Review: Elmer Gantry (1960)



Richard Brooks
Richard Brooks (Novel: Sinclair Lewis)
146 min.
Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, Arthur Kennedy, Dean Jagger, Shirley Jones, Patti Page, Ed Andrews, John McIntire, Hugh Marlowe, Joe Maross, Philip Ober, Barry kelley, Wendell Holmes, Dayton Lummis
MPAA Rating

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Source Material

The story of a door-to-door salesman with a penchant for evangelism, Elmer Gantry is the title character played by Burt Lancaster who dreams of preaching from a pulpit and finds his opportunity when he sits down to witness a traveling revivalist (Jean Simmons) who is living his dream. However, as he integrates himself into the shows, he begins to create tension for the revival and his actions threaten to bring the whole enterprise down.

When Lancaster is in fire-and-brimstone mode, he’s quite engaging. When he’s talking with others, his evangelistic exaggeration grates quickly on the nerves. He seldom has a down moment, seeming to always be filled with passion and exuberance. In balance, Simmons’ Sharon Falconer is a subdued, down-to-earth woman who uses soft words and a clever tongue to get everything she desires. Unfortunately, when she isn’t using that sharp wit, she feels like a bland, unexceptional woman with no drive or energy. And being in the shadow of Lancaster, any comparison between the two would be a poor one. The cast is relatively colorful all the way down to future Patridge Family matriarch Shirley Jones as a mischievous prostitute whose vengeful actions are in direct retaliation to Gantry’s own.

The film doesn’t hit hard enough against evangelism in my opinion, but considering this was 1960 and there was plenty of contrary thought within the film, I’m satisfied with its ultimate message. Religion is a lot of things to a lot of people and you can energize your faithful only so much before the commonality of life forces them to once again drift away. It highlights the cynicism and the hucksterism along with the devout passion of some of those involved. There is both truth and deceit at work with these types of endeavors and the film does a decent job of balancing them without feeling too preachy.
Review Written
August 23, 2010

1 Comment

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  1. What is lacking in these reviews is simple truth – the Elmer Gantry of this film is, for all his faults, a true believer, an individual who has the power, and who relishes in his power, to uplift those who are searching for a glint of goodness in an otherwise barren and broken life. It’s the contradictions of this film which make Gantry irresistible – his human carnal desires, his con-artistry, and his imperfections which fail to dissuade his belief in the ultimate goodness of religion.

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