Ulzana’s Raid (1972)

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It’s how they are. They have always been like this. When word arrives that Apache warrior Ulzana (Joaquin Martinez) has assembled a war party and left the San Carlos Indian Reservation, the United States Army assigns veteran tracker John McIntosh (Burt Lancaster) and Apache scout Ke-Ni-Tay (Jorge Luke) to lead a young, prejudiced lieutenant Garnett DeBuin (Bruce Davison) and his troops from Fort Lowell to find Ulzana. Outmanoeuvered and unfamiliar with the terrain, the cavalry struggles to stop the long-mistreated and raging Apaches from destroying everything in their path in what initially seem like senseless acts of violence upon homesteads and families … The only thing that won’t slow them down is how much killing they do. Alan Sharp’s screenplay is about a devastating period in American history, that quarter of the nineteenth century when a brutal ethnic cleansing was carried out in the name of white conquest;  equally, it is about the astonishing violence of the Native Americans and this is a film that always has an eye on the war in Vietnam:  draw your own conclusions.  This narrative is hewed from a real attack in Arizona in 1885. Davison is good as the naïf who gains an education in the harshest possible conditions, Lancaster is superb as the ageing man who mentors him in the ways of the west. Between them is the compromised Ke-Ni-Tay who has insider information on Ulzana because their wives are sisters. Never an easy watch, despite the ostensibly beautiful camera setups, it’s one of the key westerns of its era and is an underrated work from director Robert Aldrich. Man give up his power when he die

The Train (1965)

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He won’t leave the train. I’m beginning to know him. In August 1944 art connoisseur German Colonel von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) is planning to take the great art works from the Jeu de Paume gallery under the curatorship of Rose Vallard (Suzanne Flon) out of Paris before it’s liberated. She approaches officials at the SNCF to stop the train crossing out of France and into Germany with some of the greatest paintings ever produced. Labiche (Burt Lancaster) and his Resistance colleagues (Michel Simon, Albert Rémy, Charles Millot, Jacques Marin) do everything possible to keep train no. 40,0444 running late, diverting it through disguised stations and interfering with the tracks but the Allies have a new plan … Keep your eyes open. Your horizon’s about to be broadened. Decades before Monuments Men came this gripping actioner, directed by francophile thriller maestro John Frankenheimer. Scofield and Lancaster are mesmerising as the men who are protagonist/antagonist to each other, with their unreeling taking very different forms. In this scenario adapted by Franklin Coen, Frank Davis and the blacklisted Walter Bernstein from Rose Vallard’s Le Front de l’art, the political just got personal. There’s a deal of portentous and pretentious verbalising about art and its meaning to the nation, but at base this is a great cat and mouse chase and you’ll learn more than you ever knew was possible about rail yards, tracks, lines and switches. Moreau has a nice two-sequence arc as a hotelier who helps out while there are really fantastic smaller roles for a marvellous lineup that includes Franco-Irish actor Donal O’Brien (as Sergeant Schwartz) who would appear the following year for Frankenheimer in Grand Prix and then enjoy a career in Italian spaghetti westerns, horrors and giallos.  Maurice Jarre’s score is intense. And the ending? Straight out of Sartre. Parfait. No one’s ever hurt. Just dead

Separate Tables (1958)

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The trouble about being on the side of right, as one sees it, is that one often finds oneself in the company of such very questionable allies. During the off-season at the Beauregard Hotel by the English seaside, the secrets of some guests are exposed. Lovely but vulnerable Ann Shankland (Rita Hayworth) travels to the hotel in hopes of starting over with her ex-husband, John (Burt Lancaster) unaware that that he is secretly engaged to Pat Cooper (Wendy Hiller), the manageress of the hotel. Meanwhile, Mrs. Railton-Bell (Gladys Cooper) and her shy and bullied daughter Sibyl (Deborah Kerr) discover the hidden truth about resident guest, the debonair war hero Major Pollack (David Niven)… When you’re together, you slash each other to pieces. When you’re alone, you slash yourselves to pieces.Terence Rattigan isn’t fashionable now although there was a revival of sorts in the West End a few years ago but in the Fifties he was quite the name to drop:  an exponent of what we might term drawing room drama with a deep emotional core, delving into the hypocrisies of the middle classes and the everyday deceptions practised to make the day pass without incident. This is derived from two of his one-act plays. Niven won the Academy Award for Best Actor even though his role is of the supporting variety:  it’s a virtuoso display of fraudulence, disappointment and delusion and his relationship with Kerr is terribly touching. Together they are horribly lonely in this study of morality and behaviour. The array of relationships and how they intersect and resound dramatically is expertly explored by screenwriter John Gay and an uncredited John Michael Hayes who always had a wonderful way with words – double-talk being his speciality. Hayworth’s impact as the elegant lonely lady is something to behold:  stardom in action, overcoming an underwritten role. She was married to co-producer James Hill (part of the production company with Lancaster and Harold Hecht). Kerr essays a combination of timidity and hysteria – quite a balancing act – in the shadow of her harridan mother Cooper, who is terrifying. Wendy Hiller won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as the dignified proprietor facing emotional loss. Cathleen Nesbitt has a lovely role as the compassionate Lady Matheson. This is a world in which the mass of folk are misfits who lead lives of quiet desperation constrained by the mores of their time. Ain’t that the truth! Directed with sustained tension by Delbert Mann with a sympathetic score by David Raksin and some marvellous editing by Marjorie Fowler.  Why have you told so many awful lies? 

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

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I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.  New York City newspaper journalist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) has a considerable influence on public opinion with his Broadway column, but one thing that he can’t control is his younger sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), who is in a relationship with aspiring jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Marty Milner). Hunsecker strongly disproves of the romance and recruits publicist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to find a way to split the couple, no matter how ruthless the method.  Falco comes up with a scheme to convince another columnist who is Hunsecker’s bitter rival to run the smear item suggesting Steve is a commie and a junkie, so that Susan won’t suspect it comes from her brother’s camp but it affects her terribly and the men compete for her affections… I love this dirty town An astonishing portrait of venality and viciousness, Lancaster (who produced) and Curtis are simply unforgettable. Major stars at the time, they were steeped in the character psychology of to-the-death rivalry in a story widely assumed to be inspired by Walter Winchell, the feared real-life columnist.  Harrison is memorable as the young woman whose brother has an almost incestuous obsession with her but it’s the face off between the male villains that makes this one of the most rivetting studies of cruelty ever put on film.  They are the yin to the other’s yang, the flip side of the same bad penny. The best of everything is good enough for me. Those mean streets of Manhattan are photographed by James Wong Howe and they are slick with rain and glistening with fear. Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets wrote the screenplay from a story by Lehman (himself a press agent in another life) and Alexander Mackendrick was making his American directing debut after holding the fort at Britain’s Ealing Studios for many years. It’s a film that looks and sounds great (courtesy of a marvellous score by Elmer Bernstein incorporating the work of the Chico Hamilton Quintet), with that wonderful quality – the ring of truth. You’re dead son. Get yourself buried

Conversation Piece (1974)

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Aka Gruppo di famiglia in un inferno. There’s no sex life in the grave. Retired and lonely American University professor (Burt Lancaster) living in Rome rents out rooms in his palazzo to Bianca Brumonti (Silvana Mangano) a rather pushy marchesa, her teenage daughter Lietta (Claudia Marsani) and her boyfriend Stefano (Stefano Patrizi) and her own lover Konrad (Helmut Berger)…  He was too young to have learned this final nasty fact: grief is as precarious as anything else. Dreamed up by Luchino Visconti as a kind of updated La Dolce Vita, critiquing decadent society, this was co-written with regular collaborators Enrico Medioli and Suso Cecchi D’Amico.  It reunited him with his protegé Berger, and his avatar from Il Gattopardo, Lancaster, an iteration of literary critic Mario Praz (a specialist in romantic morbidity), who collects the titular paintings. Resplendent in furs from Fendi and ostentatious beauty, these unwelcome tenants turn the Professor’s life upside down against a backdrop of political chaos as this quasi-home invasion by the jet set takes a nasty turn while he is momentarily besotted by Konrad. This is a story of nostalgia and sorrow, a paean to lost love and beauty and art, a tone poem about modernity and death, the flailing of the elegant intellectual in a world losing to vulgarity. It’s a chamber piece likely due to the director’s recent stroke but still boasts opulence and telling detail with the dazzling Berger another incarnation of Tadzio, the angel of death from Death in Venice and Mangano revealed as a grotesqueVisconti at his most vulnerable and perhaps most charming. The way of progress is destruction

 

The Leopard (1963)

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We were the leopards, the lions, those who take our place will be jackals and sheep, and the whole lot of us – leopards, lions, jackals and sheep – will continue to think ourselves the salt of the earth. As Garibaldi’s troops begin the unification of Italy in the 1860s, an aristocratic Sicilian family grudgingly adapts to the sweeping social changes undermining their way of life. The proud but pragmatic (yet feline) Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster) allows his fickle war hero (who changes sides) nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon), to marry Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), the beautiful daughter of gauche, bourgeois Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa) in order to maintain the family’s accustomed level of comfort and political clout when the fighting approaches their summer home in Sicily but the Prince is himself enchanted with her …  Adapted from Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s masterful novel by director Luchino Visconti and Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Enrico Mediloi, Pasquale Festa Campanile and Massimo Franciosa, rarely have the obsessions of a novelist coincided so fortuitously with those of a filmmaker. The Marxist aristocrat Visconti had an intimate acquaintance with the notion of a society in transition and the magnificent central performance by Lancaster anchors the affect in nuance and specificity as he questions his identity and relevance.  The battle scenes that open the film are sunny, stunning and violent, shot almost entirely wide which gives them an appropriately epic quality. The final forty-five minute ball sequence during which the Prince dances with Angelica and Tancredi and the Prince’s daughters look on in variously anguished forms is tantalising:  there are shot choices that make you squeal with delight, almost as gloriously as Cardinale’s devastating laughter at the dinner table. Was there ever a more beautiful or seductive couple than Delon and Cardinale, reunited after Rocco and His Brothers? Not a lot happens:  the Prince realises his way of life (‘leopards and lions’) is changing and he is experiencing history as it unfolds. He discusses his ridiculous marriage with his priest Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli);  he observes a rigged plebiscite;  goes on holiday and a picnic;  hunts;  arranges Tancredi’s marriage to Angelica; walks home from the ball in the early hours of the morning and recognises the shabbiness of the decaying district over which he presides. The novel is wonderful and it is shocking to realise Di Lampedusa died before he could see it become a phenomenon in 1958. A magnificent, bewitching, bittersweet film adaptation made when cinema was great with an immersive score by Nino Rota that perfectly encapsulates a world in love with death. For the ages. We’re just human beings in a changing world.

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

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This was released as the voiceover tells us in Robert Stroud’s 53rd year of incarceration. Burt Lancaster plays the man who became a world-renowned ornithologist after being sentenced to death and then solitary confinement – terminally.  He killed a man over a girl when he was 19, protecting her from the bartender who was attacking her;  and then in Leavenworth killed a prison guard in a scuffle when the guard cancelled his mother’s visit.  His mother (Thelma Ritter) pleads for his death by hanging to be commuted but she becomes proprietorial over him and her true narcissistic exhibitionism (it’s all about her, see? Some of us know this syndrome way too well…) emerges when he becomes an expert in bird diseases after tending and raising sparrows and canaries from the yard. His book is smuggled out and becomes a best seller and he befriends and marries a fellow bird lover on the outside (Betty Field) with whom he starts a business in bird medicine.  His mother then relentlessly campaigns against his parole and he is denied every single year thereafter. The warden Harvey Shoemaker (Karl Malden) hates him because of his individuality and refusal to show remorse.  He will never leave solitary confinement. His friendship with fellow inmate Feto Gomez (Telly Savalas) is sundered when Gomez is removed to Alcatraz where Shoemaker is then promoted. The new warden Albert Comstock (Hugh Marlowe) is literally insane about Stroud’s dedication to his studies behind bars. His parole hearing comes up again. And suddenly one morning he has to leave everything behind – the birds, his studies, his life in the unprecedented two-rooms he’s been allowed and he leaves for Alcatraz with only the clothes he stands up in. Malden goes bananas when Stroud’s history of the penal system doesn’t recognise his contribution to getting men to manufacture belt buckles.  When there’s a mutiny amongst the prisoners it’s Stroud who helps to quell it. And his reward?  A transfer to another prison. There are scenes with the birds and Lancaster’s care for them that will bring tears to your eyes. And Neville Brand’s playing of prison officer Bull Ransom particularly in their parting scene will unsettle you. The setting should render it claustrophobic instead it’s positively breathtaking in its sometimes deliberate focus on detail (shot by Burnett Guffey with uncredited work by John Alton). This mostly true story of Stroud’s devastating experiences and the utter villainous vengeful viciousness of people is compelling and brilliantly told, with a voiceover by Edmond O’Brien who plays Thomas Gaddis, his biographer, who met him just once on the outside during Stroud’s final prison transfer. Written by Guy Trosper and produced by Lancaster, who delivers an incredibly restrained, unsentimental performance, this was directed by John Frankenheimer after Charles Crichton and Lancaster did not see eye to eye. Stroud died one year after this was released, the day before JFK was assassinated. He never saw life outside prison after the age of 19  in a system of relentless personalised vindictive and pointless punishment. This is what can happen when people decide they dislike you. If you doubt conspiracies exist then watch this. And weep.

The Professionals (1966)

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Monday you see Robert Ryan in Crossfire, Tuesday you see him act for Richard Brooks 19 years later in a very effective, beautifully made, western, about 3 ageing fighters hired by wealthy Ralph Bellamy (imagine!) to rescue his wife (Claudia Cardinale) from wicked Mexican bandit (Jack Palance.) How wonderful is it to see those marvellous national parks shot so beautifully by Conrad Hall – and Lancaster re-teamed with Cardinale 3 years after Visconti’s The Leopard. Terrific, well written entertainment adapted by Brooks from Frank O’Rourke’s novel.