Movie stars in the making are known for their grand entrances, but Burt Lancaster’s, in his debut film, was strangely oblique. In Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946)—one of 14 films in the Walter Reade’s current tribute—Lancaster is first glimpsed as a defeated figure reclining on a bed in a seedy motel room. His Adonis-like physique, half-dressed, is visible, but his face remains hidden by shadows. When his character, a washed-up boxer called The Swede, hears the news that two hit men are looking for him, Lancaster barely stirs: In a soft, oddly refined voice, he dismisses his would-be rescuer. Destroyed by betrayal—he was no match for Ava Gardner’s femme fatale—The Swede is only half alive, calmly awaiting his film-noir doom. A few years later, working with the same director in the arch, lighthearted Crimson Pirate, Lancaster—a onetime circus performer—opens the adventure-parody by swinging from ship mast to ship mast, barking out orders at a pirate crew that clearly isn’t there, and addressing the camera. “Ask no questions—believe only what you see!” he says, with his trademark staginess. “No—believe half of what you see!”
With Lancaster, half was enough. An ethereal presence despite his imposing physique, he was at his best playing pretenders, con artists, and self-deceivers. In his artifice, though, he suggested an unspoken other half to these consummately false screen personae—one that made you wonder, and worry. Lancaster shunned the intense, emotional performance styles of his contemporaries—the raging, carnal, self-doubting heroes of Kirk Douglas (the Doc Holliday to his Wyatt Earp) come to mind as Lancaster’s screen opposites. His signature performances—the con artist in Elmer Gantry, the Sicilian aristocrat in The Leopard, the contemplative convict in The Birdman of Alcatraz, the wistful mob soldier in Atlantic City—were of men out of time, out of place. The era’s flashiest film stars were Method actors, who could summon up their inner demons and fashion a fictional character from the morass of real life, but Lancaster, as always, was different. His most solitary characters, like the bemused millionaire in Local Hero and the suburban dreamer of The Swimmer, were instantly familiar, but still somehow removed from reality. Frank Perry’s The Swimmer, based on John Updike’s tale of WASP anomie, was photographed in sad, golden, end-of-summer hues, and the cerulean swimming pools matched the brilliant, icy blue of Lancaster’s eyes. In that film—a risky endeavor that the star produced—he strode around nearly naked, wearing his muscular, middle-aged beauty like armor. Even so, the focus was not on his body, but on his eyes: No matter whom he was speaking to, or acting opposite, Lancaster always seemed to be looking up, out, and away—somewhere else, toward a half-visible world that only he could see.
When Lancaster died in 1994, most obituaries mentioned his staccato laugh and his wide smile (when he bared his perfect teeth, he seemed both seductive and predatory). He may be best remembered by lovers of cinema for his gentle, clear speaking voice, and his affected-patrician manner of dropping his R‘s. His remoteness was exploited to its logical end in The Sweet Smell of Success, Alexander McKendrick’s savage look at a Walter Winchell-like columnist’s symbiotic relationship with an ambitious press agent (a wolfish Tony Curtis). Almost unrecognizable in a brush cut and thick glasses, Lancaster portrayed a vindictive cynic whose awesome power was generated entirely from within his own nasty, buzzing hive of a brain. According to Kate Buford’s new bio, Burt Lancaster: An American Life, the film’s cinematographer, James Wong Howe, rubbed Vaseline on Lancaster’s spectacles to give the vicious J.J. Hunsecker an even more unsettling gaze. In the film’s most quotable moment, Hunsecker—holding court at the ’21’ Club and sensing the younger man’s hunger for approval—flicks an unlit cigarette in his direction and hisses, “Match me, Sidney.” Just then, you can see Lancaster—a boxer turned screen magician—decking this world, and probably the next one too, without moving a muscle.