Elmer Gantry is all about possibilities. Possibilities for the plot, for the performances, for the film. Director (and screenwriter) Brooks watches the film along with the audience, specifically the performances. Everyone’s just waiting to see what Burt Lancaster, Jean Simmons, and Shirley Jones are going to do next. Sometimes, Brooks emphasizes the performance with quick cuts—the first act has some spectacular sequences, with editor Marjorie Fowler, Brooks, and composer André Previn in divine sync—sometimes, he lets the camera sit. Perfectly lighted scene (courtesy John Alton) and Lancaster or Simmons monologuing.
Though it’s not all monologuing. Gantry’s got some wonderful banter sequences; the film’s practically designed for them.
Set in the 1920s, the film opens with Lancaster amusing a bunch of traveling salesmen. They meet up for Christmas every year because Lancaster knows where to find the best booze (Prohibition-time) and the best women (bored housewives). Lancaster’s holding court, telling dirty jokes, and having a great time; only then the Sisters of Mercy come in asking for a donation, and the heathens are shitty to them. So Lancaster does a sermon, surprising the bar (and helping him seduce a lady) with his seemingly devout religiosity. The scene establishes the character, that duality, and Lancaster’s exceptional way of essaying it.
The film will explore the contradictions in the appropriately lengthy second act, but first, it’s got to get Lancaster to church. Lancaster resists even as he sees posters for traveling tent revivalist Simmons alongside his own sales route. He ends up there one night out of boredom (and a busy housewife) and becomes immediately enraptured by Simmons. But Lancaster’s not her only admirer, though he’s the only one who’s planning to do anything about it. Both Arthur Kennedy and Dean Jagger revere Simmons. Jagger’s her business manager, a good Christian who thinks he’s enabling a prophet. Kennedy’s the atheist newspaperman tagging along with the tour.
Lancaster can’t give Simmons to give him the time of day—he’s too much of a smooth talker—until he seduces her band leader (Patti Page) and weasels his way along with them. But he still can’t convince Simmons he’s godly, except she doesn’t care, it turns out. She’s more than willing to put a smooth-talking bible thumper on stage if it gets butts in seats and pledge cards signed. There’s a business angle to it; after all, local churches pay Simmons and Jagger in advance to bring the revival to town.
We don’t find out about that side of things until around halfway through, when—thanks to Lancaster’s fire, brimstone, and sexy sermons—the local big city asks Simmons to bring her show to them. The film stays in the big city (Zenith, a recurring fictional city in novel author Sinclair Lewis’s work), which makes sense because it’s where Kennedy’s newspaper is based and Jones lives. Jones is an ex-lover of Lancaster’s with a very big, very sharp, very justified ax to grind. The film introduces her early, as Lancaster and Simmons start making news together, raising expectations for when she’ll figure into the main plot. Jones is exceptional.
So’s Simmons. Somehow, Simmons manages to give just as showy a performance as Lancaster (or Jones), but they’re absurdly extroverted, and she’s reserved. It’s Simmons’s revival, no matter what Lancaster or Jagger thinks. However, Lancaster and Jagger’s prickly relationship turns out to be one of the film’s sharpest, subtlest subplots. So good.
Kennedy’s good, too; he’s just not extraordinary. Lancaster, Simmons, and Jones all give these singular performances, while Jagger and Kennedy excel closer in character parts. Of course, Jagger and Kennedy’s characters are mostly reacting to the others, which also affects how they function and what they can do with the parts. The film’s practically overflowing with great performances; for instance, Page never gets enough.
All the technicals are excellent. Brooks’s direction is patient, enthusiastic, and reserved. He never rushes a scene or a delivery. He gives Lancaster and Simmons time for their preaching; the film’s about these characters’ relationship with religion, internal and external, and Brooks wants to showcase it. Done wrong, it’d be anti-climactic; Gantry doesn’t do it wrong, quite the opposite.
Alton’s photography, Fowler’s cuts, Previn’s music, all superb. Dorothy Jeakins’s costumes too. Lots of character development in the changing outfits, sometimes subtle, sometimes not.
Lancaster and Simmons are the whole show. Brooks and his crew are just trying to create the optimal narrative distance on Lancaster, specifically on his experiences with Simmons. Even when she’s not around, when it’s Lancaster and Jagger, Kennedy, or Jones, Simmons’s presence is always felt. She’s the show; they’re all spectators, except Lancaster wants to be on stage too. Kennedy and Lancaster have a great friendship throughout, two cynics on different paths.
As far as who’s better, Lancaster or Simmons, it depends on the scene. Though we get to know Lancaster better through the film, whereas Simmons gets to keep some secrets, which makes her performance inherently more complicated. They’re both so damn good. And then Jones. So damn good.
The whole picture. So damn good.