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Splendor on the screen

By STEVE VINEBERG  |  July 29, 2009

Kazan was committed to authenticity, and his gift for evoking locales and populations through his eye for detail and his skillful, poetic staging and shooting of crowd scenes is apparent early on, in Pinky and Boomerang! as well as in the ingenious, New Orleans–set PANIC IN THE STREETS (July 31 at 7 pm), where the search for a murderer takes on emergency status when the victim turns out to have been the carrier of pneumonic plague. The other tell in this initial period derives, like his problem-picture bent, from his history with the Group, where Stanislavskian (Method) acting received its official tryout: his work with actors is phenomenal. Even his debut film, a bland adaptation of Betty Smith's A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (August 15 at 7 pm), boasts an excellent ensemble, and the work of Andrews, Lee J. Cobb, Sam Levene, and Arthur Kennedy in Boomerang! and Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, Jack Palance, and Zero Mostel in Panic in the Streets is compelling and memorable.

ON THE WATERFRONT: The scenes on the docks still play as vividly as if you were watching them live.

The Method revolutionized American movie acting in the '50s, and Kazan, more actively than any other filmmaker, harvested the first, potent crop of Method stars. He didn't bring Brando to Hollywood, but he directed Bando's two most influential performances, as Stanley Kowalski in Streetcar (opposite the equally brilliant Vivien Leigh) and as Terry Malloy in ON THE WATERFRONT (August 8 at 7 pm). He discovered James Dean, who plays Cal, the tormented, unloved younger brother in the film of John Steinbeck's EAST OF EDEN (July 31 at 7 pm). The erotically charged scenes between Brando and Eva Marie Saint in Waterfront and the delicate romantic ones between Dean and Julie Harris in Eden raised the standard for psychological realism in American pictures. And in Waterfront probably the most powerful social-problem drama ever made in this country — his raw, improvised-feeling work with his leading actors is combined with the scenes on the docks that still, more than half a century later, play as vividly as if you were watching them live. Kazan insisted on shooting the film on location; by 1956's BABY DOLL (August 21 at 7 pm) — an outrageously sexy Tennessee Williams comedy that's never received its due — he was using non-professional locals in the cast, a practice he continued in his next two pictures, A Face in the Crowd and WILD RIVER (August 7 + 10 at 7 pm).

The paradox of Kazan's style is that it's both cinematic and theatrical, realist and overheated, improvisational and hothouse-feeling. Sometimes his movies feel fake — like VIVA ZAPATA! (August 22 at 7 pm), with its blathering Steinbeck we're-the-people sentimentality and Brando in make-up that makes him look like a Chinese sage. I'd put A FACE IN THE CROWD (August 23 at 7 pm), which reunited Kazan with Waterfront screenwriter Budd Schulberg, in the same category. An indictment of homegrown fascism with a pop-entertainer demagogue as the anti-hero, it's one of those hysterical, neon-blazing melodramas that convince a lot of people that they're not just hearing the obvious trumpeted at a high-decibel level. Andy Griffith plays a guitar-strumming purveyor of folk wisdom discovered by a radio journalist (Patricia Neal) in an Arkansas jail; she makes him into a celebrity, but his dirty secret is that he secretly despises the millions of fans who think he supplies their voice. Actually, it's Griffith, as much as his character, Lonesome Rhodes, who's the 24-carat phony.

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