Elia Kazan: The Cinema of an American Outsider

June 11, 2009

Elia Kazan seems as likely to be remembered for his politics as for his work as film director, stage director and novelist - an outcome that would scarcely have pleased him. But his decision in 1952 to "name names" - ie, to identify those colleagues and ex-colleagues who had been fellow members of the Communist Party - to the inquisitorial House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) cast a long shadow over the rest of his career. Many of his colleagues, including playwright Arthur Miller and film composer Alex North, cut all ties with him. Nearly 50 years later, when Kazan received a Life Achievement Award at the 1999 Oscars, there were still voices raised in furious opposition.

Brian Neve's study sets out to redress the balance, at least as far as Kazan's films are concerned. Biography is kept to a minimum: Kazan's life and career prior to directing his first film (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, 1945) when he was 36 are disposed of in the introduction.

Nor does Neve spend much time on the early, rather uncharacteristic films Kazan made for 20th Century Fox, apart from noting the director's eagerness to escape the studio and shoot on location whenever possible. The bulk of the book concentrates on the 13 films Kazan made between 1951 and 1976, from A Streetcar Named Desire to The Last Tycoon.

Neve's analyses are sound, if not particularly searching. He makes the best case he can for the duds in Kazan's filmography, such as Man on a Tightrope (1953), made in the immediate aftermath of his HUAC testimony and weighed down by anti-Commie propaganda; or the misconceived A Face in the Crowd (1957), about a guitar-plucking hobo's rise to become a monstrous populist demagogue, which suggests that social satire was scarcely Kazan's forte. In The Arrangement (1969), adapted from the director's own novel, Neve notes the intrusion of "self-consciously stylistic elements" and suggests that Kazan, worried he was starting to lose touch, was trying to react to "the wider social mayhem of America at the time".

Baby Doll (1956), the second of Kazan's Tennessee Williams adaptations, tends to get overlooked in favour of its stablemate A Streetcar Named Desire. Neve makes a good case for its reconsideration, bringing out a political subtext that foreshadows the imminent rise of the civil rights movement in the American South.

The impact of social change on the South figures even more strongly in Wild River (1960), where Neve notes Kazan's "closeness to nature ... and to the seasons", detecting "a strong sense of place" and the influence of two of Kazan's favourite directors, John Ford and Alexander Dovzhenko.

Of all Kazan's qualities as a director, his skill with actors is probably the most celebrated. Rather strangely, Neve leaves extended discussion of this to a couple of pages at the end of the book, almost like an afterthought.

The HUAC episode, of course, can't be ignored. Neve devotes most of a chapter to it, weighing up the diverse verdicts and coming cautiously to the conclusion that Kazan was, on balance, justified.

A cautious reticence, in fact, is the prevailing mood. More than once we get a tantalising hint of some incident that is never elaborated on, such as the fact that the shooting of America America (1963) in Turkey was "brought to a halt by the censors" - the Turkish ones, presumably - but just why we never learn. Again, a reference to Kazan being "pushed around" at the Cannes Film Festival remains unexplained. All in all, this is a solid, well-researched study of Kazan's cinematic output, but there's still room for an account that probes more trenchantly into his films and embattled life.

Elia Kazan: The Cinema of an American Outsider

By Brian Neve
I.B. Tauris
ISBN 9781845115609
Published 18 December 2008

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