“Mister, I’ve been converted five times. Billy Sunday, Reverend Biederwolf, Gypsy Smith, and twice by Sister Falconer. I get terrible drunk, and then I get good and saved. Both of them done me a powerful lot of good – gettin’ drunk and gettin’ saved.”
Burt Lancaster was awesome. He was the kind of man’s man that existed in the Hollywood of the 50s and 60s, and just doesn’t exist these days. You believe his characters are hard drinkin’, hard brawlin’, hard lovin’ tough nuts, because Lancaster himself seems like he was capable of some hard drinkin’, hard brawlin’, hard lovin’ tough nuttery. I’m not saying that’s the kind of thing men should aspire to in the modern age, I’m just saying it lead to a certain kind of leading main back in the day that I think Hollywood misses in 2014. And I don’t know if that side of Lancaster was ever put to better use than it is in Elmer Gantry.
He loves his booze, he loves his women, and he loves riding the rails, but none of that stops Elmer Gantry (Lancaster) from preaching the word of his lord and savior. Initially, he parties hard at night, while using his gift of the gab to sell dodgy appliances by day. Christ and consumerism is the combo he exploits to make a buck. Then, he stumbles across the tent revival church of Sister Sharon Falconer (Jean Simmons). Talking his way into her inner circle, Elmer becomes an integral part of the organisation. While he preaches the fire and brimstone that scares everyone into thinking they’re doomed, Sister Falconer is there offering the comfort salvation.
After converting small town rubes and hicks, they arrive in Zenith, a major city that should be a little less susceptible to their smoke and mirrors. But it turns out, more people just means more exposure. And as local newspaper man Jim Lefferts (Arthur Kennedy) tries to reveal the church as a scam, the spin doctor skills of Elmer and Sharon only become more and more effective. Every time it seems like Elmer’s less than savory past might come back to bite him in the ass, he only finds more ammunition for his rabble rousing preaching.
Elmer Gantry comes with a disclaimer at the beginning, urging viewers to make sure no impressionable children are allowed to watch. And while it seems pretty tame and almost naively cute in the modern world, it is a pretty dark, unrelenting story. I can’t think of another movie from this period that has so many prostitutes, brothels and general “moral decay”, delivered in a way that is never judgmental or preachy. Sure, Elmer’s hypocrisy is judged harshly, but it’s almost like the message of Elmer Gantry is, booze and whore around all you like, just own it.
Burt Lancaster was awesome. And Elmer Gantry might just be the best display I’ve ever seen of his hard drinkin’, hard brawlin’, hard lovin’ tough nut machismo. There’s a serious, dark story about religion, faith, manipulation and trust at its core. But while some of that has become a little dated and cornily quaint in the six and half decades since its release, Lancaster’s performance is as badass as ever.