Friday, March 1, 2013

A little bit crazy

Actor Burt Lancaster always seemed to be at his best when playing characters who were a little off-kilter, not actually insane but not quite rational either. I noticed this again recently while watching The Cassandra Crossing, a 1976 medical thriller with an all-star cast. Lancaster, in a supporting role, plays a military officer determined to stick to the plan and follow orders regardless of changing circumstances, the lives of many innocent people and reason.

He plays a similar, if more likable, officer in the 1969 movie Castle Keep. Major Falconer moves his soldiers into a European castle filled with priceless art during the Battle of the Bulge. The castle may, in fact, offer his men their best chance of survival against the German army, but Falconer always seems like he has a screw loose somewhere.

One of Lancaster's best roles came later in his career in Louis Malle's Atlantic City (1980). I make it a point to watch this film every few years. Lou, Lancaster's character, is an aging small-time crook who likes to pretend, especially around women, he was once a major player in the criminal underworld. Then circumstances give him a chance to actually pull off a big score. It is fun watching Lou as he repeatedly loses and then regains his grasp on reality.

Another great performance came in the rarely-seen 1968 movie The Swimmer. My bride and I watched this film during our honeymoon in New England, and I haven't seen it since, but I do remember it well. Lancaster plays the entire movie in swimming trunks. His character decides to swim home, one swimming pool at a time. At first, he seems on top of the world, but at each stop at homes of friends, acquaintances and lovers, a little of his facade washes away until he is revealed, to himself as well as to viewers, as a broken man with neither job nor family.

I justify writing about Burt Lancaster, the movie star, in a blog supposedly devoted to language and literature because good movies begin with the good stories, which are produced by good writers. The Swimmer was based on a John Cheever short story. Castle Keep was first a William Eastlake novel. John Guare, who wrote Six Degrees of Separation, did the screenplay for Atlantic City. But good movies also need good actors, and when a part called for an actor who could play a little bit crazy, Burt Lancaster was one of the best.

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