best film:   Two of Burt Lancaster’s’ top four films were Italian films – The Leopard (Luchino Visconti’s film and the ultimate winner here) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900. The other big challengers are The Killers and The Sweet Smell of Success. There are actors who cluster best work together in a very short span of time – that is not Lancaster at all. These top four films mean that Lancaster’s best four films came in four different decades – The Killers in the 1940s, Sweet Smell in the 1950s, The Leopard in the 1960s, and 1900 in the 1970s. That is some incredible consistency and staying power.


best performance:  There is essentially a tie here with The Sweet Smell of Success and The Leopard. In Visconti’s masterpiece, Burt Lancaster plays the proud patriarch Prince Don Fabrizio Salina. This is a gigantic achievement for Lancaster. He is absolutely perfect here with his chin up and shoulders back – he strides around his castle, the ball at the end there is such poise and honor. He is stubborn (and yet somehow self-aware at the same time) and cunning.


from The Leopard – near the film’s finale, there is a brilliant sequence with Lancaster looking at the portrait of death – this is a meditation – an elegy.


stylistic innovations/traits:   Burt Lancaster had a whopping twenty-nine (29) archiveable films over his forty-four (44) year career – he was a Hollywood player (often producing his own material to control his career) and star the entire time. He was no Ward Bond (supporting character in everything with nearly forty (40) archiveable films). Lancaster is lead actor in at least twenty (20) of these films. He was handsome, tall, with those broad, athletic shoulders. Lancaster’s first film (he was no pup – he was born in 1913 so he was into his thirties), his very first film (there is no TV movie or bit player supporting role), is The Killers – a magnificent noir in which Lancaster steals the show. His last archiveable film (and overall film – though there was a TV spot or two here that would trickle out) – is Field of Dreams where Lancaster chews the scenes he is in right up and spits them out —he is so damn charming in it. Lancaster is a four-time Oscar nominee. We won for Elmer Gantry in 1960 – a year with admittedly many more superior performances. Still, as Gantry, (based on the Sinclair Lewis novel – and the film opens on a shot of the book) Lancaster excels at playing a Bible-thumping charlatan with the “gift of gab” set on sort of destroying and wooing the devout Jean Simmons’ character. Lancaster is a dynamo – drinking, women, this is a big performance (certainly not naturalism) and when he gets going it is a quite a show with all the yelling, the sweat, and that hair like he stuck his fingers into an electric socket. Lancaster was a dominant Hollywood actor for twenty prime years (1946-1966) and also was adventurous enough to lend himself to European auteurs (Visconti, Bertolucci, Louis Malle). If he had done one or the other (Hollywood star or model to mold for those European artists ) he would have ended up on this list – somewhere near the bottom – but somehow he did both and pulled it off – so he managed to crack the top thirty-one (31) slots.


The Sweet Smell of Success –  Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker is one of Hollywood’s great film characters of the 1950s. Tony Curtis’ immoral rogue struggling with his self-worth is the narrative vehicle, but it is Lancaster that dominates every time he is on screen as the autocratic bully.   Lancaster is fanatical and intellectual – an overbearing, and abusive figure. Lancaster is a tour-de-force.  Lancaster is very close to equal in both, but Alexander Mackendrick’s wonderfully atmospheric New York City potboiler (and Tony Curtis performance) cannot quite trump Visconti’s pictorial brilliance and achievement of mise-en-scene (The Leopard).


directors worked with: Robert Aldrich (3), John Frankenheimer (3), Richard Brooks (2), Luchino Visconti (2), Jules Dassin (1), Fred Zinnemann (1), John Sturges (1), Robert Wise (1), Bernardo Bertolucci (1), Robert Altman (1), Louis Malle (1). The multiple films with Aldrich is a bit of a surprise – Vera Cruz is a fine film but generally these are not Aldrich’s finest films. One has to tip their cap to Lancaster for working with the next generation (Altman, Bertolucci, Malle) later in his career. He was clearly seeking out to make art 30+ years into his career.


The Killers is known as the film that launched the careers of Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner. It is also remembered as one of the best Ernest Hemingway adaptations (Hemingway’s name appears above the title). It is also considered the sort of Citizen Kane of film noir with its splintered flashback storytelling structure.   Not to take anything away from the great Burt Lancaster, but half the credit here goes to whomever decided to give him this spectacular role. Lancaster plays “Swede” Anderson. This is Lancaster’s true debut, and he gets top billing, frankly an awesome character to play, in all in a Hemingway adaptation no less – wow.  Lancaster is 33 in 1946 – a big, imposing physical (perfect as ex-boxer) figure. The first shot of him is laying in bed with shadows bouncing off the wall. This is cool fatalism of film noir. Director Robert Siodmak comes in to give Lancaster a close-up as the Swede accepts his doomed fate and decides not to run.


top five performances:

  1. The Leopard
  2. The Sweet Smell of Success
  3. The Killers
  4. Brute Force
  5. From Here to Eternity


a James Dean-like (nearly a decade before Dean of course) start to Lancaster’s career with his first two films : The Killers in 1946 and Brute Force in 1947 as his very next film (pictured here) – quite a one-two start for Lancaster. He had such a great balance to that long career.


archiveable films

1946- The Killers
1947- Brute Force
1947- I Walk Alone
1948- Sorry, Wrong Number
1953- From Here to Eternity
1954- Vera Cruz
1955- The Rose Tattoo
1957- Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
1957- The Sweet Smell of Success
1958- Run Silent, Run Deep
1958- Separate Tables
1959- The Devil’s Disciple
1960- Elmer Gantry
1961- Judgement at Nuremberg
1962- The Birdman of Alcatraz
1963- The Leopard
1964- Seven Days in May
1965- The Train
1966- The Professionals
1968- The Swimmer
1972- Ulzana’s Raid
1973- Scorpio
1974- Conversation Piece
1976- 1900
1976- Buffalo Bill and the Indians
1977- Twilight’s Last Gleaming
1980- Atlantic City
1983- Local Hero
1989- Field of Dreams