Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

Movie Reviews 357 – Point Blank (1967)

August 10, 2018

The mysteries pile up quickly in director’s Point Blank based on the novel The Hunter by Donald Westlake. As a late night heist unfolds at vacated Alcatraz prison, we’re not sure what is being stolen, why and from who. We also don’t know much about the thieves, a man named Walker (Lee Marvin), a woman, and their accomplice named Mal Reese (John Vernon). More questions pile up as Reese counts the take and deems it insufficient for his needs forcing him to double-cross Walker. Which he does by shooting him. Point Blank.

With the help of a man named Yost (Keenan Wynn) Walker not only survives but recovers fully and now wants what was coming to him – the $93,000 that was his share of the take – and Reese. Both become an obsession and nothing will stand in his way which ends up translating to a lot of dead bodies.

It begins with the woman who was with the men the night of the heist. Walker’s wife who he learns not only sided with Reese but who she later fled with him to Los Angeles. But when he confronts her at Reese’s house he learns that Mal has already left her and while Walker can’t muster the courage to kill her she obligingly does the job for him.

Walker then follows a trail of clues and people as he deconstructs ‘the organization’, a crime syndicate that was the target that ill fated night and one that Reese now works for. With the aid of his sister-in-law (Angie Dickinson) and the mysterious Yost, Walker escalates the tiers of the organization getting ever closer to his money … and Mal.

This movie is a treat in many ways. Marvin is in top teeth gnashing, tough as nails form as he goes through maniacal phases that have him pumping lead into a empty bed and terrorizing a car salesman during a test drive. The mysterious organization is peeled back one layer at a time with many surprises along the way including a decent twist ending. It was enjoyable seeing Carroll O’Connor in a serious (well almost) role and genre fans should keep an eye out for Sid Haig in a “blink and you’ll miss him” role.

One other star in this film is Alcatraz prison, now more affectionately known simply as “the Rock”. While it has been featured in many movies since, according to the DVD special features this was the first movie made at the infamous island penitentiary so it was a big deal at the time.

Point Blank is one of those great sixties thrillers that never got the respect it deserves but is yet another film that showcased the talent of Marvin and the immense presence he always had. There is one great scene in which Marvin is filmed simply walking down a long corridor, energetically stomping every step of the extended shot. He doesn’t say anything or interact in a way but it expresses the unflinching determination of his character as much as any other scene.

Watch this one. Near, far or at point blank range.

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Movie Reviews 355 – Angel Heart (1987)

July 27, 2018

Robert De Niro has always been one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood with roles ranging from roguish mobsters, punch drunk boxers, power hungry revolutionaries and surprisingly even in comedic portrayals. But when he took on the role of The Devil in Angel Heart it turned a lot of heads. But ever the trendsetter, DeNiro’s lord of darkness is not any red horned caricature but an immaculately attired and dignified Satan with a slick haircut and even sporting my earliest recollection of a “man bun”. Yes, this movie is different in many ways.

Beginning in post WWII New York, De Niro as Louis Cyphre (get it?) hires private eye Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) to determine the status a man named Johnny Favorite. Cypher explains to the disheveled looking Angel that Johnny, a one time singer but later war veteran who returned with post traumatic stress and is reputedly being held in a mental institution. But Cyphre has his doubts and explains that he has some outstanding business dealings with Favorite and would like Angel to substantiate Favorite’s institutionalized status. Sure enough Harry discovers that records have been falsified and with great reluctance ends up following a trail that includes a fiancee (Charlotte Rampling), a mistress and her daughter (Lisa Bonet), and former band members all of which Harry encounter in New Orleans.

This “gumshoe-horror” – for lack of a better description – is both a mystery in the traditional sense, while the horror elements are more those of human failings than supernatural ones with just a touch of voodoo rituals. But there is a distinct trail of bodies along Harry’s journey for the truth and the truth is the twist ending.

This movie was criticized more for the scenes of Lisa Bonet – a member of America’s idyllic TV family at the time for her role as one of the kids in The Cosby Show – exposing herself in a few shots and one particular racy sex scene than any of the horror gore. There is also a lot of symbolism, some obvious and others not so much – I could never figure out why but there are fans, big, small, rotating, stationary, every few minutes. And there are plenty of chickens as constantly being pointed out as one of Harry’s phobias and the voodoo offerings.

All of these bizarre elements make Angel Heart stand out as an unusual film that I would classify as ‘must see’ by any cinefile no matter your genre of preference.

Movie Reviews 350 – Dial M for Murder (1954)

June 22, 2018

After bringing up what was arguably actor Ray Milland‘s worst cinematic achievement, the fun but highly undignified The Thing With Two Heads I felt somewhat obligated to remind everyone that he was once one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. And what better way to do that than to review what may have been his best performance, that of the scheming husband in Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder.

Based on a brilliant stage, the mystery can be broken down as distinct acts that could be titled as The illicit lovers, The murder plan, The failed execution, The cover up and The unraveling.

The film first introduces us to the Wendices, a respectful and refined social couple discussing day to day musings at the breakfast table. As Tony Wendice (Milland) sips his coffee his wife Margot (Grace Kelly) notices that a particular famed writer will soon be arriving on a transcontinental ocean liner. Peeling back that first layer of respectability, we learn that the writer, Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings) long ago had an affair with Margot. An affair that he hopes to rekindle. As Margot rebuffs his intentions she confesses that she once considered leaving Tony for Mark. But when evidence of their affair, an old confessional letter was once lost and nearly came to Tony’s attention, she decided to reaffirmed her faithfulness to her husband.

The second act then reveals Tony’s own darker side as he goes to great lengths to blackmail a former acquaintance to murder Margot. It all started with the letter and since that time he has realized that he would be destitute without Margot and has been scheming ever since. So meticulous has been his planning that he explains exactly how and when the murder is to proceed which will give him an ironclad alibi. And all his planning nearly work except for one minute detail …

Part of the fun is following all the artifacts that come into play for the setup and execution of the dastardly plan. Keys, letters, photos, and a myriad of other details. The audience is convinced that the plan seems foolproof, and yet when it does come apart we are just as entertained by how Tony determinedly hangs in and covers up his involvement, one fact at a time. So successful is he with his cover up that he attains his original goal as a result of the spin he puts on events on the evidence despite the failure of his original plan.

At first, the foiled crime seems cut and dry to the police. But both Halliday, being a crime fiction writer and one especially tenacious chief inspector (John Williams) keep Tony on his toes. And the cleverest part is the ultimate test that Tony is challenged with while not even knowing he is under a microscope.

I thought that the camera movements were particularly interesting as it to follows pivotal objects of interest to the crime but I later learned that this movie was actually filmed in early 3D technology which I suspect may have had an impact on some of those framing choices. But cinematics aside, the movie presents an intricate puzzle during each act.

A great murder mystery at the hands of the master Hitchcock and a redemptive portrayal for Milland should you ever believe that he was never an A-list thespian.

Movie Reviews 346 – Fearless (2006)

May 24, 2018

While Jet Li has always been a fair actor with martial arts skills to match the movies he has performed in have been decidedly mixed in terms of quality as well as varied in terms of roles he has played. That range includes prominent roles such as the silent captive in Unleashed to his less than  inspirational government bred super soldier in Black Mask. Now that I have finally come around to watching Fearless I can easily say that  this is by far my favorite Li film, both from the point of view of the story and in particular his multi-faceted role.

As a youngster Huo Yuanjia (Li) diligently watched his father teaching martial arts in his private school. Despite being beaten at school constantly by bullies his father refused to teach Huo himself how to fight due to his asthmatic condition. Unfazed and with the help of his more level headed best friend Jinsun (Dong Yong) he manages to steal a textbook so that he can teach himself how to fight. His inclination to learn becomes all encompassing the day he watches his father die in a ‘Death Challenge’ after having been victorious in a string of prior challenges. His father’s death is all the more perplexing to Huo as he had the upper hand in the battle but failed to deliver the fatal blow after having taken down the opponent.

Now a young family man, Huo racks up a string of victories just as his father did, until he becomes reigning champion of the region. But Huo arrogantly flaunts his status as his followers and students party incessantly. When a visiting rival fighter, Qin Lei, beats up one of Huo’s students he immediately goes to a family feast being hosted by Qin in his old friend Jinsun’s establishment. There Huo publicly challenges Qin, disrupting the festivities. Jinsun warns Huo that he is being reckless, but Huo will have none of it, and severing his friendship with Jinsun soundly beats Qin in battle. It is only after Qin dies overnight as a result of his injuries that Huo learns that he did not have the full story. But in retaliation Qin’s nephew has meted out his own justice, killing Huo’s family including his beloved young daughter.

A shattered man, Huo leaves town and becomes a wandering vagrant saved from drowning one day by old woman. The woman brings him home to heal at the hands of her blind daughter Yueci (Sun Li). In their village Toiling in the rice fields Huo learn about humility, patience, and finally love as he falls for Yueci. But Huo is compelled to return to his home to make amends for his past, and once there he is again lured to the battle arena. But this is a new Huo, and his fate will be dictated by his newfound wisdom.

While Fearless does have action sequences – one a particular standout battle atop a high scaffold arena – this is not an action packed film like most of Li’s other films. This film has a split personality that mimics the transition of Huo’s character growth. Edgy at first, then flowing into a somber and humble pace. The message of the film is one of personal ambition clashing with family values, morals and personal integrity while throwing in a dash of anti-colonialism. The end of kind of a mixed bag with Huo finding his inner peace but at a coming with price nonetheless.

If your looking for an action movie there are plenty of better choices, but if you want a well rounded martial arts film this will suit the bill and is definitely recommended.

 

Movie Reviews 343 – The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)

May 3, 2018

Oscar Wilde‘s The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel that straddles being a love story, a morality play and a Victorian gothic horror. This multi-angled plot is why many underrate or dismiss altogether the ‘Horror’ label and why MGM, not recognized for horror other than a few sporadic efforts decided to stray from their roots and produce this 1945 adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. This is quite a shame as the studio delivers in all the aforementioned elements in this finely crafted film that included great performances by the entire main cast.

Dorian Gray (Hurd Hatfield) is a young aristocrat who embraces his youth and upon seeing his finished portrait declares “As I grow old my picture will stay young. I wish it was the other way around”. But such Faustian desires are always fraught with danger and when Dorian first falters at holding societal norms, callously testing his lover’s morals, he notices that there are slight yet unmistakable changes in his picture. Over time he discovers that he is indeed ageless while his image ages in his place. But even worse than simply maturing, this portrait begins accumulating grotesque features for each and every of Dorian’s misdeeds. As his exploits and destruction continue in an ever widening spiral, so does the painting until it becomes a monstrous obscenity that even he cringes to look upon.

Dorian is the focus of the story but George Sanders takes top billing as the callous and heartless Lord Wotton who first leads Dorian down the poisonous path. The first victim is a poor, lovely singer (Angela Lansbury) who captures Dorian’s heart but is the one that he morbidly tests. Despite the terrible outcome this test, Dorian continues baneful ways for years, indifferent to the murmurs and lurid speculation among nobles. The second woman  to catch his affections is Gladys (Donna Reed), the niece of the painter that created the portrait when she was but a child. At this point Dorian becomes more perceptive of the harm inflicted on others around him and wishes to spare Gladys the evident eventual torment. But can he turn back to clock?

As lauded as the cast is the stunning mutating artwork that is the title of the movie. The movie was filmed in black and white but it does switch to color (a novelty at the time) for a few seconds at points in the film when the portrait is being shown depicting further decay. These brief expositions are quite effective, especially when Dorian has just stabbed his first direct murder victim and we now view ghastly red blood added to the portrait’s palette. Artist Ivan Albright, already celebrated for his time consuming, intricate detail work painted the ever deteriorating Dorian (as well as the freakish backdrop) but this was done on top of a painting of a young Dorian by another artist. Thankfully the painting can still be enjoyed as it was preserved and currently resides in the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is as celebrated on film as is the novel which is has remain in constant reprint across the world. There were British, German and Hungarian silent film renditions respectively released in 1916, 1917, 1918, well before this film. There have also been two remakes that were simply titled Dorian Gray, the first in 1970 an Italian production (Il dio chiamato Dorian) from B-movie maven Samuel Z. Arkoff that was quite indicative of the sexually liberal era in which it was filmed and the other in 2009 in a film that strays somewhat from the original version. And there is also a full title 2004 movie starring Josh Duhamel. But given all these choices, this is the version you want to see with your tea and crumpets.

Movie Reviews 340 – All About Eve (1950)

April 13, 2018

I was going to write a review for an entirely different type of movie this week but the ‘chinglish’ dubbing was so atrocious I could not be sure what some of the points of discussion really meant (that movie was Jet Li’s early oeuvre Lord of the Wu-Tang for those that are curious and I may attempt it again in the future). But as luck would have it I watched All About Eve the following night and was so enthralled I just had to write about it instead and solve my problem at the same time

I always thought that Bette Davis had her second coming with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, easily my favorite Davis film. But it turns out that that was her second career revival as she had already faded once before only to be resurrected by her stunning performance in All About Eve. Even I have to admit her performance here was almost as outstanding as her Baby Jane role. What makes all this so bizzare are the multitude of ‘life imitating art’ coincidences associated with both this movie and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.  Davis plays an aging movie star while herself being considered a has-been at time, and in both cases she earned Oscar nominations for those portrayals.  Also in both cases, what happened behind the scenes eerily mimicked the plots of the movies.

Both written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, the story about a calculating and conniving aspiring actress Eve (Anne Baxter) that manipulates star Margo Channing (Davis) and her entourage by eliciting pity and plying adoration as needed to make her way up the Broadway ladder. Her marks include Margo’s boyfriend Bill (Gary Merrill), Margo’s best friend Karen (Celeste Holm) and her playwright husband Lloyd (Hugh Marlowe), and the theater critic Addison (George Sanders) in this circle of friends. This is literally all about Eve’s lies, deceit and games, all geared towards taking Margo’s place.

I’ve always said that if any movie is worth its salt it begins with a good script and All About Eve is a fine example of that axiom. It seemed that almost ever sentence had a double meaning and the perception of almost every character seems to change from good to bad or the other way around. It is chock full of memorable one liners like Lloyd noting “It’s about time the piano realized it has not written the concerto!” or Davis’ famous “Hold on, it’s going to be a bumpy night.

My 20th Century Fox “Studio Classics” DVD contained a “Backstory” documentary on the making of the film which detailed the history as well many aspects where the film echoed real life. For instance, while Davis was a shoe in for the Best Actress Oscar nomination, Baxter fought and convinced producer Darryl Zanuck that she should vie for the same Oscar and not settle for a Supporting Actress one. But by pitting both performers in the same category and presumably having them take one one another’s votes they both lost, effectively both losing oscars probably would have otherwise won had they been in separate categories.

There is so much more to this movie that tackles ageism, the politics of theater, fame, and of course love and friendship. There is even a decent amount of comedy, most of that coming from Margo’s assistant Birdie (Thelma Ritter). But the best is of course Bette Davis essentially playing… well herself.

Movie Reviews 338 – The Ten Commandments (1956)

March 29, 2018

I jumped the gun on purpose this week to rewatch The Ten Commandments which is a movie traditionally broadcast on network television and watched by millions over the Easter weekend. I did so to try to get my review out just before the weekend hoping that some would read it and garner a greater appreciation for this epic film. I should point out right away that while it is a religious film depicting the Exodus, Moses and his struggle to free the Israelite slaves, I am not a religious person by any means (quite the opposite in fact) and yet have always enjoyed every aspect of this marvelous film.

I supposed that some of my love for this film was conceived when I first saw this movie in 1972 when it made one of its many rounds in theaters – keeping in mind that in those days there were no home viewing devices other than television so movies would often have multiple theatrical releases hoping to have a new generation of viewers come and watch. I was doubly lucky in that I was able to view it in one of the city’s last majestic, ornately decorated theaters – Montreal’s long gone Capitol theater which had seating capacity for over 2500 people – just one year before it was razed. But I digress…

Clocking at nearly four hours, the story relates how Moses (Charlton Heston) is raised as a prince of Egypt despite being born of slaves, and grows up as the favored successor to the throne overshadowing the king’s own son Ramses (Yul Brynner), outshining him not only in the eyes of the pharaoh Sethi but also in the heart of the princess Nefretiri (Anne Baxter). Only when Moses learns of his true heritage he willingly trades in his royal garb for the loins and life of a slave where he ponders the legitimacy of slavery until eventually assuming the role of the prophesized Deliverer and the voice of God himself.

I won’t go into details of the layered plot for those that have never seen the movie – ironic since this is one of those films I’ve watched so many times I can probably recite the proceedings from memory – other than saying that Moses is exiled when his parentage is revealed to the king and he is denounced as the Deliverer, despite making no such claim. With Moses castigated, Sethi proclaims Ramses as the heir to the throne, a position that also gives Ramses claim to the princess. Moses ends up in a faraway land and upon hearing the continued misery of the slaves confronts God on Mount Sinai who command him to return to Egypt and free his people. Moses unleashes and ever increasingly impressive display of supernatural events that fail to convince Ramses of Gods powers until the final one breaks the pharaoh. But taunted by the princess Ramses makes one last vainful attempt to regain his dignity.

The special effect laden movie boast some spectacular scenes hallmarked by Moses parting the Red Sea as an escape route for the Israelites as he keeps Ramses and his army of chariots at bay by a pillar of fire. But as mesmerizing as the spectral scenes are, the rest of the film is just as eye catching. While the backdrops suffer somewhat from primitive rear projection techniques no expense were spared in the many other stock scenes whether it be the rise of a new city (and the thousands of slaves toiling as thee build it) or the storms raging on mount Sinai.

This is one of the earliest movies featuring a star studded cast that includes Vincent Price, Edward G. Robinson and Yvonne De Carlo to name just a few and despite the length, the script is taut and suspenseful from beginning to end. This was actually director Cecil B. DeMille’s second stab at making The Ten Commandments, having made a silent version in 1923. He must certainly have learned a few things because in my opinion, he nailed it with this one. The script, the acting, the cinematography, the costumes, the sets, the score and certainly the special effects.

While I do have a considerable number of Blu-ray movies in my collection, I rarely go out and buy them new. However in the case of this movie I was anxiously awaiting the Blu-ray edition so that I could watch this film and all it’s lavish colours and detail in the high definition it deserves.

If you have yet to see this film, you must watch it.

“So let it be written, so let it be done.”

Movie Reviews 332 – Saturday Night Fever (1977)

February 16, 2018

This is as much a confessional as it is a movie review. Why? Because until this week I had never seen Saturday Night Fever before. Most of my readers would think “So what?”, correctly assuming that the majority of films I review here are new to me. So why is the fact I have never seen this particular film in the 40 years since it’s release such a big deal?

The answer lies in part based on my ‘hood’, high school and heritage. The disco mania of the era was a global phenomenon to be sure, but nowhere was it embraced as energetically as within adolescent Italian circles.Growing up Italian – well half Italian to be precise – in a predominantly Italian neighborhood and attending a Catholic high school where about 95 percent of the students were Italians, it was a given that I had seen this film. In this sphere it was considered sacrilegious not to and I suspect a shock to some of my friends from that era who may be reading this now and discovering I had fallen in this regard. That is not to say there was not a staunch rocker, anti-disco clique as well, but they were certainly in the minority. How Italian was John F. Kennedy Comprehensive High School in Montreal in the late 70’s? This was a milieu where you couldn’t throw a rock and not hit a Tony or Maria. (For the record, there were twenty guys named Tony and twenty girls named Maria in my graduating year alone. Trust me, I counted them all in my yearbook.) And being what it was, the vast majority of those students lived and breathed the disco lifestyle – and quite honestly, many of them still do. These kids went to see this movie over and over at the theater, some perhaps a dozen times. My brother was a DJ and his copy of the vinyl LP soundtrack to this film had to be replaced more than once due to the sheer number of ‘spins’ these tracks got. The clothing, hairstyles,  the Italian horn and ‘cornuto’ gold pendants and even those ‘pointer’ shoes all the guys wore reflected that mirror-balled, vainglorious lifestyle.

I’ll be honest that in stating I’m not even sure why I drew the line watching this movie when surrounded by so many devotees. Given what little I knew of the movie one of the reasons I avoid it was that I assumed it would have little or no substance. But I have to admit I was wrong in that particular regard.

Ostensibly the story is about Tony Manero (John Travolta), a young man living under the shadow of his pious priest brother while working a menial job at a hardware store by day. When not begging for salary advances at work he gets hounded at home by his parents for his lack of ambition. His salvation presents itself at night on the dance floor of his local discotheque where his lithe feet and his good looks reward him with women swooning over his every step. Vain and self centered at first, Tony begins to question his friends, values and future. While a lot of this is fluff delivered in a Brooklynese accent as thick as my mother’s spaghetti sauce – and with the exception of the lead, some fairly cringe worthy acting skills – there is more going on here under the surface. The story is buttressed with episodes of unrequited love, parental expectations, responsibilities of adulthood, unplanned parenthood, turf wars and just a smattering of religion.

But the true charm of watching this movie today is the nostalgic time-trip it delivers. Amidst the retro Farrah Fawcett and Rocky posters is a fun look back at what I can only describe as an ‘interesting’ time period for which some attitudes and priorities still perplex me. The music, obviously a large part of this feature and primarily delivered by the Bee Gees, is memorable and even still catchy (at times) after all these years and despite not being my choice of genres.

A few last observations about this movie worth noting. First, you may want to look for a brief appearance of Fran “The Nanny” Drescher in some of the scenes. And lastly, I have to ask: Why was there a strip bar within the discotheque? Because that’s not how I remember them at all. Had I known, perhaps I would not have waited forty years to watch the damn movie.

Movie Reviews 328 – The Tenant (1976)

January 12, 2018

Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski) is a young Polish man seeking an apartment in Paris when he stumbles upon a vacant unit and immediately tries to secure it for himself. He learns what while it is empty, Simone, the current leaseholder, hasn’t technically relinquished it but in fact attempted suicide by jumping out on the windows and is now in the hospital. As he makes arrangements to rent it out his concerns that the former tenant may return are rebuffed by the lethargic concierge (Shelley Winters) and the landlord (Melvyn Douglas) whose only concern seems to be the reputation of his establishment.

Posing as a friend he visits Simone in the hospital in order to determine her true health prospects and finds her in traction, bandaged like a mummy and with evident serious injuries. He also meets Simone’s friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani), a vivacious and ravishing woman who is also visiting. In the next few weeks the two strike up a flirtatious relationship while Trelkovsky maintains the pretense of having known Simone.

But all’s not well in his new apartment. The other tenants constantly complain about every bit of noise that Trelkovsky makes. And the one shared bathroom common for all the tenants is actually across the courtyard and every time Trelkovsky looks out his window he can see the other tenants just standing, mesmerized in there. But strangest of all is how Trelkovsky’s life begins mimicking that of Simone who has now passed away. Every time he asks the shopkeeper downstairs for his brand of cigarettes he is told they have run out and is offered another brand, that which Simone used to smoke. The coffee shop insists that he try out a breakfast and snacks formerly favored by her. Drawn into her life, Trelkovsky wavers between trying to stem the influences and drowning ever deeper into Simone’s shadow.

The Tenant is one of those films in which the viewer has to decide what is real and what may just be in our protagonist’s mind. A world of blurred realities or a descent into madness? And in typical Polanski style, other topics such as xenophobia, sexual perversion and paranoia are touched upon in this dark and atmospheric thriller. Previously a title that I never heard off, it was a delightful viewing although perhaps not as rich as the other two Polanski films of this supposed ‘apartment’ trilogy, Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby.

Movie Reviews 325 – The Elia Kazan Collection

December 22, 2017

Invoke the name Elia Kazan within film circles and you’ll get two distinct first impressions. It will either be the plaudit of “Great director” or the condemnation as “The man who named names.”

The history of the US House of Representatives “House Un-American Activities Committee” (HUAC) trials that razed Hollywood (and later similarly tinged Kefauver hearings on the comic industry) has always fascinated me. Senator Eugene McCarthy ushered in the “McCarthy Era” post World War II red scare targeting Hollywood elite to rat out on any anyone in the industry that were either sympathizers or card carrying members of the communist party. While most of those called to testify defied the committee, including Kazan himself when he first appeared, others did comply. But when called a second time Kazan did the unthinkable. He gave names. And to make matters worse and what probably cemented this act was him taking out a full page ad in the New York times the following day to rationalize his actions. His infamous testimony was an act that haunted him for the rest of his life.

I’ve associated Kazan with HUAC nearly as long as I have known of his directorial career. But as one who found myself condemning his actions, I’ve learned over the years that as all things in life and politics, the situation was not as simple as some make it out to be. For one thing he was not the only one to name names, but certainly one of the few to have faced the brunt of retribution. Even Tinseltown nobility the likes of Edward G. Robinson seemed to thrive unscathed despite doing the very same thing. The stigma remained for the rest of his life including when he finally received a lifetime achievement award at the 1999 Academy Awards when a number of those in attendance silently sat through the ceremony while others stood and clapped.

But let’s get back to his directorial efforts. Unlike Kazan’s name eliciting different reactions from a sociopolitical point of view, any discussion of his cinematic achievements are unanimously complimentary. His films have garnered a slew Oscar wins and nominations that few other creators can claim. Moments like Marlon Brando’s tortured soul crying at the top of his lungs “Stella! Stelllaaah!” in A Streetcar Named Desire or Brando lamenting his missed opportunities in life in On the Waterfront are some of the most recognized moments in cinema history.

Kazan’s films are, with few exceptions, emotion filled stories of human angst and turmoil. Whether it be love, justice, or politics the character centric stories are gut wrenching with few respites if any at all. Not surprisingly given that Kazan also has the distinction of being one of the creators of the New York’s Famed Actors Studio and it was he that actually brought in Lee Strasberg, the name usually associated with the group and who I’ve always assumed was responsible for its creation.

The Elia Kazan Collection reviewed here is a magnificent box set representing the very best of Kazan’s illustrious career. Released in 2010 by Fox Studios it presents fifteen great films on eighteen discs as they were released chronologically.

 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

The first film in the set which immediately became one of my favorites without having seen the others. A great portent of things to come. An early turn of the century story of how the matriarch of a family endures every hardship thrown at her. Also a tale that draws upon the pros and cons of those living the artistic carefree lifestyle opposed to those in constant worry and full of responsibility.

 

Boomerang (1947)

A delightful murder case courtroom drama with political influence undertones. Now a staple plot in many movies, this was one of the innovators on that theme and a decent one at that. Apparently most of the story is based on an actual case. This is one of the least enjoyable films in the set for my personal tastes but that is only because the other films were so strong in comparison.

 

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

This must have been considered a very daring movie on release, tackling anti-semitism head on and not merely using analogy to present the issue. And having Gregory Peck as the jew certainly helped Kazan getting his first Best Director and Best Picture Oscars and seven nominations in total.

 

Pinky (1949)

Another movie that broke taboos and barriers, this time the story of a lighter toned African American woman (Jeanne Crain) who can ‘pass’ for white. The film deftly address the different attitudes by having the woman return to her southern home after living up north while earning a degree in nursing and falling in love with a white man. The usual bigotry by the townsfolk is not however the central story as the woman, at the behest of her mother, is asked to tend to the elderly white neighbor (Ethel Barrymore).

 

Panic in the Streets (1950)

When an outbreak of a pulmonary plague breaks out in the rat infested shipyards of New Orleans, an officer of the US Health department (Richard Widmark) works alongside local detectives to trace the origin and infectious carrier. But the rats aren’t limited to the four legged vermin, and the wharf has just as many shady characters to fit the profile. One of the few Kazan movies that does not focus on human emotions and works just as well as a pure action flick. Another Oscar winner, but this time for the writing. Ironically actor and comic Zero Mostel who plays one of the hapless gangsters would himself be blacklisted by HUAC two years after this film. But no, Kazan was not the one the named hiw to the committee

 

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

One of Kazan’s classics and where he first makes use of the talents of both Marlon Brando and Karl Malden, calibre actors that he would return to often and for whom they would give some of the best performances of their lives. Vivien Leigh plays southern belle Blanche DuBois who having fallen on hard times visits her sister (Kim Hunter) and brother in-law (Brando) who are just scraping by while she maintains the pretense of wealth. Known for the aforementioned wailing “Stella! Stelllaaah!” segment, the film has so much more. This is the movie that made Brando and swept the Oscars but ironically both Kazan and Brando did not win in their respective categories.

 

Viva Zapata! (1952)

Another film starring Brando, this time as the real life Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata who along with Pancho Villa fought for reform and justice. The film explores Zapata’s disillusionment when after the rebellion he finds that not much has changed and having to endure seeing his own brother (Anthony Quinn) complicit with the continued corruption.

 

Man on a Tightrope (1953)

Another film based largely on actual events in post war Czechoslovakia. Fredric March stars as Cernik, the current operator of a travelling circus that was created and owned by his family but that was then nationalized by the communist government. Aside from corrupt officials constantly harassing him, spousal infidelity and an uncontrollable daughter, Cernik has to deal with a spy within his troupe. This all intertwines, culminating in a mad dash to escape the Iron Curtain. Another great surprise for myself as I’d never even heard of this gem before.

 

On the Waterfront (1954)

A Hollywood classic known for Brando’s backseat diatribe to his brother (Rod Steiger) exclaiming “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” Brando as Malloy, a once promising boxer but now an enforcer for a mob boss (Lee J. Cobb). He is unintentionally involved in the murder of a man about to snitch on the mobster and then falls for the murdered man’s sister (Eva Marie Saint) looking for answers. As dock workers are threatened and exploited they reluctantly turn to the local priest (Karl Malden) who is as hard pressed for answers are is Malloy. Simply a fantastic film with stellar acting by everyone that swept the Oscars with eleven nominations and eight wins.

 

East of Eden (1954)

Not being much of fan of James Dean no matter how big an icon he is supposed to be, it took me while to warm up to this tale of a lost young man trying to satisfy his devout father (Raymond Massey), establish a relationship with his wayward mother (Joan Van Fleet) all in the face of sibling rivalry. I was more impressed by the cinematography than the story, but it does have its moments. No sign of Brando here but one can see that Dean was groomed for the same type of tragic character.

 

Baby Doll (1956)

Archie (Karl Malden), an older, lecherous and failed cotton gin owner marries the barely legal “Baby Doll” (Carroll Baker) and then anxiously and perversely awaits the approach of her twentieth birthday, the day until which he promised the girl’s father he would abstain from consummating the marriage. As the households furniture is repossessed, and with Baby Doll threatening to leave, Archie compounds his troubles by setting fire to the gin of his main competitor, the business savvy Italian Vacarro (Eli Wallach). But when Vacarro pokes around  Archie’s premises looking for proof of the vandalism he finds his opportunity for revenge lies with  Baby Doll in more ways than one.

 

A Face in the Crowd (1957)

If the only perception you have of Andy Griffith is his role as the soft spoken sheriff in Mayberry you’ll have a complete revelation here are he portrays a boisterous, womanizing southern con who uses his guitar and preach worthy voice and lyrics to entrance the nation as well as the reporter who discovers him (Patricia Neal). Behind the simple minded entertainer lurks a demon with more than simple fame within his sights. A rare film with Walter Matthau in a minor role, this one was another appreciated surprise for me.

 

Wild River (1960)

The monumental Tennessee Valley Authority that was created manage the multi state land and water reforms after the great depression and the mass flooding of Tennessee river meant there would be a significant impact for anyone within the affected areas . The burden of dealing with the handcuffed landowners results in one particular manager throwing in the towel and giving opportunity to an eager replacement (Montgomery Clift). Coming in with nothing but the best intentions he is sent in to convince the last holdout of a farm that will be sunk by the rising ( waters. But the stubborn matriarch (Jo Van Fleet) cannot be persuaded even as her own daughter (Lee Remick) falls for bureaucrat.

 

Splendor in the Grass (1961)

If you believed as I did that Natalie Wood was an overrated actress this one will change your mind. On the other hand it also reinforced my contention that laconic Warren Beatty can be a dullard at times.. But it’s a solid story about following one’s dreams and not caving into parental plans.

 

America America (1963)

His most personal film, a semi-biographical depicting his family history as immigrants from Turkey via Greece, adapted from Kazan’s own book. Casting mostly unknown actors including that of the lead, it takes a bit of getting used to, but at the same time does have its charms.

 

The DVD box set also includes a disc with Martin Scorsese’s American Masters tribute A Letter to Elia (2010) which made for a nice retrospective of Kazan’s career from the very evident adoration and personal admiration of Scorsese, a great director in his own right and the man chosen to give Kazan that last Oscar.

I do have to mention a few other things about this particular box set for those that are considering buying it. The set contains two books, the first being a landscape 100 page hardcover on Kazan and his movies and the second a book containing the DVDs along with a short synopsis of each film.  Even before I bought mine (fairly cheaply I might add) I’d heard that some other owners had issues with some of the discs operating correctly. The individual DVDs are placed in ‘pockets’ on thick cardboard pages within the DVD book. Some have speculated that the discs may have gotten scratched when inserting or removing the discs. I had no such issues and my set was a used one so I assume the discs were all used at least once before I got the set. But it is something you may want to check out if getting the set second hand.

If you’re looking for a poignant story with great characters you really can’t go wrong with any of these, whether the be the blockbusters everyone is familiar with or any of the lesser known titles. It time to move on from the controversy and recognize without hesitation this true master film maker.