Burt Lancaster is in close-up when his character Elmer Gantry yell-preaches “I’VE SEEN THE DEVIL PLENTY OF TIMES!” His flaring eyes look crazy. His scene-stealing hair soars off the sides of his big head, like either devil horns or flames.
But is Gantry the Devil? No way.
Lancaster’s Best-Actor performance belongs in the pantheon, but Elmer Gantry (1960) endures because its eponymous protagonist so plainly personifies the greed and hypocrisy of profiteering politicians and preachers. The theme is timeless. Like congressional candidates and televangelists, Gantry obviously does not believe what he preaches; he’s passionate but completely insincere.
The film opens on the actual novel by Sinclair Lewis, first line highlighted: Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was elegantly drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk. Enter Gantry, with his lunchbox jaw and flaming demon hair, telling a dirty joke in a bar and laughing his ass off. His smile is not replicable. Burt Lancaster could smile twice as wide as you or I. So dominating was his beefy grin, the book says. They cast the right actor.
That smile is a weapon for a salesman, but Gantry’s down-and-out when we meet him. He needs something new to sell.
He finds religion, stumbling upon the revivalist roadshow of Sister Sharon Falconer, and hitches his wagon.
He’s elegantly, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk at the beginning of the movie, yet later he decries alcohol, and wields an ax as he leads raids on illegal speakeasies. (It’s prohibition-era). He and Falconer of course decry temptations of the flesh, but they also fuck each other.
And this is where it gets fascinating. Gantry is clearly a phony, but when his prostitute ex-girlfriend throws herself to him, he demurs. Why? If he’s such a cad and a scoundrel, why not hit it?
He has a soul. He’s not the Devil.
Then again, many people die screaming in a fire in Gantry’s church, including Falconer, and the last shot is Gantry walking away from the ashes with a smile on his face, probably to a bar.
Damn… I almost fell for it too. You’re good, Gantry, but you’re also very bad.