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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Elmer Gantry (1960)

A coarse fast talking salesman (Burt Lancaster) cons his way into the company of a traveling evangelist (Jean Simmons) and together they are on their way to fulfilling her ambition of a permanent tabernacle where she will preach. Based on the 1927 Sinclair Lewis novel, this is a fascinating look at traveling revival road shows in the 1920s and its portrait of the ethics (or lack of it) behind a certain type of evangelism. Religion as a business as it were, a topic still very relevant today. The director Richard Brooks (who also wrote the screenplay) turns Lewis' novel into a showy spectacle of religion and sex but without the sanctimonious hypocrisy of DeMille's biblical efforts. It's tricky to suggest that certain actors are "born" to play a role but in Lancaster's case, I doubt anyone would argue to the contrary. Elmer Gantry fits him like a glove and as if realizing it, Lancaster bites into the role like a starving man into a steak. He's not the whole show, however. He's matched by Simmons, whose role isn't nearly as flashy but she brings a sincerity to an ambiguously drawn character. The potent score is by Andre Previn. With Shirley Jones in her Oscar winning role, Arthur Kennedy, Dean Jagger, Patti Page, Edward Andrews, Hugh Marlowe, John McIntire and Barry Kelley.

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