The insensitive, tough-guy temperament that coarsened so much of writer/director Richard Brooks’ output, works for him in this sharp adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel about an evangelical roadshow in the ‘20s. There are scenes (in newsrooms, in bars, in a brothel) that are about as awkward as big-budget Hollywood filmmaking gets. Then, he’ll pull off a technically demanding fire-breathing climax with a master’s elan. (Or are we seeing a fine second unit in action?) But the casting choices, and the blunt, driving script are all his, and they show Brooks at his best. You won’t find all that drive in the book, Brooks cleverly swapped out the expected battle between Faith & Hucksterism (personified by Jean Simmons’ Sister Sharon & Burt Lancaster’s Elmer Gantry) for the more ambiguous battle of Faith & Sexual Fulfillment (featuring the same twosome); and this electrifies the second half of the pic. Lancaster gives a fearless, OTT perf that’s equally startling and wonderful.* Jean Simmons is even better as the true-believing Preacher; her mid-Atlantic accent is just right here, exactly what a MidWesterner would ‘put on’ to reinvent herself. There’s fine support from Arthur Kennedy (playing the same Menckenesque journalist Gene Kelly fumbled over in INHERIT THE WIND/’60) and from Dean Jaggar as the properly suspicious manager. (Burt’s insanely expressive hair also deserves a nod of its own.) Only Shirley Jones, a blackmailing ‘ex’ from Gantry’s past, rings false. Highly watchable, but a spruced up DVD transfer would be nice.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *It’s fun to imagine Luchino Visconti watching this after being told he had to use Lancaster as the contemplative, aging aristo of THE LEOPARD/’63! Happily, it worked out better than either could have guessed. They wound up pals, and later, doubled down on the mysterious, and still unsung, cockeyed marvel of CONVERSATION PIECE/’74. BTW, if you ever wondered what Burt could have done with THE MUSIC MAN, a part he campaigned hard for, this, rather than the near-Harold Hill lead he played in THE RAINMAKER/’56, shows what might have been. Right down to his fine, lusty singing.