Posts Tagged ‘Panic in the Streets’

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.

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