Tuesday, May 10, 2016

An Appreciation: Elia Kazan

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945) **1/2- Kazan's debut film doesn't contain the amateur dazzle of say Nicholas Ray or John Huston, but its a different animal all together. More of a social family drama about the effects of lower income life on young Francie (Peggy Ann Garner), her face is so emotive against a world of weak and flawed adults that she carries the film on her thin shoulders.

Boomerang (1947) *1/2 - I realize this is Hollywood post World War II and its hard to expect bone-shattering authenticity from its films of the time, but "Boomerang" feels disjointed, limp and way too left-leaning to be taken seriously as either a police procedural or an expose of small Northeastern town political skulduggery. By the time district attorney Dana Andrews self-implodes his own case and begins to rally for the criminal he's prosecuting, I lost hope for anything short of liberal panhandling.

The Sea of Grass (1947) *** - Not quite a western, but a soap opera set within the confines of a western with Katherine Hepburn falling in love and having children with two men (Spencer Tracey and Robert Walker) which causes all sorts of uproar. One can still feel Kazan searching for himself. Not everything works with "The Sea of Grass", but it is commendable for the way it grapples with some risque material and dares to follow the path of destruction across the generations of children trying to cope with the predicament laid at their feet by their parents.

Gentleman's Agreement (1947) ** - Respectable drama that grapples with some sensitive and intelligent themes- i.e. Gregory Peck writing a story on the prevalence of Antisemitism in the U.S.- yet the screenplay and performances understands its self-importance early on and devolve into a series of overblown, stagey monologues. One can feel Kazan trying to find his footing as social commentator.

Pinky (1949) * - Yet another very-serious-social-drama from Kazan, this time confronting racism in the form of light skinned Pinky (Jeanne Crain) when she returns home to the South and experiences the wave of injustices all over again. It's a troubling effort, to say the least, shortsighted in its conservative placement of a thoroughly Caucasian actress and unconvincing in her performance which never breaks free from the privileged white actress mold of the 1940's. At times, Kazan's effort even feels counterproductive to the ails of society it purports to admonish. A sure failure on just about every level.

Panic In the Streets (1950) *** - Well made semi thriller about a cop (Widmark) trying to catch a highly contagious killer in New Orleans. The gothic appeal of New Orleans, the sweaty atmosphere of time running out and Kazan's own relinquishing of sermonizing result in a good time here.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) ***1/2 - Much has been made of Kazan's ennobling of actors.... specifically Marlon Brando, and in this Tennessee Williams adaptation, the performances feel like something from another planet. Brando is electric in every sense of the word and the sexual frustration, sweat and body odors just seem to drip off the screen.

Viva Zapata (1952) **1/2 - Despite a powerful ending- marked by the somber faces of old women surveying the betrayal and a transgression of soul from man to horse- "Viva Zapata!" loses some of its force in the ambiguous actions of its Mexican folk hero (played by Brando in a pretty terrible make up job). Devoid of any cohesive political ambition for why the characters are risking life and limb outside of casual socialistic obligations, the film feels a bit afraid to fully embrace the assuredly murky real story of Emiliano Zapata and the revolutionary nature of early twentieth century Mexico.

Man On a Tightrope (1953) **** - Perhaps Kazan's unsung great work, "Man On a Tightrope" also contains a delicious title, both literally as a circus manager (Fredric March) and once-tightrope walker and secondly as a man trying to pull away from the strings of Communist oppression. His idea- to defect his entire circus troupe if his own workers, family and competition can spare their in fighting and jealous deceptions long enough. Moments of extreme humor (such as the "meeting" between March and arch rival Robert Beatty) only heighten the immense affinity we feel for the cast and their desperate plan to escape the Iron Curtain, all brought to a thrilling head in the finale that blends action, pathos (oh that stoic face of elderly grandma watching on in horror) and tension. It's easy to see how this film was lost after the success of his next three or four films, but it deserves its place in Kazan's canon. Not available on DVD.

On the Waterfront (1954) **** - Like "A Streetcar Named Desire", there's not much left to be said about the greatness of "On the Waterfront" except its a film so perfect.... so ahead of its time..... that one cannot help but see its reverberations throughout film history both in the film itself and the indelible mark it left on future filmmakers.

East of Eden (1955) ***1/2 - Like his films with Brando, James Dean brings a primal restlessness in this family western that jettisons safe Hollywood drama and aims for high soap operatics... often hitting more than missing.

Baby Doll (1956) *** - A bit perverse in that early-60's-sexually-laced-innuendo-way that certain filmmakers were terrific at, "Baby Doll" is a nice black comedy that takes the boiling frustration of earlier films like "A Streetcar Named Desire" and makes it more overt. Carroll Baker, as the young titular wife of Karl Malden (for my money) out-Lolita's Sue Lyon as the teenage vixen. The film gets better as it goes along, placing poor Malden between a sexual rock and a financial hard place.

A Face In the Crowd (1957) ***- Exhaustive from start to finish as Andy Griffiths portrays a drunken bumpkin who ascends to stardom as a folk singing cultural prophet. Combining Peter Finch ala "Network"... pre-dating Beatle-mania.... and mixing in some brutal stabs at political and media stalwarts, "A Face In the Crowd" has alot on its mind. It winds up being a pretty sorrowful reflection on hollow stardom.

Wild River (1960) **1/2- Sometime around the early 60's venerated filmmakers began making films about the collision of progression versus naturalistic existence. Nicholas Ray in "Wind Across the Evergaldes, for case in point. "Wild River" is Kazan's interpretation of the idea and while it boasts some strong performances from Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick, it falls a bit flat in its wide-eyed liberalism. Exploring the actions of a county authority to remove an old lady and her family from land that will be flooded to make room for a new dam, the film ensures it hits all the important topics of the day while wrapping a fairly contrived romance around the edges. Most interesting for the performances and because, like "Man On A Tightrope", its one o the harder Kazan films to track down. Available on region 2 DVD.

Splendor in the Grass (1961) **1/2- My unending love for Natalie Wood aside, this mawkish teen drama about the sour high school romance between Wood and boyfriend Warren Beatty feels like Kazan trying to reclaim the masochistic moodiness of Brando and Dean in his 50's films. This time, the focus is on the female side of the relationship as Wood doesn't take her break-up all that well. The second half of the film- which deals with the damaging imprints on the two lovers as they grow older- feels more genuine than the first half.

America, America (1963) *** - Molded from Kazan's own family of Greek immigrants, this is an epic (three hour) journey of a young man (Stathis Giallelis) suffering, being beaten down by life, swindled, and then re-born as someone else all to get himself to America where, ironically, this whole process will most likely start over again. Like "El Norte", its a film that details the excruciating journey rather than the cathartic arrival. Like all of Kazan's films, the faces are weary and etched with life and the scrambling of humanity for the basic necessities in life become the overwhelming purpose of his characters.

The Arrangement (1969) *1/2 - Muddled and confused portrait of a successful ad executive (Kirk Douglas) having a mid life crisis both in his work and love affair between wife and mistress (Faye Dunaway). I can feel Kazan thinking that the film's pushing-envelope sexuality is enough to buoy the effort's incompetence, but it still comes off as a bore. If one is looking for better late 60's male psychosis disillusion, watch Frank Perry's mysterious and penetrating "The Swimmer" instead.

The Visitors (1972) *** - If watching this gives one deja-vu about Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs",  its because the two films were released only a year apart and deal with some of the same uncomfortable themes of embattled masculinity and post war trauma. Peckinpah's vision is much more piercing, yet the most fascinating thing about "The Visitors" is that it resembles virtually nothing else in Kazan's ouevre. Mostly handheld, grimy interiors and a penchant for long distance point of view shots dominate the picture. Not available on DVD

The Last Tycoon (1976) ***1/2 - Kazan's final film is elegiac and mounted with a sense of fragility, such as the half-built beach house Deniro has consigned not because its necessary, but simply so he can have some place to "come read scripts when I want." Lots of films have tried to capture that twilight serenity and amber glow of forties Hollywood, but "The Last Tycoon" feels like its come the closest. Throw in a doomed love affair (with beautiful Irene Boulting) and the shrinking powers of the studios via a writer's strike and the entire film becomes a crescendo of finality. I also can't imagine a more appropriate final shot for Kazan- a man who spent his entire life in the industry- as DeNiro slowly walks into a darkened movie studio set and becomes engulfed in its infinite glory.

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