In the life of men, as predictable as that of the salmon, there must come a day when a man heads out of his house, slings his jacket over his shoulder, closes his eyes, breathes in the smell of an open rubbish bin and says, "Damn, I love this dirty town." When your day comes, you'll feel like you're channelling Burt Lancaster. Maybe you'll never have such perfect teeth, or his pecs of steel. Maybe you'll never roll around with the likes of Deborah Kerr on a Hawaiian beach. Maybe you'll never even get to Hawaii. But you'll find yourself living in a dump made of traffic lights and rubbish overflowing onto the pavement, and you'll like it. The day you become Burt Lancaster is the day you learn what it's like to live like a legend.
It's what America needed after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor: hot-blooded warriors to reassure the country, even though there was no war. Warriors like Errol Flynn, that Robin Hood who, it was said, entertained guests at his gargantuan parties with his flies open at the piano and playing a Chopin sonata with eleven fingers. Or Stewart Granger, a velvet-cape-wearing swashbuckler who left no skirt in Hollywood unturned. Or Lancaster himself, a Teutonic legend with the Viking looks, a thick head of hair and blue eyes, arms like oak branches and one of those chins that if you swung at it, your fist would crumble like an eggshell.
He was the intrepid Dardo Bartoli in Jacques Tourneur's 'The Flame and the Arrow', Sergeant Milton Warden in Fred Zinnemann's 'From Here to Eternity', and an exceptional broad-shouldered swimmer in Frank Perry's 'The swimmer'. Around 1946, more or less when he was promoting 'The Killers', some now-famous photos turned up showing Lancaster holding a bikini-clad Ava Gardner over his head with one hand. A few years later, he copied the pose in a shoot with two statuesque blondes and became known as Mr. Muscles and Teeth. Men and women around the world lined up to spend a few minutes hanging from his shoulders.
But Lancaster had not come to Hollywood just to show off his Herculean strength. He wanted to go down in history for something really big. And he made it. In the mid-1950s, with a couple of associates, he founded his own company, Hecht- Hill- Lancaster, which, in 1957, produced 'Sweet Smell of Success'. He was in the film, but for once he wasn't perpetuating the image of relentless national hero. He played a journalist with thick glasses and hidden abs - that is, an eloquent and audacious man walking around Manhattan's East Side breathing in the smell of sewage who uttered that legendary phrase, 'I love this dirty town', something that today, a hundred years after Lancaster's birth, still makes men the world over feel like living legends.