Elmer Gantry (1960)

Elmer Gantry (1960), directed by Richard Brooks.

A traveling salesman falls in with a revival show, motivation: lustful interest in Sister Sharon Falconer, their charismatic leader and healer. Something of a hard-drinking, hard-fighting scoundrel, he also knows his scripture and can preach one hell of sermon. He has great organizational and promotional skills and may actually become a valued insider and companion to his lady, but ghosts from the past will turn up and can't be ignored.

The tragedy: he is not entirely insincere.

The studios were afraid of the film because criticizing any faith-group is a touchy business. You can pick on tent-show revivalists because they are poor and unsophisticated charismatics in a culture prejudiced toward the solemn and reserved in religious matters. No sweaty convulsing or howling like dogs in the better neighborhoods.

Burt Lancaster gives a tremendously extravagant performance, but I think a reasonable one. Elmer is like that, larger than life, but he can turn it off and be a normal person when necessary.

Jean Simmons' accent seems odd in the role, but why not? I love Arthur Kennedy's cynical Mencken-like reporter, especially how well he and Elmer get on, though on opposite sides. They are actually two smart guys who can be pals because they are undeceived by the spectacle.

Shirley Jones is touching as the prostitute who knew Elmer "before". She's spiteful yet vulnerable and projects a zesty, uninhibited sexuality. I'd forgotten how fine she looks here. When kissing Elmer her eyes go big -- are we to suppose a physical reaction on one side or the other?

Another character to watch is John McIntire as one of the poorest pastors. He's not in favor of the revival, but when they are in trouble and abandoned by all others, he shows up to support them.

André Previn score, that Copland-like Americanna popular at the time.

Photographed by John Alton.

Available on Blu-ray.