Man was 1960 a great year for filmmaking. Rattle off a few of the big ones: Psycho, Breathless, The Bad Sleep Well, The Apartment…it’s a long list. Richard Brooks’ Elmer Gantry deserves to be right up there, close to the top. The film features one of the best Burt Lancaster performances as the titular, fast-talking, preacher/charlatan (for which Lancaster won his only Academy Award), and has some great, risky dialogue including this bit from Lulu Bains (Shirley Jones) that must have made the existing Production Code Office pretty unhappy:
“Oh, he gave me special instructions back of the pulpit Christmas Eve. He got to howlin’ “Repent! Repent!” and I got to moanin’ “Save me! Save me!” and the first thing I know he rammed the fear of God into me so fast I never heard my old man’s footsteps!”
Ha! Jean Simmons and Dean Jagger give great turns as Sister Sharon Falconer and William Morgan, and Brooks direction, which I’ve become more familiar with after pretty recent viewings of the excellent Looking for Mr. Goodbar, is fantastic.
Here’s a look at the first part of one of the better scenes in the film. I wanted to look at the ending, but thought better of it, largely because it’s so huge, so fantastic, and shouldn’t be given away to anyone.
In this scene Falconer, Gantry and Morgan have arrived in Zenith, a large-ish Midwestern city where they will hold their trademark Revival – a tented preaching with the stated goal of converting people to Christianity. Here, local realtor George Babbitt (Edward Andrews) tries to convince the other religious leaders in the town that Falconer and Gantry’s Revival is a good thing.
Brooks starts the scene, after a dissolve, with a cramped wide-shot establishing the space. That’s Babbitt front and center walking towards camera. We can see Falconer with her back to us. One thing that’s remarkable from these first two frames is Brooks’ ability to make pretty drastically different compositions from one camera set-up. That second shot below is only the result of Babbitt landing close to camera and turning into an over-the-shoulder shot, but it’s really well calculated:
After a cutaway to Morgan, whose position is indicated by his eyeline (he’s looking frame left, so he must be in the back corner of the room)-
-Brooks goes into his bread and butter, which is simple camera placements and movements that are kept kinetic and interesting by quick blocking and constantly having characters enter and exit frame. Babbitt leans forward to make a point and then sits down. His “Yes Man” stands up to make a point:
In the same shot, Babbitt’s Yes Man sits down and Babbitt stands again. He walks to the left and Brooks pans with him. Notice the character in the back sitting silently in a chair holding a teacup? He’s used as a good frame of reference for where things are in the space. Again, Brooks has nice, differently weighted compositions – keeping Babbitt at the center of attention – with simple movements:
A cutaway to Falconer, now seated, gives us her wary gaze-
-and then Brooks cuts out to another wide-shot. As with the examples above, we have another character, seated silently against a back wall, who will be used as both a frame of reference (where everyone is, what is the space of the room), and also as a frame divider. Look at him below as he quietly keeps Babbitt separated from everyone else. Even in the second shot when Morgan enters to weight the frame more heavily against Babbitt, our silent man acts to keep things a bit even:
Another cutaway to the unconvinced Falconer-
And then Gantry enters the room. In this series of shots Brooks does a phenomenal job of laying out the space and tracking multiple characters. We begin with three characters as Gantry talks to Falconer-
-and then cut across the room to Babbitt and one of his guys as they look on-
Morgan enters the frame, evening things out a bit-
-and in the same shot, Gantry walks over to Babbitt, then back to Morgan and leaves frame:
Still in the same shot, Morgan then walks back to where Gantry just was, handing out leaflets, only to back up closer to his original position as Gantry re-enters the shot:
There are several notable moments in here. For one, Brooks reserves his cutaways (four total in this section) for important reactions only. He doesn’t use his close-ups or cutaways here for significant lines of dialogue. Those are reserved for the wider, more fluid shots. In this way the cutaways – read: character’s internal monologues – hold more weight and really work to give the scene a nice rhythm.
There are really only three characters that do a lot of movement in this scene – Gantry, Babbitt and Morgan. Brooks basically walks them in a U shape, starting Babbitt towards camera and then away and to the left wall from the first shot. Gantry enters along the wall and then he and Morgan basically walk the same path that Babbitt first walked, just in reverse.
In this way, Brooks keeps the space logical, and also stages this as a sort of cloistered chase scene, where all the people doing the vocal arguing and convincing to this point go after one another.
The balance and shifting of power is also achieved by some simple stuff – sitting down and leaving frame, mostly. There are three major shifts here. First, it’s Babbitt’s show. That starts to slip away once we get to shots 9 and 10, after the second close-up of Falconer. From there, Gantry takes over. After Gantry runs his route, Morgan takes over. The three men play it like a fast-talking con-act or a relay race, moving one after the other, each taking the baton in turn. It’s carefully done. Were Brooks to try to stage this where only one person held the power the whole time, or two at the same time, the whole show would fall apart…just like any well-organized con.