Tag Archives: Burt Lancaster

The Swimmer (1968)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 8 out of 10

4-Word Review: Swimming his way home.

On a hot summer afternoon Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) decides to something out of the ordinary. He notices that all of his neighbors have backyard pools and he could essentially ‘swim’ his way home by jogging from house to house and diving into each pool before moving onto the next one. At first it seems like a great idea and the people he meets along the way are happy to see him, but things grow increasingly darker the more pools he goes to as some of the home owners do not welcome his presence while exposing uncomfortable elements from his past. His seemingly successful, happy persona takes a beating and slowly reveals instead a lonely man who’s badly out-of-touch with those around him.

The film is based on a short story written by John Cheever and first published in The New Yorker magazine on July 18, 1964. The story amounted to only 12 pages, but screenwriter Eleanor Perry manages to expand on the idea to create a film full of nuance and interesting dialogue that reveals just enough of the characters to make it insightful without becoming heavy-handed.

Director Frank Perry does a fine job in creating atmosphere by having each residence Ned enters into completely different from each other. Some have jubilant outdoor parties going on while others have just one person there and one pool doesn’t have any water in it at all. The best scenes include a slow-motion segment where Ned and a young lady named Julie (Janet Landgard) jump over hurdles like they are at a track meet as well as the scene where Ned and a young boy named Kevin (Michael Kearney) go to the bottom of an empty pool and pretend like to swim across it like it were still filled with water.

Lancaster gives an excellent performance and it initially comes off almost like a vanity project as the viewer gets to see him practically nude the entire time and in one brief segment his buttocks gets fully exposed. What’s so impressive is the fact that he was in his mid-50s at the time, but has a muscular physique like that of an athletic 20-year-old. His deep blue eyes give a lasting impression especially when they reveal the character’s shocked realization that the bubble he had been living in has now burst.

This also marks the film debut of Joan Rivers who appears as a party goer who has a brief conversation with Ned. The scene lasts for only a few minutes, but apparently took 7-days to film because of repeated arguments between director Perry and Lancaster over how they wanted to convey her character. Perry pushed for a ‘happy girl’ who Ned rejects, while Lancaster wanted a jaded woman who ends up rejecting Ned, which is how it ultimately plays out and which I preferred.

Spoiler Alert!

The ending where Ned gets to his home only to find it empty and abandoned and he’s unable to get inside is excellent because it helps bring together everything else that came before it. My interpretation is that the pools represented memories of his life and his attempts to somehow reconcile his selfish nature with those that he had abandoned or forgotten from his past. The house symbolizes his empty soul created through years of striving for material gain while callously ignoring, or exploiting others along the way. His inability to get back inside corresponds to his failure to reconcile with himself about his behavior and the empty feeling one ultimately gets when material success ends up not being fulfilling.

End of Spoiler Alert!

The film went through a difficult production that saw many conflicts between Lancaster and Perry that ultimately got Perry fired and replaced by Sydney Pollack who reshot several scenes including the one with Janice Rule who replaced Barbara Loden whose scenes were scrapped entirely. Despite these behind-the-scenes complications the film still comes together as a fluid whole and has a nice visual style that makes it well deserving of its strong cult following.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

Released: May 15, 1968

Runtime: 1 Hour 35 Minutes

Not Rated

Director: Frank Perry, Sydney Pollack (Uncredited)

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Video, YouTube

Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Nuclear silo under siege.

Loosely based on the novel ‘Viper Three’ by Walter Wager the story centers on Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster) a former military general who was sent to prison on trumped on murder charges, but manages to escape and is now out for revenge. With the help of three accomplices (Paul Winfield, William Smith, Burt Young) he breaks into a nuclear silo and threatens to launch it unless the President (Charles Durning) agrees to come clean on the government’s secret agenda in regards to the Vietnam War.

I’ve never read the film’s source novel, but have been told that this takes many liberties with it. The biggest problem is that it jumps ahead too quickly showing the four men right away breaking into the silo when it should’ve started back further to when they escaped from the prison and how they were able to get the access codes in order to break into the silo system to begin with. Winfield has a few great lines and Smith’s hair-trigger personality allows for interesting conflict, so these characters should’ve remained, but instead they are unwisely killed off leaving only Lancaster to pace around nervously, which quickly becomes boring.

Whenever someone escapes from prison the nearby area gets warned usually through the media. Certainly military personnel would’ve been put on high alert and thus making Dell’s ability to break into the silo, which was too easy to begin with, much less likely. The fact that a crazed general could break into a silo system and threaten to start WW III and have it never leaked to the media is highly unlikely as well, which along with various other loopholes makes this thing hard to fully get into.

Charles Durning is a great supporting actor, but here is badly miscast as the President. His facial expressions during his phone calls with the other Generals warning him of what is going on are unintentionally comical and too much time gets spent focusing on him contemplating on whether he’ll given into Dell’s demands until it seems like he is the star and Lancaster only a secondary player. Having him described as being an ‘honest politician’ and ‘a President who would never lie’ seems like an oxymoron as I don’t think a politician could even survive in Washington if they weren’t able to spin the truth sometimes and only helps to make the character seem too idealized.

Spoiler Alert!

This thing though really ‘jumps-the-shark’ at the end as I cannot imagine any circumstance where the secret service would allow the President of the United States to enter into a nuclear silo all alone and be used as a hostage. If they were real desperate they might try to pawn off an imposter in an attempt to fool them, but never the actual President as it would put him into too vulnerable a position. Also, the ‘shocking secret’ about why the U.S. got involved in the Vietnam War really isn’t all that earth shattering and certainly not worth sitting through simply to find out.

End of Spoiler Alert!

Director Robert Aldrich’s prolific use of the split screen is the one entertaining aspect and almost enough to overlook its other many faults, but at best it’s only a mindless programmer that manages to elicit minor tension only if you don’t think about it too hard.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: February 9, 1977

Runtime: 2 Hours 26 Minutes

Rated R

Director: Robert Aldrich

Studio: Allied Artists

Available: DVD, Blu-ray

The Cassandra Crossing (1976)

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By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Virus on a train.

A terrorist (Lou Castel) who’s infected with the pneumonic plague sneaks onto a train in order to escape capture, but in the process infects the other passengers. U.S. Colonel MacKenzie (Burt Lancaster) devises a plan to have the train rerouted to a quarantine camp in Poland, but this will require the train to go over a bridge known as the Cassandra Crossing, which has not been used since 1948 and could be structurally unsound. When the passengers realize what the plan is they revolt and make an attempt to stop the train before it gets there, but will it be too late?

The way the bridge gets photographed is excellent and helps make it seem like a third character. An actual working bridge known as the Garabit Viaduct was used and is still in operation today, so the filmmaker’s ability to effectively make it look old and weakened is impressive. The climactic sequence showing the train going over the bridge is very exciting and well shot even if certain angles look conspicuously like a toy train instead of a real one it’s still a showstopper and well worth sitting through just to get to that point.

The film though fails on many other levels. For one thing the characters are not likable, or even all that interesting, so the viewer has little empathy as to whether they are able to make it through their quandary or not. The train is too ordinary looking with little pizazz or visual appeal and more attempts should’ve been made to have a luxury one used instead. The fact that the patients begin to miraculously recover from the disease during the second half makes sitting through the first part almost pointless.

The cast is filled with a lot of familiar faces. Ava Gardner is great in a role that allows her to show some key comic touches, but Sophia Loren, who was cast because her husband at the time was the producer, is completely wasted and forgettable. Lancaster is equally stymied in a role that has him virtually locked inside a control room with not much to do except look perpetually worried. Having his character decide to not panic the passengers by telling them about the virus, but instead he chooses to lie and inform them that the train is being rerouted to avoid bombs planted onto the railway line by terrorists ends up inadvertently getting the passengers just as upset to the point that it’s unintentionally funny.

Richard Harris who plays a doctor trying to treat the infected people while also working to prevent the train from driving into an impending disaster is the only cast member who gives the film any life. Like in the similarly themed Juggernaut his brash and irreverent approach that openly stands up to authority without hesitation helps to make his anti-hero persona seem genuine and refreshing, which in turn makes the film more gripping. His attractive real-life wife Ann Turkel, who plays a singer in a hippie band here, isn’t bad either, or at least not on the eyes.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 18, 1976

Runtime: 2Hours 8Minutes

Rated R

Director: George P. Cosmatos

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Available: DVD

Executive Action (1973)

executive-action-3

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Who really killed JFK?

A group of former intelligence officials along with right-wing corporate capitalists conspire to assassinate President John F. Kennedy whose agenda they feel has gone too far to the left. Two teams of assassins are hired and they work in the desert to hone their shooting skills so as to be able to hit a moving target at 15 mph. Once this is accomplished they set-up a fall guy by the name of Lee Harvey Oswald to take the wrap while hiring another man, Jack Ruby, to kill him outright should he begin to squeal.

It may be a shock to some that in this age where conspiracy theories of the JFK assassination have now almost become the norm the cultural climate at the time of this film’s release was not for it. All the major Hollywood studios declined to offer financing and it was up to the film’s star Burt Lancaster and his good friend Kirk Douglas to put up the necessary funds just to get it made. Many television stations refused to run ads for it and due to the negative press it was pulled from theaters after only two weeks and resided in virtual obscurity before finally getting released onto VHS in the early ‘90s.

While I commend their attempt at getting the conversation going the results are less than compelling and the film fails to be riveting at any level. The reasons for planning the assassination are too broad and the characters are all uniformly colorless. The shooters themselves have no stake in the ultimate agenda other than they were paid to do it and in real-life there would’ve been a high chance that one of them would crack at some point or get nervous and make a mistake. The money that they were paid to do the job was not as much as you might think making me believe that once they ran out of it at least one of them would’ve gone to the press or authorities and divulged what really happened. The Jack Ruby link is weak. It is inferred that he does get hired to kill Oswald, but it never explains how they were ever able to get him to agree to do something that would most assuredly have him sitting in jail for the rest of his life.

There is also too much stock footage of actual news events of Kennedy and even Martin Luther King Jr. that gets shown. It doesn’t help propel the plot in any way and almost seems like it was put in simply to pad the running time. The recreation of the Dallas parade and Kennedy’s limo ride down the streets of the city is badly botched. While it’s nice that they filmed it on the actual site where it occurred it becomes painfully clear that there is no parade or crowds there. Instead they splice in old news reel footage of the actual parade, which they intercut with scenes of the actors playing the shooters, which they hoped would give the viewer the impression that they were all in tandem, but it doesn’t.

It was fun seeing veteran Hollywood stars playing bad guys for a change particularly Lancaster although he comes off as comatose and his hair looks disheveled in every shot. The film though doesn’t succeed at putting to rest anything. The plot is not believable and does nothing but create more questions than answers.

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My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: November 7, 1973

Runtime: 1Hour 31Minutes

Rated PG

Director: David Miller

Studio: National General Pictures

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

Lawman (1971)

 

lawman

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: He does not compromise.

Aging western marshal Jarrod Maddox (Burt Lancaster) rides into the town of Sabbath determined to retrieve five ranchers whose drunken revelry the year before resulted in the death of one of his town’s older citizens. The marshal of Sabbath (Robert Ryan) is reluctant to help Maddox while informing him that the town is ruled by land baron Vincent Bronson (Lee J. Cobb) with a judicial system that is less than stellar. However, Maddox refuses to compromise on any issue no matter what odds or obstacles lay in the way.

During the ‘70s there was a trend to reinvent the western by instilling storylines that did not go along with the age-old, black-and-white formula while questioning the cowboy heroes of yesteryear and putting a grittier slant to the realism. Typically these newer westerns proved to be a refreshing change-of-pace and more in-tune with a hipper generation, which I normally would applaud, but in this rare case I wished that it had fallen back to the old ways.

For one thing Lancaster was still identified with the older film-goer and not in tune with the younger ones. His stiff and detached manner was a better fit to the film’s rigid character and quite frankly I was just plain intrigued to see how this man was somehow going to get all of these other men back to his town to stand trial when everyone else was entrenched to stop him.

Director Michael Winner however decides to switch gears on it and in an apparent attempt to make it more ‘relevant’ to the modern viewer slows the pace down to an almost screeching halt by implementing long-winded conversations and containing the action to only brief interludes while having an initially strong-willed character turn weak and indecisive. To me it was like slashing a tire and watching the air slowly drain out of it. The showdown at the end is anti-climactic and any potential tension is lost by a talky script and a bad guy (Cobb) who is dull and benign. The supporting cast of old pros is the only thing that saves it and I enjoyed the way each of them one-by-one got caught in bed with a prostitute at the town’s local whorehouse throughout the course of the film.

The Maddox character does indeed become an interesting enigma and even going against his supposedly upstanding nature by not only stealing two horses out of a nearby ranch when his is shot dead, but also at one point shooting an unarmed man in the back. Maybe this was the filmmakers attempt to show that western heroes where really human like the rest of us and full of the same contradictions, which could’ve elicited more discussion had the script been tighter.

This also marks the film debut of Richard Jordan a gifted character actor who died much too young, but managed to make some memorable movie appearances along the way. Here he portrays an young gunslinger attempting to stand up to Maddox, but unable to and at one point displays a cut on his face that looks more like a red leech stuck to his cheekbone.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: August 4, 1971

Runtime: 1Hour 39Minutes

Rated R

Director: Michael Winner

Studio: United Artists

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

The Midnight Man (1974)

the midnight man 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Security guard solves case.

Jim Slade is a 60-year-old out on parole after serving time for killing his wife’s lover. He finds a ho-hum job as a security guard at a local university and soon gets swept up in a murder mystery when a coed (Catherine Bach) is found dead. The local cops nab the town pervert (Charles Tyner) and take him into custody, but Slade is convinced they have the wrong man and goes on a crusade to find the right one only to realize that there are far more suspects than he initially expected and no one no matter who they are is quite innocent.

Many critics at the time and some viewers complained that the mystery was too involved and a bit confusing however I was able to follow it and it manages to remain intriguing enough to be entertaining, but it’s still no better than an average episode of Columbo. The film also doesn’t have enough action although the part where Lancaster finds himself trapped in a rural barn and must use whatever implement he can find to fight off a trio of rednecks and their ferocious dog is nifty.

On the technical end the film is a bore and looks unsuitable for the big screen. Writer Roland Kibbee in his only directorial effort shows no flair for visual style filming scenes in places with dull and ordinary backdrops and fails to capitalize on its South Carolina location where it was shot. The soundtrack though by Dave Grusin is distinctive and the one thing that shows verve, energy and I wished it had been played more, particularly the part at the beginning.

Lancaster, who also co-produced and co-wrote the script, walks through his part in an almost comatose state and the fact that his character seems so very on-top of his game in this investigation leaves little doubt in the viewer’s mind that he will ultimately solve the case, which isn’t as interesting. For a character that is so savvy he does make one glaring error when he finds a dead body in his car and fearing that he will be fingered for it decides to put the body inside a nearby hotel room, which seems foolish. For one thing to check into the room he would have to have faced a hotel clerk who could’ve easily recognized him for the police later and he also doesn’t wear any gloves leaving his fingerprints all over the room when simply dumping the body in a wooded area would have made much more sense.

Out of the entire cast Cameron Mitchell shows the most energy and it certainly is fun to see Bach in her film debut and years before she became Daisy Duke playing a foul-mouthed, snippy college student. Although she has no nude scenes there is a painting of her naked likeness shown at one point, which may be good enough for some viewers.

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: June 14, 1974

Runtime: 1Hour 54Minutes

Rated R

Director: Roland Kibbee

Studio: Universal

Available: None at this time.

Tough Guys (1986)

tough guys

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: Old guys go 80’s.

Harry Doyle (Burt Lancaster) and Archie Long (Kirk Douglas) are two old-time crooks, the last men to rob a train, who are released from prison and find life on the outside to be tough going.

The comedy and story are extremely predictable and too exaggerated to be entertaining or humorous. Having two elderly seventy-year-old guys beat up two young gun wielding punks or a street gang is unrealistic and the film loses any validity in the process. The film also plays-up 80’s fashions and attitudes until they are no longer funny. The musical soundtrack stinks and Kenny Rogers’s opening song isn’t much better.

Yes, it is fun to see Douglas and Lancaster together again, but it would have been better if they weren’t wearing those tacky, dated suits. Eli Wallach as a severely nearsighted hit-man is the best thing. His lines are amusing and he needed to have had more screen time. Charles Durning also does well in support.

This uninspired film should have been much better especially when considering the star quality. It does come to life a bit during the final train robbing sequence, but only marginally and I really could’ve done without having to see Douglas’s bare bottom.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: October 3, 1986

Runtime: 1Hour 44Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Jeff Kanew

Studio: Touchstone Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD (Region 2), Amazon Instant Video

A Child is Waiting (1963)

a child is waiting

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: Help for retarded children.

Jean Hanson (Judy Garland) is a woman looking for direction in her life. She takes a job with Dr. Matthew Clark (Burt Lancaster) who runs a school for children with mental handicaps. She finds the work to be more taxing than expected, but also forms a strong attachment to one of the boys named Reuben Widdicombe (Bruce Ritchey).  Dr. Clark notices this bonding and considers it to be a potential problem so his has Jean moved to another building, which causes Reuben to become very upset and displays his anger in all sorts of anti-social ways.

This film is raw and compelling and offering a refreshingly vivid non-sanitized look into work with the mentally handicapped. Director John Cassavetes and screenwriter Abby Mann take off all of the Hollywood gloss and shows things in a real and uncompromising way. The majority of the children are disabled and not actors. Their responses and behaviors are genuine. Some of the best moments are when Cassavetes turns on the camera and then just let things happen particularly when Garland and Lancaster visit a hospital for mentally handicapped adults as well as when they put on a play celebrating Thanksgiving with the children as the performers.

The film is tastefully done and avoids showing some of the cruelties people with these disabilities go through and instead only talks about them lightly. What I really liked though was that it shows things from the adult perspective particularly those of the parents and the difficult adjustment they have as well as the array of emotions. The meeting between a group of doctors discussing which schools for which handicapped children should be given more money and which one of them had a better potential to being more self-sufficient was equally interesting. The movie also makes great use of silence to help propel the emotion and thankfully keeps the music to a minimum.

Garland was a good choice simply for her perpetual look of concern on her face, which remains throughout. However, she has a very worn and haggard appearance and looking much older than the forty years that she was and by looking at her here it should come as no surprise that a mere seven years after filming this she would be dead.

Lancaster is splendid and this may be one of his best roles of his already illustrious career. His soothing and calm voice is perfect for the part and his best moment comes when he patiently tries to teach the children how to correctly annunciate certain words.

Ritchey is good as the child and has a face that is very cute and full of expression. However, he seems to suffer from a severe speech impediment that makes it difficult to understand what he is saying. I wasn’t sure if he suffered from this in real-life, or it was just done for the part, but since he never appeared in any other film role makes me believe that he did.

Steven Hill is also superb playing Reuben’s father a man who turned his back on his son and virtually abandoned him when he was diagnosed as being mentally handicapped only to at the very end have a change of heart.

My Rating: 7 out of 10

Released: January 14, 1963

Runtime: 1Hour 42Minutes

Not Rated

Director: John Cassavetes

Studio: United Artists

Available: VHS

Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981)

cattle annie and little britches

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: She needs a spanking.

Based very loosely on actual events this film looks at Annie McDoulet (Amanda Plummer) and Jennie Stevens (Diane Lane) two adolescent girls traveling in the Oklahoma Territory of the late 19th century looking for excitement and adventure. Annie becomes transfixed with the stories that she reads about the western outlaws particularly the ones about Bill Doolin (Burt Lancaster), but when they finally do catch up with his gang they find the men to be old, haggard, and tired as well as just one-step ahead of the relentless pursuit of famed western lawmen Bill Tilghman (Rod Steiger).

Plummer, in her film debut, is nothing short of electrifying. She is the daughter of Christopher Plummer and actress Tammy Grimes and she makes her presence strongly felt here. Her vulgarity and tenaciousness are infectious and help propel the film and easily steal every scene that she is in. She has her mother’s distinctively reedy voice and although not beautiful in the conventional sense her facial features still have an alluring quality that she makes the most of.

Lane as her cohort is good as well although not as strong, or riveting. Her plus is the fact that she is simply beautiful with perfect and delicate features of a young lady blooming into adulthood. The fact that her character is more shy and unassuming plays off well against the abrasiveness of Plummer’s and the tussle that the two have near the end is fun.

Lancaster is badly miscast. For one thing the real Bill Doolin was much younger and in fact was shot dead at the young age of 38 and yet here Lancaster was already 66 when he did the part. I also felt that the character was a little bit too good to be true. It just seemed too hard to believe that a rugged western outlaw would be so kind, gentle, understanding and wise. I suppose his fans wouldn’t want it any other way and the part seems to be written to conform to his star status, but the effect hurts the film’s overall authenticity.

Steiger on the other hand is quite strong and director Lamont Johnson makes perfect use of Steiger’s legendarily intense manner. In fact I was disappointed that he wasn’t in more of the film as his presence helps create some much needed tension in a film that at times seems too slow and laid back. His finest moment, and the best part in whole film, comes when he tackles Annie and gives her a nice long hard spanking.

The score, like the film, seems unfocused and creates an unnecessary mish-mash of moods. The vocal ballads done with a minimum of instruments is good as they have a country twang and fit the period, but there are other points when a jazzed up score with modern rock elements is played, which takes the viewer completely out of the setting. There is also too much music played when the natural sound and ambience would have been better especially with a western.

Watching the girls interacting with the gang as well as surprising them with their unexpected toughness is what makes the film interesting. The climatic sequence in which the two decide to go by themselves to get Bill out of jail and the very brazen and clever way that they do it is special. Why Universal decided to abandoned what is otherwise a pleasing little western is baffling. This film is long overdue for a DVD/Blu-ray release and fans of the cast should let the people in charge know as well as taking the studio exec, if he is still around, who decided to put the kibosh on this movie and throw him into a lake.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: April 24, 1981

Runtime: 1Hour 35Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Lamont Johnson

Studio: Universal

Available: None