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Archive for the ‘Directed by Elia Kazan’ Category

Sea Of Grass

21 May

Sea Of Grass — directed by Elia Kazan. Western. A husband and wife wrangle and separate because he is more devoted to the great plains than to her. 123 minutes Black and White 1947.

★★★

Conrad Richter, whose works I read at the time because of this movie is not much read any more, I’m afraid. His take on this old walrus material of the settlers vs. the cattlemen is a beautifully written, sub-heroic, that is to say, a personal non-formula version of the material and the characters. It rustles like the grass itself. Alas, the only rustling done in this movie is the theft of the book as vehicle for its two stars, Tracy and Hepburn. For, instead of a location shooting, the backlot at MGM is the prairie, and the whole venture looks like the settings for a musical in which you might expect a chorus of girls led by Jane Powell to leap over the fence in poke bonnets and pinafores, singing thrillingly. Indeed, the story might make a good musical, but a good western it does not make. I didn’t think this way at the time I saw it, aged thirteen. I was taken by compassion for the infidelity of the wife, and the romance at stake in that deed and its consequences. Kazan was earning his chaps in Hollywood, for this was his second film, but the entire production was already manufactured for him by the time he arrived on the lot. Katherine Hepburn’s costumes by Plunkett are multitudinous and inexplicably fancy for the setting. She looks like she had never lived in any one of them before the particular scene. Sydney Guilaroff does her hair beautifully, but he also must have lived on the ranch. Harry Stradling’s camera registers the impeccable dust impeccably. Kazan’s direction is flaccid, for he admits he gave up after the first day. He liked them, mind you, but he felt Hepburn and Tracy and Melvin Douglas, as The Other Man, were miscast, and I suppose they are. Here’s what, in various places, he says about Spencer Tracy as the cattle baron: “He looked like a comfortable Irish burgher in the mercantile trade. He wasn’t an outdoorsman in any sense of the word. He wasn’t a man who liked to leave Beverly Hills and the comfort of his home. His shoes looked like they had just been shined. I never could get him to stretch himself. Do you know Irishmen? They have this great inertia. Indifference. A man can have a way of making himself unapproachable. He’s a male and not to be tampered with. The man was absolutely commanding when he acted on a simple level that he understood. Where the confrontation was direct, Tracy was tremendous. When the thing was right for him, he was absolutely believable.” As to Hepburn: “She’d committed herself to a particular tradition of acting. Personally she was a marvelous woman, but she aspired to be like Katherine Cornell. Stars of that ilk had a duty to their audience to uphold, a certain image of glamour, heroism, and bravery. A star never did anything wrong. Essentially it’s the tradition of the 19th Century, carried over, milked down, and transposed.” (Kazan was a Virgo). By this time their off-screen relationship was like an old shoe. We sense no fragmentation, no newly weds getting-used-to, no sexual attraction. We sense they are technically collusive with one another. Individually she is highly reflexive, he weighty. They are good in some scenes, off-base in others. Better in comedy than drama. Harry Carey, Edgar Buchanan, Russell Hicks give fine support. Phyllis Thaxter plays the daughter, and her technique is to play an emotion, rather than a moment, so the voice is pitched to a twinkle when she is supposed to be endearing, or a constant yearning when that is the tone targeted. The film comes alive only in the third act when Robert Walker appears as the rapscallion son. It’s a super part, well written, and played with a swift indifference to the conventions of the role. Suddenly the entire screen comes alive with the juice of an actor’s imagination. Sea Of Grass is worth seeing because of him.

 

Panic In The Streets

16 Apr

Panic In The Streets – Directed by Elia Kazan. Suspense Thriller. A deadly plague threatens New Orleans. 96 minutes Black And White 1950.

* * * * *

This is one of Kazan’s best pictures. Filmed – and this is important – by the same photographer who filmed Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo – Joe MacDonald. He was a brilliant and economical director of photography, and it is his work which gives Panic its narrative carrying power. Kazan when directing did not pay attention to the actors – that came beforehand – what he did was cozy up to the director of photography, to learn, to watch. House of Bamboo has a commentary running with it that helps us here to see how MacDonald keeps the camera on groups and long shots and continuous shots and master shots, and how Kazan keeps actors moving at all times through this dance of the camera. The picture has Richard Widmark as the protagonist, which goes against the sort of actor he had played in Kiss Of Death and so often after. Here he is given a Gregory Peck part (who gave Kazan his canned Good Guy in Gentlemen’s Agreement). Widmark is well cast for he is, of course, not a good guy; he’s too freakish; he’s a character lead at best, and, as such, not an actor of much range or inherent interest either, but an oddity, an actor far less good than Dan Duryea, say, but chance put him leading roles from now on. Of course, he isn’t as odd as Jack Palance (no one is), making his film debut as the chief threat. Barbara Bel Geddes, whom Kazan worked with on Broadway as Maggie in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof), is always curiously affecting. And all the supporting actors are wonderful, held in check by the director and by the lighting by MacDonald. The film is full of non-professional supporting players from New Orleans, where it is filmed and set, and the down-to- earth, un-touristy, back alley life of that city comes alive as the waterfront did in a later picture. This picture should be added to the canon of Kazan’s great films, Baby Doll, Streetcar, East of Eden, Viva Zapata, Waterfront. It hasn’t dated.

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Man On A TIghtrope

05 Feb

Man On A Tightrope – directed by Elia Kazan — Drama. The owner /ringmaster and his small touring circus fall afoul of The Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. 105 minutes black and white 1953.

* * * * *

Kazan was a high Virgo and while that means that he understood what was crucial, what was critical, it also means that he was highly critical of himself and his own work, and not always accurately. Thus his put-down of this work – an action adventure piece that actually comes alive completely in the bumbling escape attempt with which it ends. Man On A Tightrope is the best circus picture I have ever seen. Kazan adores the circus folk and their life, and really gets down with them. You see their color, their gypsy soul, their absurdity, their dignity, and their crazy fun. The story is based on the actual escape of a real circus from the Communists, and Kazan actually filmed this in Europe and actually uses that very circus in the film. He brings in Hollywood actors to play the principals, Alex D’Arcy, touching as the bashful lion-tamer, Gloria Grahame, once again as the girl who doesn’t want to say no, Richard Boone as the lumpen-heavy, Adolph Menjou covered with cigarette ash lying on a couch as he plays the bureaucrat out to outwit the owner, , and Frederic March as that owner. Kazan originally wanted March as Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman, which is strange because March is no more Willy Loman than my cat. He has too much inner stance. He is too middle-class. But he had used him in the original stage production of The Skin Of Our Teeth, a Kazan early triumph, when March told him, “Be careful with me. I tend to over-do,”  and which Kazan loved him for. It’s just wonderful how wonderful March could be. He is often miscast. He is not a sexually exciting actor. He doesn’t offer romance, even when young. But he can offer pain and its discombobulation and weakness. He can offer doubt. He offers the promise of middle-age, even when young, which means that he offers the values of a grown-up; at no point is he ever an adolescent. You have to take him seriously, even if you don’t particularly like him or don’t particularly like looking at his face, which is one thing you don’t have to do with a stage actor but do have to do with a movie actor. And you have to respect his technique which is displayed here with no showiness. Kazan, good naturedly said about March here that he had to keep Freddy from hamming it up, but March never seems in danger of doing that. Terry Moore, though, pushes it as the love interest with Cameron Mitchell, but that was the way she always was, and you wonder why Kazan allowed Zanuck to cast her. She’s a false note in a bad plot move, but the rest of the material is right on. What do you have to sacrifice to escape oppression is the theme. Perhaps Kazan didn’t quite realize it, but it’s a great theme. Too bad, but it’s still a marvelous piece, typical of Kazan in his love of actors, his spacious sympathies, and his phenomenal understand of human nature.

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Baby Doll

04 Dec

Baby Doll — directed by Elia Kazan — a comedy about a nubile teen age girl, her drooling husband, and the cotton gin of a rival. 114 minutes black and white 1956.
★★★★★
Of the six great Kazan films, all made around the same time: A Streetcar Named Desire, Panic In The Streets, Viva Zapata, On The Waterfront, East Of Eden, it is the last.

Baby Doll is one of the funniest American comedies ever made, and it certainly is the most unusual – because it resembles the low comedy of comedia del arte and certain films of Da Sica and Fellini.

Completely the opposite of the starched and laundered comedies of Doris Day, those tense technicolor sundaes of that era, Baby Doll is a comedy based in actual humor, and comes from the pen of the finest ear in the English language since Congreve.

When Caroll Baker, asserts to Eli Wallach that she is not a moron by saying: “I am a måagazine-reader!” we are in the land of comic plenty.

And when the great Mildred Dunnock as the half-cocked Aunt Rose Comfort, picking bedraggled weeds in the unkempt garden, calls them “Poems of Nature” we are in poetry heaven.

Mildred Dunnock was nominated for an Academy Award for this performance, and she and the luscious Carroll Baker and the foxy Eli Wallach and the profusely sweating Karl Malden make the most of all that Kazan and the Deep South location and Tennessee Williams’ script and The Method can offer.

This is a movie to see over and over, over the years, and I have. An American classic!

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