A con man named Elmer Gantry (Lancaster) joins a female evangelist (Simmons) in selling religion across America in the 1920’s.
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A fast talking hard drinking salesman named Elmer Gantry whose charismatic personality helps to charm his customers. While traveling, Gantry comes across the beautiful evangelist Sister Sharon Falconer (Simmons) who immediately rejects Gantry’s charms noting them for being the wiles of a sinner. But he remains persistent and cons his way into her inner circle, preaching the same ideas about religion as she does during her church gatherings. Over time, Falconer begins to warm up to Gantry and slowly becomes attracted to his lively personality.
The two travel across America preaching the word of God. Together they develop a thriving business bringing in vast revenue the more their popularity grows. However, Gantry’s sinful past, in the form of the sultry vixen Lulu Baines (Jones) catches up to him, and Gantry and Falconer’s relationship as well as their business shatters.
One of the most memorable characters and roles Lancaster has ever done in his career, Elmer Gantry is an over the top character but with enough layers of honor and human frailty that he becomes more than a one note protagonist. He cons his way into the world of Falconer, and while his methods may have been depraved, his reason come from a genuine place: his heart.
Falconer is devoted to her faith and her mission to pass on the word of God. Simmons is excellent as the faithful Sister whose devotion is only matched by her cunning and shrewd business instincts. Falconer is able to stand toe to toe with Gantry’s deceitful charms. Both actors are simply a joy to watch.
The concept of religion and faith are explored and exposed throughout the film neither taking sides on either. Every character has a view of God, the Bible, and everything else associated with religion. The strongest contention comes from Jim Lefferts (Kennedy) a well known reporter who is a nonbeliever. Not because he does want to believe but rather he’s simply waiting for proof or evidence of God. The two opposing views make for some compelling and interesting arguments and Brooks convey both pros and cons in every argument.
The sexy Shirley Jones as the spiteful prostitute Lulu is sterling as the former lover of Gantry seeking revenge on the one time con man for his recent action against her. She frames Gantry and blackmails the couple for money threatening to expose photos of her and Gantry. Jones is both wickedly charismatic and sympathetic, letting her false confidence hide her damaged emotional scars.
Elmer Gantry is a compelling film that challenges and respects religious views without taking a stand. It simply presents opposing ideas and never demeans or belittles anyone’s faith. Elmer Gantry is a sensational film with talented and powerful actors with compelling directing and editing that is a joy to watch.