Ranking the Films of Director Elia Kazan, One of the All-Time Greatest Filmmakers
What is Elia Kazan’s best Movie?
Part One: Underseen Films
Elia Kazan is one of my top five favourite American filmmakers of all time, and so a while back I decided to ask my colleagues to rank his films. If you are not yet familiar with the filmmaker’s work, now would be a good time to start. Kazan was one of the most honoured and influential directors in Broadway and Hollywood history and introduced a new generation of unknown young actors to the world, including Marlon Brando, James Dean, Warren Beatty, Carroll Baker, Julie Harris, Andy Griffith, Lee Remick, Rip Torn, Eli Wallach, Eva Marie Saint, Martin Balsam, Fred Gwynne, and Pat Hingle. Noted for drawing out the best dramatic performances from his cast, he directed 21 actors to Oscar nominations, resulting in nine wins. The source for his inspired directing was the revolutionary acting technique known as the Method, and Kazan quickly rose to prominence as the preeminent proponent of the technique. During his career, he won two Oscars as Best Director, received an Honorary Oscar, won three Tony Awards, and four Golden Globes. Elia Kazan’s career spanned more than four decades of enormous change in the American film industry and often he was the catalyst for those changes. Here is our list.
18: The Arrangement
One of the low points of Kazan’s career, The Arrangement attempts to tell the story of adman Eddie Anderson (Kirk Douglas), who is slowly experiencing a nervous breakdown. Disillusioned with the ennui of 1969 America, bored with wife Florence (Deborah Kerr), and burdened with a dying, spiteful father, Anderson starts to unravel after he survives a spur of the moment suicide attempt on the highway. Like a non-violent precursor to his son Michael’s film Falling Down, The Arrangement finds Douglas attempting to stretch his performance, playing a cooler, more relaxed doppelganger to Eddie and giving the actor plenty of opportunities to yell, sweat, and stare his way through a cacophony of Modernist editing and sound techniques. Adapted from Kazan’s own novel, the film rambles on for nearly 130 minutes of navel-gazing self-aggrandizement and confines the usually electric Kerr to a bland, concerned housewife part that doesn’t suit her. There’s a universe in which the viewer could draw a spiritual connection between Anderson and Blanche Dubois, but that would be giving this unpleasant, suffocating slog of a film too much credit. If then rising star Faye Dunaway can’t elevate seduction scenes due to poor writing and odd editing choices, something has gone very wrong. For the curious only. (Gabe Bucsko)
17: The Sea of Grass
Kazan’s second film as a director and second literary adaptation after the immortal classic A Tree Grows In Brooklyn finds the Greek master attempting to mount a glossy studio picture starring one of the most popular onscreen teams of all time, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. While successful at the box office in its day, the film has not aged well. What starts out as a seeming forebear to Giant focusing on the usual spark of stubborn chemistry between Tracy & Hepburn becomes a sad sack melodrama weighted down by its own pretensions. Robert Walker gives the story a shot of adrenaline in the second half when his rambunctious rebel Brock becomes more prominent, but his storyline also veers the narrative down a soapy spiral from which it never recovers. Due to the nature of the story, Tracy and Hepburn are also forced to spend that second half mostly apart, interacting very little and bringing an odd emptiness to the scenes featuring only one of the core duo. Supposedly Kazan spent most of his later years warning people off The Sea of Grass, but for Tracy/Hepburn as well as Kazan completists, it could be worse (see The Arrangement). The film is currently available on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video in the US for said completists to view. (Gabe Bucsko)
16: The Last Tycoon
Elia Kazan directed this adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished final novel, about Monroe Starr, a brilliant and efficient studio executive – based on MGM’s boy-genius Irving Thalberg. Kazan came out of retirement for one last try at greatness but ultimately failed. Kazan’s direction is extremely unfocused, and rumour is, the pic suffered from studio interference and high demands from producer Sam Spiegel. And it sure didn’t help that the novel was unfinished, so the movie itself is based on an unresolved storyline. Still, if there is one reason to see this film, it is for the fabulous ensemble cast which includes Robert Deniro, Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum, and Jack Nicholson. (Ricky D)
15: America, America (1963)
It’s no surprise this is one of the few films Kazan wrote himself as it is easily – confirmed by his own admission – his most personal film. It’s right there in the movie’s first words, a voiceover spoken by Kazan himself: “I’m Elia Kazan. I am a Greek by blood, a Turk by birth, and an American because my uncle made a journey.”
Based on Kazan family stories, America, America tells the saga of Stavros Topouzogloum, Kazan’s real-life uncle, and his Sisyphusian efforts to make passage from Turkey to the U.S. in the 1890s. Played by non-actor Stathis Giallelis, Stavros’ story is a constant one of one step forward, two steps back as he begins to put together the money for the trip, then loses it, makes it again, loses it again, etc.
Topouzogloum’s story is about more than leaving for a better life; it’s about leaving for any life. The Greeks and Armenians of Ottoman Turkey’s Anatolia region are treated so brutally it conjures up images of Russian pogroms, Klan lynchings in the American south, Serbian ethnic cleansing, the persecution of the Jews under the Nazis. Topouzogloum is looking for survival as much as opportunity.
The passion Kazan put into the film is clear and sincere. In scenes like the torching of an entire village and the killing of women and children by trapping them in a burning church, Kazan’s outrage is as apparent and hot as the flames on-screen. Kazan manages to capture more than the singular experiences of his ancestor; he captures what the immigrant experience was for so many who were disenfranchised in their home countries, who saw America as a near-mythic Eden offering safety along with possibility.
Yet for all its heartfelt emotion, America, America is more a movie to be appreciated than enjoyed. Neither as compact as such Kazan films as On the Waterfront or as electric as A Streetcar Named Desire, the deliberate pace of the film over its 168-minute running time, combined with the rough-hewn look which came from shooting on-location in Greece, takes a toll on the average viewer. The film’s not helped by the casting of Giallelis, an energy-sapping black hole of an actor.
America, America is an essential chapter in the cinematic chronicling of the country’s immigrant heart, but one you only want to read once. (Bill Mesce)
14: Man on a Tightrope
There should be more to this effort than there is considering the pedigree here: Kazan directing a script by one of the best screenwriters of the period (among his many accolades, Sherwood had won an Oscar for his screenplay for the touching WW II coming-home drama, Best Years of Our Lives ), working from material inspired by a true-life escape from behind the Iron Curtain, shot on location in Europe.
Frederic March is Karel Cernik, manager of a family circus now nationalized and used as a propaganda vehicle in communist-controlled Czechoslovakia during the grimmest years of the Cold War. Tired of watching his circus wither day by day under the strictures of the repressive authorities, Cernik executes a daring escape for his crew across the border into West Germany.
All the earmarks of a strong Kazan production are there: it’s well cast in-depth with March backed up by Gloria Grahame as his trampy wife, Adolphe Menjou and the great character actor John Dehner as slimy commie honchos, a pre-Have Gun, Will Travel Richard Boone, and providing the young love interest, Terry Moore and Cameron Mitchell. Having gotten a taste for the kind of authenticity location shooting could lend a film with his plague-in-New-Orleans thriller, Panic in the Streets (1950), Kazan shot on location in Bavaria which, thanks to lenser Georg Krause, has an appropriately who-wouldn’t-want-to-escape-from-here bleakness. Trying to give the story still more of Kazan’s Method school reality, Kazan filled his movie circus with acts from Circus Brumbach, an East German circus whose escape to the west not only inspired Paterson’s novel, but whose real-life border-leaping machinations were incorporated into the script.
Yet the movie lacks the spark of Kazan’s best and it’s hard – knowing Kazan’s bio – not to see the movie as more of an overly earnest effort to demonstrate true-blue loyalty to the good ol’ U.S. of A. than to tell an effective drama. The year before, during the height of the country’s McCarthyist paranoia, Kazan had testified in front of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, reversing his earlier stand of not naming names when one studio boss told him such a refusal would guarantee he’d never work in Hollywood again and named a number of high profile talents as Communists ruining a few careers in the process. March, too, may have been trying to get out from under a cloud having been considered for blacklisting in 1949. Adding to the movie’s flag-waving bonafides is the presence of Menjou who had not only cooperated with HUAC, but was one of the more active members of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American ideals, a right-wing group dedicated to opposing Communist influence (whatever that meant) in Hollywood.
With a half-century removed from the politics of the time, Man on a Tightrope loses its sense of the imperative and comes off, instead, as a well-performed but routine escape drama. (Bill Mesce)
13: The Visitors
Kind of like Kazan’s version of Straw Dogs, The Visitors is the director’s second-to-last film and a low-budget effort sandwiched between two far more opulent productions.
Featuring James Woods in his first film role as Bill Schmidt, a pacifist Vietnam veteran visited by two former army buddies whom he ratted out for war crimes, The Visitors can be heavy-handed at times, but its grainy 16mm look, handheld feel, and the young cast certainly prove that Kazan was still aesthetically relevant into the changing 1960s and 70s.
Like many films he made post-1952 HUAC testimony, The Visitors has a clear “naming-names” theme; conflicted, sexually repressed, and naive, Woods’ Schmidt is a late descendent of Brando’s Terry Malloy in Kazan’s classic On the Waterfront. (Neal Dhand)
It’s impossible to view Pinky today as anything other than compromised, yet it retains a certain charm that can’t be denied. As flat as Jeanne Crain can be in other roles, her performance opposite supporting standouts Ethel Waters and Ethel Barrymore elevate into something lively. Kazan was a replacement for John Ford, who would not make many more films for Darryl Zanuck & Fox after his firing. Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne were also considered for the lead part of Pinky (Horne, in particular, would have been excellent in the role) before Zanuck went with contract player and bland girl next door type Crain. So as an assigned director dealing with an assigned leading lady, Kazan’s hands were tied during production. Progressive in its time for its story of a black woman passing for white in the North who must return to her Southern hometown to care for her grandmother, the film retains an uncomfortable air of whitewashing when viewed today, but the central message of the film, and Waters’ emotional and winning turn as Pinky’s grandmother Dicey, fight through the cobwebs of 1940s studio interference and create something vital under the clutter. It is a certainty that Pinky will provoke different responses, ranging from revulsion to curiosity to, perhaps, acceptance of emotional investment. In any case, it is well worth a first time rental. (Gabe Bucsko)
Boomerang is the sort of motion picture Elia Kazan was known for making even though it is not near the top of the list of his most popular and oft mentioned projects. Kazan was not only a good storyteller who revelled in exploring daring, thought-provoking stories concerning protagonists worthy of the audience’s empathy and time, he also tackled on critical subjects that resonated loudly with the culture he lived in at the time. In fact, some of the topics raised in his films are still of importance today in the early 21st century, most notably backroom political wheeling and dealing and the less than exemplary behaviours of people in power when they careers are on the line, which is what Boomerang explores with an unforgiving eye. (Edgar Chaput)
Ranking the Films of Director Elia Kazan
Part Two: The Essentials
10: Gentleman’s Agreement
Perhaps a bit tame by today’s standards, but Kazan’s message drama was an extremely important film in 1947, marking one of the first times that the word Jew was explicitly used in a Hollywood picture. Kazan was known throughout his career as a champion of social causes, and Gentleman’s Agreement earned him the first of two Best Director wins (out of five such nominations). Agreement follows a respected gentile journalist (Gregory Peck) hired by a magazine publisher (Albert Dekker) to write a gutsy expose about anti-Semitism. In order to deliver a true, honest, and powerful story, he decides to present himself as Jewish everywhere he goes. Gregory Peck gives unquestionably the second-best performance of his career. His strong, steady portrayal earned him a Best Actor nomination (although not a win). (Ricky D)
9: Wild River
Set during the early 1930s when American life was being uprooted from its simple agrarian existence and pushed into a complicated state of constant progress- Elia Kazan’s exquisite Wild River remains shamefully underseen. It follows Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift), an optimistic agent of the Tennessee Valley Authority who comes to a small town in a last-ditch effort to nicely evict the last remaining resident standing in the way of clearing land for a dam. Not caring or trusting that the dam is supposed to make Tennessee River residents safe from flash floods and generate electricity- 80-year-old Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral) will not let her family home be destroyed by the government for any amount of money that slick, sweet-talking out-of-towners have to offer. It is a masterfully executed film that sorrowfully lingers as much on the dangerous, untamed majesty of nature as it does on how the human spirit weathers the worst of times. At first deceptively quiet and mundane, Wild River candidly comes to question the absolute authority of the federal government and in no uncertain terms (despite only being released in 1960) boldly confronts racism as something that needs to be actively challenged. The impassioned monologues that Jo Van Fleet directs to a humble-looking Clift are wrenching. No one during the rest of the movie is able to match the energy, gumption, and strength behind her delivery. For Ella staying on her land is not about holding onto material goods but about standing by memories that symbolize hard-won victories over the trials she’s encountered in life. There is an intriguing dynamic put in place between generations that showcases the elderly Ella as unyielding and stubborn while her young granddaughter Carol (Lee Remick of Anatomy of a Murder and Days of Wine and Roses) has become an indecisive widower who has largely lost the will to live. Remick’s forlorn bright blue eyes passively stare at life until she sees something within Chuck that reignites a spark to move forward. The main characters each impressively fight back against external or internal changes and Kazan uses this to sculpt a movie that vivaciously pulses with resistance. Rendered almost unrecognizable from a serious car accident a few years before, Clift’s rearranged face is vulnerable yet steadfastly tenacious when facing confrontation. Whether he was making concrete decisions for his character or this was part of Clift’s ongoing battle with addiction- he generously gives his co-stars more than enough room to let loose and take the spotlight. This is a story to slowly soak in, admire and dwell upon for years afterward. Breathtakingly emotional and unpredictable, it makes for a shockingly well-spun tale of American backbone. (Lane Scarberry)
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
As Elia Kazan’s first cinematic effort, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn fosters strong performances and demonstrates strong sensitivity. Based on the bestselling novel by Betty Smith, it portrays the difficult life of a struggling Irish immigrant family living in turn of the century Brooklyn. The film zeroes in on the relationship between the family’s oldest daughter, Francie, and her loving but alcoholic father, Johnny. The film excels at portraying a nostalgic but painful vision of the past. As it suggests the life of this family trying to overcome their social and economic status, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn paints an alternative version of the American dream. The film straddles an interesting interpretation of this ideal, as it suggests it’s a possibility but as one built on multiple generations and over the course of decades. It transforms the American dream from being an individualist and capitalist quest, to something more complex and family-oriented. It is also far more delicate though, and the literal survival the family seems constantly at risk. This ambition and optimism about moving up in the world, however, is in direct conflict with Johnny. For all his faults, Johnny is portrayed as being an ultimately loving man. His heart is filled with poetry and he is able to see the world unlike any other. The film is really brought together by a grouping of great actors and performances, no surprise from Kazan who elevates all his films by bringing forward the souls of the faces he is working with. (Justine Smith)
8: Viva Zapata!
Following his wildly successful screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, Elia Kazan joined forces with Marlon Brando again for the spirited Viva Zapata! Based on the real-life of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, it’s a rousing drama that’s well-suited to the raw talents of Brando and Anthony Quinn in their prime. Although considerably less stirring than Kazan’s previous works, it’s a satisfying footnote to cinematic history. Making it uniquely engaging are absorbingly savvy performances and positive portrayals of Hispanics that were amazingly created amidst the oppressive heyday of 1950s Hollywood. Novelist John Steinbeck (who would also provide Kazan with East of Eden) scripts Zapata as an ordinary man of little means who feels compelled to take extraordinary action in order to topple a deeply corrupt government that feels free to steal land from defenseless citizens. While quickly becoming popular with dissidents for his straightforward thinking and swift righting of wrongs, the larger-than-life legend that his supporters build him up to immediately overshadow the truth. Letting Zapata’s legend run wild benefits his cause but obscures the flawed, illiterate, and often brutish man he really is. Steinbeck’s well-known admiration for poor, working-class people is omnipresent but sentimentality is purposely put in check by a thorough acknowledgment of their imperfections. Much like Streetcar’s Stanley Kowalski- Zapata is overly defensive, dangerously proud of his heritage, and treats his woman’s feelings like dirt. This movie triumphs by fleshing out an alternative picture of masculinity in crisis where a man like Kowalski doesn’t need to disgracefully direct his rage toward a frail southern belle but can face inadequacies head-on while fighting the true source of his disenfranchisement. Some of the dialogue feels weighed down by the relentless praise of Zapata but it ends up providing excellent friction between the lauded Emiliano and his abrasive brother Eufemio (Quinn)- whose selfishness while riding the coattails of his sibling gives the film a distinctly hard edge. At times Quinn’s fierce and bawdy performance threatens to drown out Brando’s contemplative presence but their dueling personalities work surprisingly well together in the tensest of moments. This respectful portrait of heroism in Mexico is slightly tarnished by the casting of whites in most of the major parts and the odd makeup that’s put on Brando to make him look authentic. Although it’s indelibly marked by the prejudiced age it was made in, the actual content of the movie speaks to the genuinely good intentions behind the storytelling. The strong yet often dormant idealism alluded to in Viva Zapata that we so desperately need to awaken in order to move humanity forward is amplified by smartly deconstructing the real man behind the hero and seeing that courage can easily come from unlikely places and not yet remarkable people. (Lane Scarberry)
7: Panic In the Streets
Elia Kazan’s second entry in the noir genre proves a taut, suspenseful thriller that clicks along nicely under the director’s guidance. Save a couple of elements which are shortchanged to an extent, Panic in the Streets is an example of a filmmaker impressively branching the noir genre in a slightly different direction than is usually the case all the while respecting its overall themes and style. The movie is easy to recommend for how it ratchets up the tension from scene to scene and for the many stellar performances. (Edgar Chaput)
6: Baby Doll
Two of Tennessee Williams’ one-act plays – Twenty-Seven Wagons Full of Cotton and The Long Stay Cut Short –are the basis for Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll. The film stars Karl Malden as a sexually frustrated, dimwitted, middle-aged owner of a Southern cotton gin, and Carroll Baker (in her debut) as his luscious teenage-trophy wife, who desperately holds on to her virginity until she reaches the age of 20. Her nickname is “Baby Doll” – appropriate, since she sleeps alone in a baby crib, sucking her thumb and wearing only a short nightie, as her husband Archie spies on her through a hole in the wall. Eli Wallach (also making his first big-screen appearance) shows up as a shady Sicilian businessman named Silva Vacarro, who takes advantage of Archie’s troubles and tries to claim Baby Doll as “compensation” for a fire set to his business. Things heat up, and Baby Doll finds herself caught in a romantic love triangle, with both men intent on deflowering the Southern belle.
The film broke new ground in depicting sexual situations incorporating themes of lust and seduction. With a plot that pivots around whether or not the virgin bride commits adultery – Baby Doll has been called notorious, salacious, revolting, morally repellent, and provocative. The entire second act which plays like a cat and mouse chase, follow Silva trying to seduce Baby Doll, who pretends she’s not interested but teases him just enough to convince us otherwise. When first released, Time magazine called it “possibly the dirtiest American picture ever legally exhibited,” and the film was condemned for lewdness by the Legion of Decency. It is easy to see why. The borderline attempted rape when Baby Doll takes a bath, and the notorious porch-swing scene with the lusty Silva, still sizzles, even today.
This landmark film is one of the most erotic cinematic works ever made, and one of Kazan’s trashiest efforts. Essential viewing for fans of the director’s work. (Ricky D)
5: East of Eden
Kazan followed his string of successful films from A Streetcar Named Desire to On the Waterfront with East of Eden, once again using unknown actors. Here he introduced audiences to Julie Harris and James Dean, who like Brando became an early Method star after his first major screen role in a Kazan film. Notably, this film is the only one of James Dean’s three films that were released during his lifetime and the only one that Dean saw in its entirety before his death. East of Eden draws on the age-old redemptive story of Cain and Abel, updating it to 1917 Monterey, California. Two brothers, Cal (Dean) and Aron (Richard Davalos), are torn apart by their father’s favoritism toward Aron and their love for Abra (Harris). While trying to understand his own identity, Cal obsesses over earning the approval and affection of his deeply religious father (Raymond Massey). This already delicate situation is made worse by Cal’s discovery that their long-believed dead mother (Jo Van Fleet) is in fact alive and running a brothel. The film benefits from Kazan’s landmark depiction of the vibrant atmosphere of southern California, as the combination of CinemaScope and on-location shooting give Eden an incomparably beautiful expansive view of these California settings. The film was highly praised upon its release for its actors’ down to earth performances and the irony of these troubled lives being played out against such beautiful backdrops. Based on the second half of the John Steinbeck novel, the film boasts striking performances from its newcomers and an overall stellar ensemble. Eden saw Kazan’s success continue, earning Dean, Harris, and Kazan Oscar nominations and a win for Fleet. (Katherine Springer)
4: A Face In The Crowd
Elia Kazan followed up his controversial success Baby Doll with a film that reunited him with On the Waterfront screenwriter Budd Schulberg and would launch the career of Andy Griffith, A Face on the Crowd. Upon its release, the film received mixed reviews from critics for Griffith’s bombastic performance – superb in its intensity and vigor, yet overpowering the rest of the cast. While there is truth to this criticism, the importance of the cultural commentary of the film has since been recognized.
In A Face in the Crowd, Kazan presents a none too subtle cautionary tale of the dangers of unchecked popular culture. Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes, a jailed drunk, is plucked from obscurity and becomes an overnight sensation on radio and TV, thanks to radio producers (Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau) believing they can mold public opinion for the good. And Lonesome Rhodes does just that. Claiming to speak in the authentic voice of the people, Rhodes becomes a touchstone for the nation. His words are instantly consumed by viewers eager to follow in the footsteps of their “wielder of public opinion.” In truth, Lonesome is a tool for mass persuasion, a fact which does not escape this cunning demagogue.
Kazan highlights Rhodes’ growing monstrous ego with the evocative use of shadow in this nightmare of populism and mass media. Kazan’s films were always major training grounds for actors, allowing them to push the limits of Method acting and high-intensity, emotive performances. Griffith is no exception here, portraying an insatiable megalomaniac drunk on both fame and alcohol in an unrelenting assault on the audience’s senses. Remarkably prescient in its depiction of the triumph of television, A Face in the Crowd may have been one of Kazan’s few critical disappointments but remains a provocative and electrifying parable of the dangers of politics, media, and charismatic demagogues. (Katherine Springer)
3: A Streetcar Named Desire
Probably Elia Kazan’s best-known film, A Streetcar Named Desire is emblematic of his style and boundary-pushing ethics (I am speaking of course, in relation to his art, not his life). Based on Tennessee William’s play (which Kazan also directed when it first premiered on Broadway) the film faced difficulties in its translation from stage to screen due to its controversial content. Kazan was in constant battles with studio heads, as well as the production board, in order to preserve the dignity and power of Williams’ text. His battle was well fought and though the film carefully skirts some of the more difficult insinuations of the play, it nonetheless maintains the steamy spirit and difficult sexual politics of the play. The film though is a showcase of acting talent above all. Kazan’s artistic legacy is without a doubt his handling of performers and this is perhaps his strongest cast. Brando, in particular, illuminates the screen with his raw energy and sexual bravura that has rarely been matched on the silver screen. With his performance and with the nurturing talents of Kazan, he helped usher in a new way of acting. In direct conflict is the far more classically trained Vivien Leigh, who maintains a sort of old Hollywood glamour in her performance. The actors come face to face in terms of style, which ultimately serves the themes and mood of the film, creating an even greater emotional and psychological gap between performers. Vivien Leigh’s Blanche Dubois is theatrical and out of touch, her almost histrionic performance only enhances her character’s psychosis and lends uncomfortable energy to her interactions with the rest of the cast, who maintain a far more naturalized style. (Justine Smith)
2: Splendour in the Grass
Sex. Pre-marital sex. Teen pre-marital sex. From clerics to politicians, these continue to be buzzwords in the great debate of God vs. Country. Splendour in the Grass tackled this subject matter with passion-filled aplomb through the able hands of Elia Kazan, and that was more than 50 years ago.
Set in 1928 Kansas, high school seniors Bud (Warren Beatty) and Deanie (Natalie Wood) are in love with each other, though Deanie’s hesitant to take it to “heels-over-head” status. Although in their early 20s, Beatty and Wood bring to the screen convincing portrayals of the pent-up urges we all remember from our formative years, even if we didn’t face the same fates. Well-to-do Bud wants to have sex and not-as-well-to-do Deanie is reluctant to take that step without marriage. True to form, Bud’s parents object to the couple getting married so young, especially with their hopes of him attending Yale. With his father’s encouragement, Bud leaves Deanie and seeks to vent his sexual frustration elsewhere. Things go from bad to worse to unhinging for Deanie as she ends up in an institution after being nearly raped by another classmate after being dumped by Bud. If all of that isn’t jarring enough, the film ends with the notion that Bud and Deanie do end up happily ever after, but not with each other. He on a ranch with an Italian wife, foregoing Yale after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and she with a doctor she met while institutionalized (shady).
Heart-aching in its realism, Splendour in the Grass hits the core of first love and the complications sex brings, especially combined with social reputation and status, albeit on the more theatrical level that we’d expect from Kazan. This bittersweet look on first love in Middle America paved the way for films like Peter Bogdonavich’s Last Picture Show and Terrence Malick’s Badlands along with its influence being felt in the song “Martha” by Tom Waits. On a trivia note, if the plot wasn’t salacious enough, this also marks the film debut of Warren Beatty, soon to become Hollywood lothario, and the first official French kiss in a Hollywood movie. (Diana Drumm)
1: On the Waterfront
There is an aching sadness that radiates beneath the surface of On the Waterfront. The film’s almost witch hunt theme isn’t a coincidence. It was a deeply personal film for Elia Kazan who in 1952 testified in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and identified eight former communists in the film industry. It was a controversial move that hurt his working relationship with many people.
The film’s plot swims in murky waters, a naive former boxer and dockworker Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando, in perhaps his finest and most nuanced performance) is asked to testify against a mob-connected union boss, John Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) who his brother, Charley (Rod Steiger) works for. His brother is also the same man who helped fix the fight that could have changed Terry’s life. He falls for Edie (Eva Marie Saint, in her screen debut), a woman who implores him to testify about the murder of her brother. Most everyone in the waterfront town is aware of the illegal activities but they decide to stay “D and D” deaf and dumb so they can work.
On the Waterfront is, on the surface, a film about a corrupted city barely holding itself together and featuring characters that aren’t much different. Kazan sets up these characters and situations brilliantly. They are far from perfect people and he doesn’t try and make them anything but what they are. Terry is tortured by the arrival of his long lost conscience and it takes the murder of a man for him to realize that he’s lost his way. The ending, a truly brutal and beautiful scene, conveys this perfectly. It takes Terry nearly being beaten to death for the other men to finally stand up and refuse to be pawns anymore.
On the Waterfront is one of those rare almost perfectly constructed films that leave the viewer breathless at the conclusion. Kazan’s true brilliance with this film is to take a step back and let the characters be who they are. Watching the movie is like reading a brilliant article, which isn’t so much of a leap since the film is based on a series of articles in the New York Sun. It’s brilliant, richly detailed, absolutely stunning, and a true testament to fearless filmmaking. (Tressa Eckermann)