That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

Watch me pull a rabbit outta my hat!

All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #14: Nobody ever lies about being lonely.

Posted by kozemp on November 9, 2012

This is the kind of weird person I am.

This past summer my parents were on vacation in Hawaii. At one point when I was talking to them they mentioned that the next day they were going to Halona Cove Beach, the one made famous in From Here To Eternity.

I said, “bring me back some sand from the beach.”

My mother laughed.

I said, “no seriously, I put it in a jar or something.”

She laughed again.

I said, “really, not kidding, bring back the fucking sand.”

I admit that sometimes it can be difficult to determine when I am being serious given the outlandish nature of a lot of what I say. But I really, honestly wanted sand from that beach. Because From Here To Eternity is a stupid awesome movie.

I came to the movie in a very roundabout way, and I’m not sure if that makes my love for it more or less weird. The progression, more or less, goes something like this: because, at the age of 21, I totally was an obnoxious cineaste film student, I went to see Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line on opening night. Then, because I am a giant process nerd, I read the book by James Jones, and thought, “oh my god this guy is depressing.” Then, because I am obsessive about such things, I read all of his books (not that hard for James Jones) and read From Here to Eternity and thought, “Jesus Christ, I thought this guy was depressing before.”

Not too long after that there was a sort of mini film-festival for Columbia Pictures’ 75th anniversary, and one of the movies that was playing at the Ritz at the Bourse was From Here To Eternity, and because I was both a giant process nerd AND an obnoxious cineaste film student AND a repository of movie trivia (From Here to Eternity was, for a little while, the record holder for most Oscars won, at 8, and it should have been 9) I determined that seeing it on the big screen was clearly something I had – HAD! – to do.

I sat there, by myself in the underground theatre – in a truly shocking turn of events I could not convince any of my 21 year old college compatriots to come downtown to watch a black and white movie from 1953 – and was, as I am by a lot of movies, completely dumbstruck by how great it was.

Look, I get that old movies, especially pre-1960 stuff, have a really high barrier to entry for modern audiences. I get that. But so much of that is about things like style and pacing. A good story is still a good story. A good performance is still a good performance. From Here to Eternity has a great script (more about that in a bit). And, I don’t want to spoil anything here, but it also has more amazing performances than you can shake a stick at. Sinatra won an Oscar for this movie, and it might be the LEAST good of his major performances. DONNA REED won an Oscar! Donna Reed!

And then there is Lancaster.

Milt Fucking Warden, Badass

Burt Lancaster is my favorite actor of all time – no one else is even close – and this movie is largely why.

Burt Lancaster was a great actor – anyone who says otherwise is fucking stupid – but he wasn’t the kind of “great” actor that, for instance, Montgomery Clift was. He couldn’t craft a performance effortlessly like Clift could, and he knew it, and reportedly it pissed him off to no end. This is astonishing stuff. Lancaster’s biography is literally the only biography I have ever read, and it talks about how jealous and angry he was because he knew he wasn’t as good as Montgomery Clift. Onscreen and off, Burt Lancaster was the King of Hollywood in the 1950s, and here he was seething with self-resentment because he wasn’t Montgomery Clift.

(Oddly enough, they both shunned the glamour/spotlight side of Hollywood, and were both far more devoted to craft than money.)

It’s a shame, because even if he wasn’t talented in the way that Clift was, this is really the movie that changes his career from pretty good tough guy to Mega Movie Star Leading Man With Acting Chops (which, admittedy, may not be an actual thing). He’s so fantastic in this it’s not even funny. This is the first movie Lancaster stars in where it seems like he was born solely to play his role. Note that I said the FIRST movie where that is true. He would do it over and over and over again, in Elmer Gantry, and Run Silent Run Deep, in Birdman of Alcatraz. General Scott in Seven Days in May is one of the all-time great cerebral film villains. Even in knockoff actioner shit like The Train (a movie that is pretty great, but still) he blows the doors off the theatre.

Then, as he got older, he transitioned into a classic acting elder statesmen (Lancaster in Atlantic City OH MY SWEET CHRIST), and if Moonlight Graham isn’t the greatest acting swan song of all time, you, gentle reader, are welcome to go fuck yourself.

And of course, in the middle of it, there is JJ Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success, easily one of the most underappreciated films in American history, that is powered by a Burt Lancaster performance so fierce and blistering that can peel paint off the walls through the screen. If you have any love of great movies at all and have not seen it, I implore you to rectify that as soon as you possibly can.

But, like I said: this is the movie where he turns into that actor. He was a bit like George Clooney, in that as his career got bigger and bigger he got choosier about the parts he took (not AS choosey as Clooney, but enough). Everybody talks about Clift’s performance in From Here to Eternity, and rightly so. He’s also pretty fucking great in everything. But aside from the pure acting work that Lancaster does here, he also has to carry all the emotional weight of the film, and THAT he makes look effortless. Milt Warden is the heart of the movie, and it is a soldier’s heart: resolute, honorable, bound to duty and comrades, but still brutal and cruel deep down. The ease with which Lancaster communicates all of that, and the efficiency of it… it’s breathtaking. Yeah, this might be inside-baseball actor-y stuff, but it’s one of those things that if you’ve ever read one thing about acting theory, and then you watch Lancaster in this movie, you sit back and go “holy fuck he’s awesome in this.” And he’s SURROUNDED by great performances too. It’s an embarrassment of riches on the acting score.

And as if having a spate of absurdly good performances weren’t enough, From Here to Eternity is a fucking clinic on how to adapt a difficult book for the screen. Because, if you haven’t read it, trust me: making a movie out of the James Jones novel, in an era when the Hays Code controls what you can and can’t put in a movie, is nigh impossible. The fact that a COMPREHENSIBLE adaptation of the novel was made is, in and of itself, wholly remarkable, never mind that a movie so nakedly anti-establishment somehow got past the censors. The fact that the adaptation is not only a brilliant film in its own right, but manages to keep the spirit (and most of the plot) of the book perfectly intact with the restrictions it was made under… it’s a goddamn Christmas miracle.

There is a certain kind of brainless, would-be movie person who says, “they don’t make them like they used to.” To which, for one thing, dickface, no they don’t. The technical and logistical side of movie production has changed greatly over the last few decades. That’s called “progress.” But it’s worth noting that in a very famous movie (which will appear in this countdown) where that saying appears, another character responds, “no, no one ever made them like this!” That’s how I feel about From Here To Eternity. So many elements, all perfectly wrought, coming together to produce a singular work of brilliance. How often does that happen whatever year it is?

JLK

PS – For the record, both Seven Days in May and Sweet Smell of Success were very late cuts from this list.

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