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Brilliant Burt Lancaster

September 30, 2013

by John Farr

Burt Lancaster understood the importance of choosing the right roles. John Farr covers three of his finest.

The Train (1964)

What It’s About:
In the waning days of the Nazi occupation, cold-blooded Colonel Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) pushes through a plan to transport a sizeable shipment of priceless art from Paris to Germany by train. Specifically, the Colonel has his beady eye on paintings by Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, and Picasso. Determined to keep France’s art treasures where they belong, railroad worker Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster) takes on the tricky, dangerous task of derailing this mission, with the help of some gallant friends in the Resistance.

Why I Love It:
Based on a real incident, John Frankenheimer’s pulse-pounding war film is lean and riveting, as Lancaster and team work intrepidly to foil Von Waldheim’s exacting plans. Burt is restrained and no-nonsense as Labiche- thankfully he doesn’t even attempt a French accent, with Scofield icy perfection as the ruthless Nazi. The luminous Moreau is fabulous as well in a small but pivotal role.If you like movies with plenty of action and suspense, don’t miss “The Train”.

The Professionals (1966)

What It’s About:
When a lawless Mexican revolutionary named Raza (Jack Palance) abducts the gorgeous Maria (Claudia Cardinale) for ransom, wealthy Texas rancher Grant (Ralph Bellamy) hires the only men he knows have a chance of rescuing his wife: horse trainer Hans (Robert Ryan), tracker and longbow expert Jake (Woody Strode), and stoic leader Fardan (Lee Marvin), who posts bail to recruit his womanizing best pal, explosives pro Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), for this tricky job. The trek is dangerous, with bandidos in the canyons and Raza’s trigger-happy watchmen on patrol, but with $10,000 each on the barrelhead if they bring Maria back, the men are highly determined.

Why I Love It:
Richard Brooks’s self-penned, high-energy Western, set in the waning years of the Mexican Revolution in 1917, is a tense, gritty and exciting horse drama. The teaming of Marvin and Lancaster, playing Raza’s disenchanted ex-amigos, works brilliantly, while Strode and Ryan offer fine support as talented sidekicks. Italian bombshell Cardinale, in her first English-speaking role, provides plenty of fiery va-va voom, too, especially in league with Palance’s rough-riding Raza, who proves to be quite a romantic himself. Filmed on location in Nevada, “The Professionals” is a rousing, thoughtful action movie that deals with questions of money versus morality, and the last gasp of noble frontier idealism.

The Swimmer (1968)

What It’s About:
Hopping from one backyard swimming pool to another in suburban Connecticut, affluent, middle-aged ad executive Ned (Burt Lancaster) appears to be fit and happy. His neighbors, however, seem distraught and worried about Ned’s mental state, and it slowly becomes evident that his destination is not just home, but a reckoning with the devastating truth of his past- and present.

Why I Love It:
Perry’s heart-wrenching adaptation of the celebrated John Cheever short story digs under the skin of suburban malaise to reveal a kind of festering wound of disappointment, represented by a man absolutely naked in his psychological trauma. Lancaster never really gave a bad performance, but here he is riveting, playing a manic, effusively upbeat man who keeps insisting to everyone that he’s “okay”. Slowly, of course, we come to realize some darker things about Ned, and why he’s really not okay at all. Perry handles the slow reveal with magisterial grace, with all of it building to a shattering final image. Stylishly photographed and robustly acted, this unforgettable film will swim through your brain for a long time.

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