Pulling Punches

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Elmer Gantry

Draft Review by Dean Duncan Jun 17, 2015

Changes from the book are extremely interesting, the most significant being that Lewis’ complete wolf in sheep’s clothing becomes Lancaster’s (requirement of late H-wood star system?) flawed but ultimately believing charismatic; we encounter him a sinner, we catch glimpses of past excesses and see their continuation, we see in fair detail his manipulations and their ironies, but with the final Shirley Jones exposé he’s wrongly implicated and then exonnerated (repentance and forgiveness, and exonneration comes because the whore really has a heart of gold after all) instead of the book’s version, where he’s guilty and then gets his rich buddy to twist the blackmailers into complying (wrong wins, and the corruption is complete), and at film’s end he walks away–when I was a child, I spoke as a child–while at book’s close he gets the grand appointments and considers his next adultery; these switches have interesting effects, especially in getting us to pull for the flawed but very appealing protagonist, especially as the very scaled down story (the book goes from youth to spurious conversion to the seminary to first appointment and the ruination of Lulu to the next appointment to exposure to selling farm implements to butting into Sharon Falconer’s tent to pastoral fornications [Jean Simmons, who’s casting after 1948 is always fatal, is a much less ambiguous, much less symbolic, and, strangely, much less interesting character] to craftily and cowardlike escape from the fatal fire, to new age wisdom to opportunistic methodism to marriage and its abuses to the already delineated ending; the movie starts with him down and out, gets him with Sharon, then he splits, renewed and affirmed) becomes quite polite, suggesting the imprudence of barking dog spiritual manifestations and just as much the injustice of disrupting revival meetings (fairness flattens here), painting on a very small canvas and leaving the sprawling social observation and compassion for the unbelievers and anger in the literary source; Jim Lefferts becomes a reporter, and a sympathetically agnostic foil instead of the convicted hellion, he’s also Arthur Kennedy, and doing the same job that his Lawrence character did, that is, observing for our benefit; what’s George Babbitt doing here? Brooks’ portentous opening says the film’s a refutation of the excesses of revivalism (was this a problem in 1960?), but in being so focussed, so specific in its targets, the critique is hardly shattering; Lewis’ is