Skip to main content

He’s got all the nerve in the world, but none of the nerves.

Elmer Gantry
(1960)

(SPOILERS) Richard Brooks was something of an Oscar regular by the time he made Elmer Gantry, with The Blackboard Jungle, The Brothers Karamazov and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof all getting attention; he’d continue to keep that up during the ‘60s. Gantry receiving the nominations it did (five, including Best Picture), in some ways feels like a surprise, though: that the Academy would recognise material so overtly critical of religion, or by implication, through broadsiding those treating it like a business. That may be partly because its source material dates back to Sinclair Lewis’ 1927 novel, so there’s a literary pedigree, however current and controversial. It may also help that, while the film starts out with uncompromising zeal to expose and critique, by the conclusion it has become a much more recognisably traditional affair.

Plus, the makers were very careful to preface the picture by stating that those portrayed within it weren’t intended to reflect Christianity as a whole (well naturally – United Artist weren’t looking for a boycott), as well as, if not being slavish to the then increasingly tenuous Hays Code, making some changes; Gantry is no longer an ordained minister, having been thrown out of the seminary for seducing the deacon’s daughter. Nevertheless, one can’t help wonder if the Academy might have had a bee in their bonnet that year, since Inherit the Wind, Stanley Kramer’s attack on creationism, was also jostling for Best Picture attention. Here, the opportunistically mocking Elmer brings a chimp on stage to emphasise his argument against the evolutionists.

Perhaps a historic setting was perceived to provide sufficient insulation in both instances, then. Lancaster, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the title character, a con man travelling salesman turned evangelist, intended the film as an attack on Billy Graham. Indeed, it’s difficult not to think of Graham. Lancaster is terrific, a tornado of unexpurgated flim-flam in the aid of persuading rapt audiences to buy what he’s selling, and just self-effacing enough to allow that he might pull off this doozy of confidence tricks. 

Bizarrely – for poor Pat, that is – he got the part after the earmarked Pat Hingle fell down a lift shaft, and in due course had to vie with notables Jack Lemmon (The Apartment) and Laurence Olivier (The Entertainer) for the Oscar. I’ve never much liked Archie Rice, celebrated as the role is, but Lemmon might well have been the favourite, given The Apartment’s taking of the big prizes. It's doubtful either could have equalled Lancaster's acceptance speech wit ("I want to thank all who expressed this kind of confidence by voting for me. And right now I'm so happy I want to thank all the members who didn't vote for me").

Morgan: You’re a crude, vulgar show-off, and your vocabulary belongs in the outhouse.

As impressive as Lancaster, in a contrastingly understated manner, is Jean Simmons as Sister Sharon Falconer, who offers the contrasting salve of heaven to Gantry’s hell, the haloes to his brimstone (“I’d say we make a pretty good team”). Admittedly in this regard, Elmer Gantry’s most obvious failing is that Sister Sharon and her manager Bill Morgan (Dean Jagger), who doesn’t warm to Gantry initially, wouldn’t be a lot more careful in disguising their cynical calculation in utilising his unique gifts, particularly with Arthur Kennedy’s reporter tagging along with the “travelling circus”. 

Sister Sharon: God sent you to me as an instrument, do you understand?

One might also suggest there isn’t quite enough character work to account for what makes Sister Sharon tick. She initially resists Gantry’s advances (“The big difference between you and me is that I believe. I really believe”), and impresses by seeing him for what he is immediately. But there isn’t really an insight into how she can profess to be a genuine believer while simultaneously thinking the kind of morally-culpable calculation that accompanies endorsing Gantry is acceptable.

Indeed, it’s a disappointment when she succumbs to Gantry’s charms, the satirical thrust giving way to a more melodramatic tenor. Now there’s a relationship between them, and a less than riveting honeytrap (“the old badger game”) involving Lulu, a prostitute he ran out on (Shirley Jones, later of The Partridge Family, who won Best Supporting Actress). Brooks’ film may have only taken a hundred pages of the novel as its basis, but it more than pads them out in a movie that’s almost two-and-a-half hours in length. It’s a shame, because in the early stages, Elmer Gantry is punchy and on point in its targets; it falls victim to indulging too much of a good thing.

And, of course, to really drive its points home, the film needed the deceivers to triumph. Instead, Elmer Gantry manages, for all its disdain of those who would deceive, to arrive at a very Hays Code-indulging ending of protagonists in some way paying for their sins. We’ve already seen less than subtle arguments between the city elders – “Your problem is empty churches, gentlemen” advises Gantry; “Religion is not a business” disputes Hugh Marlowe’s Reverend Garrison – prior to the arrival of the revival in Zenith. Now, at the climax, following Gantry’s public humiliation and then Lulu’s retraction, he resists joining the revived revival, while Sister Sharon, refusing to run away with him, miraculously heals a deaf man.

Lefferts: Every circus needs a clown, Gantry. And who knows you might turn out to be the funniest clown of them all. And the most successful.

I’d been hoping this would be revealed as a con itself, even one unbeknownst to her, since it would have given the picture added bite when it most needed it (and also as neat an underscore as Gantry’s description of his own inspired sermons, whereby he fails even to realise he’s using the language of being a vessel of God: “It’s like a mighty spirit movin’ inside of me”). Rather, it provides a muddled, muddied sign from God, since sister Sharon takes the miracle as an endorsement, even when the tent starts burning and the audiences are running for their lives (“Wait! You must have faith!”), perishing in the flames. Gantry, meanwhile, is allowed maturity of a sort, quoting Corinthians (“When I was a child, I understood as a child and spoke as a child. When I was a man, I put away childish things”), which might be taken as a repudiation of the “childishness” of religion, but is directly in response to Morgan suggesting he carry on Sister Sharon’s good work.

Nevertheless, Elmer Gantry still packs a wallop when it's firing on all cylinders, which is invariably when Lancaster or Simmons (who married Brooks) are in a partnership, rather than a relationship. It also stands as a notable and occasionally surprising yardstick of what was nascently allowed to fly, along with The Apartment, on the way to an altogether less censorious Hollywood.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Dude. You’re my hero and shit.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was going to say I’d really like to see what Vince Gilligan has up his sleeve besidesBreaking Bad spinoffs. But then I saw that he had a short-lived series on CBS a few years back (Battle Creek). I guess things Breaking Bad-related ensure an easy greenlight, particularly from Netflix, for whom the original show was bread and butter in its take up as a streaming platform. There’s something slightly dispiriting about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, though. Not that Gilligan felt the need to return to Jesse Pinkman – although the legitimacy of that motive is debatable – but the desire to re-enter and re-inhabit the period of the show itself, as if he’s unable to move on from a near-universally feted achievement and has to continually exhume it and pick it apart.

Two hundred thousand pounds, for this outstanding example of British pulchritude and learning.

The Avengers 4.18: The Girl From Auntie
I’ve mentioned that a few of these episodes have changed in my appreciation since I last watched the series, and The Girl from Auntie constitutes a very pronounced uptick. Indeed, I don’t know how I failed to rate highly the estimable Liz Fraser filling in for Diana Rigg – mostly absent, on holiday –for the proceedings (taking a not dissimilar amateur impostor-cum-sidekick role to Fenella Fielding in the earlier The Charmers). I could watch Fraser all day, and it’s only a shame this was her single appearance in the show.

The past is a statement. The future is a question.

Justified Season Six
(SPOILERS) There have been more than enough damp squib or so-so show finales of late to have greeted the demise of Justified with some trepidation. Thankfully it avoids almost every pitfall it might have succumbed to and gives us a satisfying send-off that feels fitting for its characters. This is a series that, even at its weakest (the previous season) is leagues ahead of most fare in an increasingly saturated sphere, so it’s a relief – even if there was never much doubt on past form – that it doesn’t drop the ball.

And of those character fates? In a show that often pulls back from giving Raylan Givens the great hero moments (despite his maintaining a veneer of ultra-cool, and getting “supporting hero” moments as he does in the finale, 6.13 The Promise), it feels appropriate that his entire (stated) motivation for the season should be undermined. He doesn’t get to take down Boyd Crowder, except in an incarcerating sense, but as always he is sanguine about it. After…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

You’re only seeing what’s in front of you. You’re not seeing what’s above you.

Mr. Robot Season 2
(SPOILERS) I suspect my problem with Mr. Robot may be that I want it to be something it isn’t, which would entail it being a much better show than it is. And that’s its own fault, really, or rather creator and writer-director of umpteen episodes Sam Esmail’s, who has intentionally and provocatively lured his audience into thinking this really is an up-to-the-minute, pertinent, relevant, zeitgeisty show, one that not only has a huge amount to say about the illusory nature of our socio-economic system, and consequently the bedrock of our collective paradigm, but also the thorny subject of reality itself, both of which have been variably enticing dramatic fodder since the Wachowski siblings and David Fincher released a one-two punch at the end of the previous millennium.

In that sense, Mr. Robot’s thematic conceit is very much of a piece with its narrative form; it’s a conjuring act, a series of sleights of hand designed to dazzle the viewer into going with the flow, rath…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

It’s the Mount Everest of haunted houses.

The Legend of Hell House (1973)
(SPOILERS) In retrospect, 1973 looks like a banner year for the changing face of the horror movie. The writing was on the wall for Hammer, which had ruled the roost in Britain for so long, and in the US the release of The Exorcist completed a transformation of the genre that had begun with Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby; the realistic horror film, where the terror was to be found in the everyday (the home, the family). Then there was Don’t Look Now, which refracted horror tropes through a typically Nic Roeg eye, fracturing time and vision in a meditative exploration of death and grief. The Wicker Man, meanwhile, would gather its reputation over the passing years. It stands as a kind of anti-horror movie, eschewing standard scares and shock tactics for a dawning realisation of the starkness of opposing belief systems and the fragility of faith.

In comparison to this trio, The Legend of Hell House is something of a throwback; its slightly stagey tone, and cobweb…