Burt Lancaster’s greatest performance? That would be as Prince Fabrizio in “The Leopard” (1963), also his greatest film, or as elderly numbers runner Lou Pascal in “Atlantic City” (1981). But to appreciate what made Lancaster’s career unique, begin with “From Here to Eternity” (1953). All three are in the Harvard Film Archive’s “Burt Lancaster: A Centennial Celebration.” It kicks off Friday, with “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), and ends Aug. 30, with “The Swimmer” (1968). (Titles in the series are in boldface.)
It’s not “From Here to Eternity,” per se, that shows what made Lancaster a figure to reckon with for nearly half a century, starting with his 1946 debut, in “The Killers,” playing perhaps the most fatalistic murder victim the movies have known, to his last role, in the Emmy-winning HBO movie “Separate But Equal” (1991). It’s a single moving image — and Lancaster isn’t doing the moving. The motion comes courtesy of the Pacific Ocean. The sight of surf pounding Lancaster and Deborah Kerr as they lie on a Hawaiian beach locked in an adulterous embrace is among the most indelible images of carnality in Hollywood history. Sixty years after the movie’s release, it still packs a wallop.