Elmer Gantry (1960)
Written and directed by Richard Brooks
Based on the novel Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, Shirley Jones, Arthur Kennedy
A fast-talking salesman (Lancaster) becomes enamored with a traveling evangelist (Simmons) he meets while on the road. Soon he convinces her that he could use his skills to preach during her revivals.
This is a classic movie based on the 1927 novel written by Sinclair Lewis (Arrowsmith). The story was loosely adapted by Richard Brooks (Brute Force), who also directed the movie. The film stars Burt Lancaster (Sweet Smell of Success), Jean Simmons (Guys and Dolls), Shirley Jones (The Music Man), and Arthur Kennedy (The Man From Laramie). This film would earn a total of five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture.
The story for this film is based very loosely on the novel Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis. Richard Brooks made significant changes to the story as he adapted it for the big screen. The result is a script that was charged with controversy at the time. The film takes on the questions of hypocrisy and dishonesty as they intersect with religion. The writing also looks into the many temptations in life, and how the characters handle them. The writing does a great job developing complex and fascinating characters early in the film. The connections built between the characters throughout the story are very nicely written. The payoffs in the film are equally well-written. The dialogue is a unique mix of simple and honest speech as well as complex and intense moments of deeper philosophical discussion. For the great writing this movie earned Richard Brooks an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
This movie stands as another example of just how good Burt Lancaster could be. His performance as the title character is incredible. He embodies both the wicked salesman and the saintly preacher with equal skill. This really elevated the film since he created a character that could be comfortable in any situation. This means that he was also able to find chemistry with all of his co-stars. This is especially true of Jean Simmons. Their moments on the screen together are so much fun to watch. Simmons also holds her own throughout all of her scenes. She builds in a level of mystery into her character that pays off in the end. Shirley Jones also does an awesome job in this film. She humanizes her character and brings depth that is so powerful in this one. She also finds great chemistry with Lancaster. Finally, Arthur Kennedy adds something nice to this one. He is one of many who bring the world of the film a sense of authenticity.
For his work, Burt Lancaster won an Academy Award for Best Actor. This would be his second nomination and the only win of his incredible career. He was joined on the red carpet by Shirley Jones. She took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. For Jones this was a bit of a surprise considering her lack of work in dramatic films. Prior to Elmer Gantry she had been a star in musicals, and this helped her to establish herself as a serious actress.
This movie has some incredible visuals. Cinematographer John Alton (An American in Paris) did a wonderful job finding ways to establish a visual tension that the story needed. He also worked well with the production team in using the lights and shadows to aid the tone. The movie also features a great score, written by André Previn (Dead Ringer). His music adds another layer to the drama as it unfolds throughout the story. Previn was also nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Score. Overall, this film looks and sounds great. The editing, costuming, and other aspects all come together nicely.
This is a unique and powerful film that tells an awesome story. Like the book did in 1927, this movie stirred up a decent level of controversy. The questions central to the film are taken on very directly. Fans of intense drama should really enjoy this one. I would also recommend this one to fans of movies like Doubt. The performances of the stars are also worth checking this one out for. I give this one 4.5 out of 5 stars.