review for Elmer Gantry on AllMovie

Elmer Gantry (1960)
by Dan Jardine review

This once scandalous adaptation of the trenchant Sinclair Lewis novel may now seem a little dated, but it still has much to recommend it. It pulls few punches in its story of the hypocrisy, materialism, and opportunism at the heart of the evangelical world of Bible-thumping barnstorming revival troupes, an industry that professes to be about spiritual salvation. In the title role, Burt Lancaster moves like a powerful steam engine through the rustic countryside: there's no stopping this man. Gantry is charismatic and enigmatically complex, even if Lancaster is occasionally too much a bull in a china shop to convey his character's subtler motivations. Still, there's no denying his magnetism, which helped Lancaster earn his first and only Academy Award. Jean Simmons offers a more quietly sophisticated portrayal as Sister Sharon Falconer, but it is Shirley Jones, in the flashier role of Gantry's ex-flame and prostitute Lulu, who garnered the Best Supporting Actress nod from the Academy. Some questionable character development in the film's latter stages is overcome by writer/director Richard Brooks's barbed and darkly satirical Oscar-winning script, which also keeps the film from getting bogged down in obvious moralizing, as we are encouraged to love, loathe, and forgive the characters. Brooks' sharp editing and quick pacing are also an important asset in this dialogue-driven 2 1/2-hour film.