Elia Kazan did more than make a series of American classics. His films provided some of the basic vocabulary of American drama. A new boxed set of 15 of his films, selected by Martin Scorsese, is in every way an essential collection for anyone who seeks to understand 20th century American cinema.
Kazan became known, of course, as “the actor’s director” both because of his endlessly inventive direction of his players and his eagerness to introduce to the world new talent. Indeed, this boxed set puts this aspect of the director’s character on full display, including the films that gave James Dean, Marlon Brando, Lee Remick, Jack Palance and Andy Griffith their first roles.
Speaking of Andy Griffith, this set contains his 1957 A Face in the Crowd. This is one of Kazan’s most disturbing films as well as one of the most politically prescient. Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes, a faux populist who uses a combination of folksiness and fear to become a major political force. Parallels to a number of contemporary figures are obvious. Moreover, if you didn’t think that Mayberry was already a little creepy, Griffith’s startling performance may give you bad dreams. It also makes you sorry that Griffith became irredeemably typecast and was never able to pursue a wider career (his turn as Matlock sometimes feels like Sherriff Griffith got older and got a law degree).
Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal in A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Kazan is also known for bringing his social consciousness into his films and all the classics are part of this set. The first time viewer will find that these groundbreaking statements about race, ethnicity and economic justice still pack a punch. The set includes Gentleman’s Agreement with Gregory Peck, an exploration of American anti-Semitism. Pinky became one of the first serious celluloid statements about the problem and perplexities of race in America, even exploring the complex phenomenon of “passing” in an evocative and sophisticated way.
On the Waterfront carries a special poignancy given how its message and theme is inextricably linked with Kazan’s personal history. Based on a series of New York Times articles that exposed corruption and oppression on the docks, it also represented a very personal statement for a director who, by 1954, had become something of a pariah.
Two years before the film appeared, Kazan had informed on eight film industry figures that had once been Communists, as well as admitting his own involvement in the party during the ‘30s. His efforts to defend his indefensible snitching only made matters worse. This controversy emerges in On the Waterfront with the mob informer appearing as the good guy. This subtext, one in which Kazan’s attempt to justify his actions has a tremendous ick factor, still does nothing to ruin a nearly perfect film.
Kazan’s tendency to test the American mainstream is fully on display in A Streetcar Named Desire. On the face of it, this now classic film had all the makings of an insipid drama. It could have been simply a housebroken version of the powerful Tennessee Williams play that had wed themes of homosexuality and pedophilia with gothic madness. Moreover, the young ingénue Marlon Brando may have seemed, on paper, to be chosen more for his full, sensual lips than for his acting ability.
And yet actors and their director make its one of the masterpieces of American cinema. Vivien Leigh and Brando sizzled their way through the film’s most histrionic moments. Fear of the Motion Picture Production code and the Legion of Decency had led to massive cuts in the film but the sultry energy of every frame transubstantiated subtext into a very hot and bothered text. The restored cut of the film in this set allows for Kazan’s partnership with his actors to have its full effect. In the famous moment when Brando yawps for Stella in the rain, we get a sensual musical score and an image of a clearly aroused Leigh, sexing up as Stella in response to Stanley’s rough demand.
Kazan’s direction of Carroll Baker in Baby Doll shows much the same fearlessness. Five years before Kubrick’s Lolita, Kazan helped Baker burn down the screen as a teenage sex goddess. Although tame by our unbuttoned standards, it was enough to have the film banned in several countries and to cause Francis Cardinal Spellman to fulminate from the pulpit of St. Patrick’s. It was also a deeply human drama about America’s love affair with its own alleged innocence and how sexuality often hides deeper, more complex yearnings.
The completeness of this box set also gives you access to some Kazan classics that you may have missed. His 1963 immigrant drama America, America provides an interesting companion to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Two early films, Boomerang and Panic in the Trees are filmed entirely in the realist style of post-war Italy. In these films, Kazan caught the feel, the look and the sound of the streets. Wild River told a love story in which Lee Remick and Montgomery Clift careen close to sentimentality but instead create a metaphor for all the inexpressible yearnings that are at the heart of all Kazan’s studies of couples.
Kazan fans that already own many of these restored films still have reason to pick up this set. A new documentary called A Letter to Elias, written and directed by Martin Scorsese provides a meditative account of Kazan’s meaning for American cinema.
There are a hundred important moments in this documentary, from Scorsese’s close and very personal interpretation of James Dean’s first major performance in East of Eden to rare archival interviews of Kazan. In one of the latter moments, an interviewer asks Kazan if America, America is his most personal film. Kazan, a sudden flash of a smile breaking apart his perpetual scowl, merrily tells him to go fuck himself.
Thankfully the distributor did an excellent job on the storage of the discs themselves. At a time when boxed sets often force movie-lovers to deal with poorly constructed cardboard gimmicks, the studio packed these discs into a sturdy book, each disc safely slip cased with facing pages that give brief details about each film. This is the kind of treatment that a film lover’s compendium such as this deserves.
As an added bonus, a well-designed book of photographs provides introductory commentary on each film.
This is film school in a box and not to be missed.