Elmer Gantry (1960, Richard Brooks)

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Sinclair Lewis could never seem to make it to screen intact; one of the best American novelists, his work seems too rich with biting satire to lend itself conveniently to Hollywood cinema despite its insight into the real, weird America. The teeth were removed from the petty-bourgeois Dodsworth for William Wyler’s film, which became an incredibly moving domestic drama instead. This major adaptation of Elmer Gantry retains some of the novel’s cynicism and fire, but confines itself to a radically revised rendition of just one chunk of the story. The result, in the hands of the typically staid Richard Brooks (Blackboard Jungle; In Cold Blood), has problems but is an impressively oddball creation itself. It would make a hell of a double feature with The Master, with many sequences (and the general story) being surprisingly close in spirit or execution. I’d bet a few bucks on Paul Thomas Anderson having seen this film while he was writing that script — which is a compliment to Gantry. (Still, the fact that Brooks got the adapted screenplay Oscar and not Joseph Stefano for Psycho is… well, one of those things.)

However you feel about the novel and Brooks’ treatment of it, this at any rate is a powerhouse of acting and camerawork, following with fervor and sprawl the violently animated, electrifying Burt Lancaster in the title role. It remains impressive just how inexhaustible Lancaster’s range was; from pretty-boy nothing in From Here to Eternity to the black hardened heart of J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success, he was a deeply serious and dedicated performer. When we stare into Lancaster’s eyes in this film, we see Gantry through and through, the passion and hypocrisy and all of the emptiness.

Though she has considerably less screen time (albeit more than the pivotal Shirley Jones), Jean Simmons is spectacular as well as Sister Falconer, but she gets her best moments in the first half hour, especially a strange subtle turnaround when she is suddenly completely onboard with the cockamamie scheme that leads Gantry into her circle. Christ, it seems, is her drug — and it all dooms her. In a haphazard manner that calls to mind Robert Rossen’s direction of All the King’s Men, the film is in a deep sense Sister Falconer’s arc, her calculation and victimhood as reverse-Americana.

Brooks chooses to investigate Gantry as a complex phenomenon, not so much a symptom of a larger problem; the film isn’t nearly as embittered toward religion as the novel, though more sardonic than usual. Only the finale seems an on-the-nose indictment of the values of the film’s characters. It’s striking, but the more Brooks tries to tell a story rather than investigate a man — Gantry’s motives always as complex as the maze of lines in Lancaster’s face — the more badly he falters. There’s too much chatter and plot and not enough of Lancaster’s hypnotic, George S. Patton-like way with crowd (and individual) emotional manipulation. And Brooks’ rather one-sided view of the religious masses isn’t too much more nuanced than Stanley Kramer’s in Inherit the Wind (nor is that shot of the cross on fire near the climax).

All the same, when the film is powerful, it’s really powerful, and for all of its exhausting and huge crowd scenes and bold moments of polished evangelism, the peak moment is a speech the inimitable Shirley Jones gives when she talks semi-privately about the first time Gantry seduced her. It is a moment of raw, powerful sensuality and humor and even, somehow, terror, almost all because of Jones’ performance, which seems to bubble above everything and operate as a direct communication with the viewer — mocking laughter at all the trumped-up Tower of Power surrounding her scene. She, not Arthur Kennedy’s tiresome reporter, is the true audience vessel here.

It’s fascinating how Brooks uses laughter in Elmer Gantry — as a sign of cut-through-the-bullshit warmth, as a derisive moment of harsh recognition, as an act of obvious fakery, as a sign of impatience or bewilderment, as a nervous cover-up, as a threat, as a sign of enmity and conspiracy. Laughter serves as the climax or a key moment of nearly every big sequence in the film, and never once is it because something is actually funny. Gantry isn’t really about religion. It’s about how people lie — to each other, sure, but especially to themselves. In sharp contrast to most of the director’s efforts and for all the troubling, acidic bleakness it inherits from the source, it boils over with life.

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