Not that he was merely a fine specimen, though that view of him was common in the Forties and Fifties. How different it might have been if Lancaster had got the part of Stanley in the 1947 Broadway debut of A Streetcar Named Desire. He was up for it, but Marlon Brando had the edge. So for several years, Lancaster played hunks, heroes and moody hoodlums. It was later on that his lasting power sent viewers back to the very early movies - to The Killers (1946), say, or Criss Cross (1948) - to discover that he had always had a sad poet's look, as well as a patient killer's poise.
Even well into his sixties, he was still a strapping athlete, his smile piercing, his hand outstretched, but with the hint that his grip could crush or galvanise. His vitality was more than cheerfulness or strength; he seemed charged with power. This accounts for his threatening, polite calm as a villain, and coincides with Norman Mailer's comment that he never looked into eyes as chilling as Lancaster's. He seemed softly spoken and attentive, until one noticed the intensity of the gaze. The Oscar for Elmer Gantry (1960) recognised his aptitude for the self-inflaming hype merchant, but Gantry is lightweight next to the monstrous J J Hunsecker in Alexander Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success (1957), the first heartless titan of corrupt organisation in American films, a foreshadowing of Watergate.
Lancaster started his performing career as a circus acrobat, and did special military service in North Africa and Italy. He was chosen by Mark Hellinger for his 1946 debut in Robert Siodmak's The Killers, but the first real sign of his menace came in Sorry, Wrong Number (1948). Circus habits asserted themselves with Jacques Tourneur's fabulous The Flame and the Arrow (1950): competitions were organised to guess whether and how Lancaster did his own turret-top stunts. But the key film in his career may have been Come Back, Little Sheba (1953), in which he made himself a middle-aged, perilously reformed alcoholic with such suppressed tension that he eclipsed all Shirley Booth's fluttering as his wife.
By 1970, he was a victim of being 50: a lot of his pictures were routine, or worse. But he came back to form with Robert Aldrich's Ulzana's Raid (1972), a great film that depends upon his merciless intelligence, as a brindle-haired scout tracking down just such a renegade native as he had played in Aldrich's Apache 18 years before.
In his last 20 or so years, he made only a handful of good or interesting pictures - 1900 for Bertolucci, Atlantic City for Louis Malle, and as a figure of legend in Field of Dreams. There were another 20 films, at least, that aren't worth listing. Yet somehow, his Lou Pasco in Atlantic City (1980), a suave dandy, persistent romantic, gentle old man and the hero of his dreams, was enough to make Lancaster seem great, and for us to reappraise the sinister beauty in the younger man.
There is nothing like his bravura elan in The Flame and the Arrow, the readiness for death in Criss Cross, his authority in Sweet Smell of Success, his fatalism in Seven Days in May. He was a proud, independent man of firm, leftist views. An actor of greater range than Hollywood chose to employ, he never yielded in his immaculate splendour. He was one of the great stars.
Perhaps the last.
Adapted from 'A Biographical Dictionary of Film', forthcoming from Andre Deutsch.