talents of Robert Ryan were wasted. Also this was not the Lee Marvin of a vaguely similar film, The Dirty Dozen (leader of a dangerous mission into the heart of enemy territory). But there's one aspect of the movie that I really enjoyed: Burt Lancaster.

Lancaster played a cynical, hard drinking, humorous womanizer. But one of the key aspects of Lancaster's appeal in many of his films was that he was a graceful man in a hunky body. In The Professionals he was veritably dancing across rocks and crags as he shot it out with banditos or set off explosions.

Prior to his screen career Lancaster was an acrobat and gymnast. It shows. Whether literally sliding into his sermons in Elmer Gantry (1960) or nimbly climbing trestles in The Train (1964), Lancaster was always a study in grace. His looks and distinctive voice would have been enough for a fine acting career. Mix in his stylish way of moving and you've got a big star.

Lancaster was not the only great actor to be endowed with such physical style. James Cagney came to acting as a hoofer. Yes, of course he was sight to see prancing around in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), but he even gave an elegance to gangsters such as Tom Powers in Public Enemy (1931).

Cary Grant was never particularly athletic but he could be the embodiment of "cool" when he walked into a room. Watch him in Notorious (1946) for just one example. William Holden, at least in his younger days, looked like a football running back taking it easy between games. I also loved the way Henry Fonda walked. I'd characterize as it as masculine delicacy. Very precise and mannered. Just study him in Twelve Angry Men (1957). Charlie Chaplin had a style too but that's a whole other category.

The mannered, graceful way an actor runs or walks or hops can add to their performance, making them and thus the picture more interesting. Lancaster accomplished this in The Professionals.

I doubt as a 12 year old I'd much noticed Lancaster's physicality. To be honest, I probably just thought it was cool the way he blew things up. Ahh sweet youth....


asdp said...

Agree completely about Burt Lancaster. And when he turned the grace into menace it absolutely terrified - cf. The Sweet Smell of Success.

Dane said...

I totally agree with you on your ideas about Burt Lancaster as an actor and about how he moved with such style and grace. But, I think The Professionals is a much better movie than you give it credit. While I admit that anyone could have played Robert Ryan's role, the story has some subtle humor (and some not too subtle) to it, some great action, and a great cast. I think the movie is a lot of fun and it moves at a good pace that even allows todays fast-paced movie editing generation to enjoy it. There is a history between the characters and a mutual respect even for the bad guys. Lancaster outshines everyone in the movie, but without Marvin, Woody Strode and Jack Palance, this wouldn't have been nearly as entertaining.

Anonymous said...

Actually Cary Grant had a background in the circus, and could do backflips.

jas72 said...

Charles Bronson walked like a leopard on the prowl. He was smooth and silky when he walked. He seemed to glide across a room.

asbury26 said...

oh isn't it ever so nice to find someone appreciating burt lancaster. that really made my day. i think burt lancaster was one hell of an actor and yes, there are so many sides to him. sadly these days people don't seem to recognize his talents anymore. so, anyway, thanks for the article. really appreciate it.