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Elmer Gantry

Posted : 6 years, 10 months ago on 28 November 2011 04:02

It’s almost impossible to envision a more perfect ending to Elmer Gantry than the vicious hellfire that winds up engulfing saintly Jean Simmons. Not since the riot broke out in Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust has an ending's violence and bloodshed been a more perfect summation of the discontent and sins that have been showcased before it.

While nothing ever seems to turn to synthetic cheese quite as quickly as Hollywood’s idea of “edgy,” Elmer Gantry retains much of its bitter taste after all these years. Could it be that in the time since its release the evangelical movement hasn’t just grown, but has shown to be a breeding ground for the morally bankrupt to trade-in on those seeking spiritual enlightenment through quick fixes and cash? You’d be absolutely correct. Think of every great scandal to rock a evangelical preacher – sex, drugs, booze, stealing, the list goes on. Elmer Gantry discussed the rot at its core long before men like Ted Haggard or Jim Bakker were rocking the news and tabloids.

Burt Lancaster, an actor who always thrust his whole body into a performance, had a real gift for playing shysters and con-men. Think of his work in The Rainmaker. As the titular character, Lancaster deservedly won an Oscar. He lays the charm on so thick, that we almost buy the bullshit that he’s peddling to everybody else. He makes Gantry less of a person than a powerful locomotive in the guise of a human. Trying to watch anyone else on screen while he is in the frame is an almost Herculean task.

While Jean Simmons as Sister Sharon Falconer turns in a complicated and much quieter character study. She creates a character that is consistently possessed by religious zeal. For her, this is no quick way to make money. This is a calling, and she is a prophet from on the mount who is actively seeking God’s graces and wisdom, and to share these gifts with her flock. Lust for Gantry becomes a religious movement, and she turns it inward and uses this emotion to help cement her self-immolation and self-divined sainthood. It’s an extraordinary piece of work that holds up nicely against Lancaster’s career defining work.

The real surprise of the entire acting ensemble though is Shirley Jones as the pastor’s daughter-turned-hooker because of her past relationship with Lancaster. I’ve known her primarily as Mrs. Partridge, and to see her so effectively play such a vicious and cold-blooded dramatic part was a true shock. But a very welcomed one, as it proves that we lost a potentially fantastic dramatic actress to musicals and cheesy TV sitcoms.

Satirical with enough sharp teeth to make a shark think twice about messing with it, Elmer Gantry glides along its two-and-half-hour runtime with ease. With a great cast, exquisite material work with, and a director who knows how to keep this engaging and going, Elmer Gantry is definitely a must-see minor classic.


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EL FUEGO Y LA PALABRA (1960)

Posted : 6 years, 11 months ago on 21 November 2011 11:34

Se dice que el escritor de la novela en que se basa el guión de la película era agnóstico. Aún cuando se percibe su habilidad para eludir cualquier forma de posicionamiento al respecto, da la impresión de que quiere demasiado a sus personajes como para desenmascararlos por completo. Parece apoyar la idea de una verdadera, "sentida" fe religiosa -el eje de la película- en unos seres que dedican todo su esfuerzo al proselitismo o, dicho en otras palabras, su misión evangelizadora (parece que, por contra, persisten en EEUU infinidad de sectas que sólo pretenden engordar el bolsillo de sus presuntos salvadores de almas). En este sentido, el papel que interpreta Burt Lancaster navega en ambos sentidos según la dirección del viento, es demasiado ambiguo, pese a sus contradicciones internas y a su apasionado amor por una predicadora visionaria.

Parece ser que guionista, director (excelente la factura de Brooks), o ambos, han querido darle un matiz más progresista o, al menos, no tan maniqueo a su proyecto. Por ello, es de agradecer el tratamiento que se hace del entramado religioso y su impacto en la masa social menos advertida, por lo que la historia discurre sin perder nunca interés.

(28/5/1987)

-Crítica Nº 30-



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