Elia Kazan Essay - Critical Essays

Elia Kazanjoglou

Kazan, Elia (Vol. 16)


Elia Kazan 1909–

(Born Elia Kazanjoglou) American theatrical director, film director, actor, and author.

Kazan is well-respected as a consistently competent director of actors. Such films as On the Waterfront also depict Kazan's interest in individual sagas of the American lifestyle, specifically, those which parallel his own.

Kazan's professional career began in 1932 when he joined Lee Strasberg's Group Theater. Starting out as an actor, he quickly rose to the position of director and his later films reflect this experience and Strasberg's influence. During the thirties, Kazan developed an interest in radical politics and joined the Communist Party. It was not until the 1940s that he finally realized his ambition to direct a film. A short subject, Pie in the Sky, was Kazan's first cinematic effort, to be followed by several documentaries.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Kazan's first feature film, received critical acclaim and provided him with a graceful transition from stage to screen. Kazan's first films generally reflect postwar discretion in their handling of controversial topics. Gentleman's Agreement and Pinky, in particular, were intended as indictments of anti-Semitism and racism, but emerge rather as sentimental and naïve, in the opinion of many critics.

In the late 1940s, Kazan instituted the Actor's Studio. In his work there, he developed the talents of young actors and actresses, most notably James Dean and Marlon Brando. Their respective roles in East of Eden and A Streetcar Named Desire exemplify Kazan's typical concentration on the characters in his films.

In 1952 Kazan testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, naming his ex-Party comrades, an action that upset many of his former companions when he signed a lucrative Hollywood contract soon afterwards. On the Waterfront is often viewed as Kazan's defense of his testimony.

Shortly after this, Kazan became introspective, and the films following are partially autobiographical. America, America and The Arrangement are both based on his own writings, and are more concerned with human motivations than with social injustice. Kazan went into semi-retirement in the 1970s. After this he directed only two films: The Visitors, a drama of disturbed Vietnam veterans written by his son Chris, and The Last Tycoon, a poorly received version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's unfinished novel. While Kazan's ability to direct actors is undisputed, debate still remains as to whether he is an equally significant talent as a filmmaker. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed.)

Bosley Crowther

The warm and compassionate story of a slum-pent family in Brooklyn's Williamsburg which was told with such rich and genuine feeling in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," by Betty Smith, has received pictorial embodiment to a remarkably harmonious degree…. If some of the ripe descriptive detail of the original is missing, that is due to the time limitations of the picture. The essential substance has been maintained and presented in a manner which carries tremendous emotional punch.

For the producers have very bravely shunned the more felicitous course of making their film a humorous abstract of neighborhood folklore and folkways and have got to the core of the story which Miss Smith plainly tore from her...

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C. A. Lejeune

[Pinky] is an adroit attempt to beat a highly controversial subject in a discreetly uncontroversial way; to flatter the public by giving them the types and situations they have always liked, while persuading them that this time such appreciation is only possible from persons of courageous outlook and advanced social consciousness.

Pinky is not really a "daring" film, except in so far as it admits that there is a colour question at all. It seems to me a fair film: it does not, I imagine, unreasonably distort either side of the picture. It is very smoothly directed…. But it is not, I repeat, daring. Compared with a really audacious film like Henry V or Hamlet, it...

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Dilys Powell

Pinky belongs to a group of American films with a new attitude to racial questions. (p. 107)

[It] is a film about principles; but principles conveyed by emotional means—and rightly so conveyed; for colour prejudice, whatever elements of reason it may embrace or conceal, is in essence an emotional force, and will be defeated only by a stronger emotional force. Pinky is an extremely moving piece of work; moving in its acting, its direction and its writing. It is a good film, in fact, not because it has a praiseworthy subject … but because it speaks to us with understanding, pity and indignation of the suffering, the courageous human figure. (p. 108)


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Karel Reisz

Kazan's film of [A Streetcar Named Desire] gives one of the first opportunities to see what can be done with [harsh, class-conscious realism] in the cinema….

Behind [the protagonists's] personal drama there develops the conflict of values which Tennessee Williams has explored elsewhere: the clash between the young and the old; the sordidly real and the magically bogus; between the precarious dignity of Stanley's primitive sensual nature and Blanche's equally vulnerable refinement. (p. 170)

The style does not transplant readily to the screen. Tennessee Williams' script … changes little of the original. All the usual objections to stage adaptations apply; there is too much...

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Karel Reisz

That even the most talented and successful directors are, with varying frequency, obliged to accept subjects in which they can have little real interest is, it seems, part of the scheme of film-making almost everywhere; it happens, perhaps, most often in Hollywood—as most things do—and might as well be accepted….

Elia Kazan has been relatively lucky in this respect; his Hollywood assignments so far have nearly all been interesting, and his latest, Man on a Tightrope …, has, on the face of it, all the ingredients of a good, topical adventure story. A circus owner in present-day Czechoslovakia decides, when the communist authorities come to restrict his activities—the clown's act must...

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A. H. Weiler

A small but obviously dedicated group of realists has forged artistry, anger and some horrible truths into "On the Waterfront," as violent and indelible a film record of man's inhumanity to man as has come to light this year. And, while this explosive indictment of the vultures and the meek prey of the docksides … occasionally is only surface dramatization and an oversimplification of the personalities and evils of our waterfront, it is, nevertheless, an uncommonly powerful, exciting and imaginative use of the screen by gifted professionals.

Although journalism and television already have made the brutal feudalism of the wharves a part of current history, "On the Waterfront" adds a graphic...

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Penelope Houston

Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront … is a significant, almost a definitive, example of a type of film which traditionally finds Hollywood at its most expert: the melodrama with a stiffening of serious ideas, the journalistic exposé of crime and corruption. Its subject harks back to the racket-smashing thrillers of the 'thirties; its style—location shooting, conscientious concern with surface realism—belongs to the present decade; its pretensions, the attempt to build authentic drama out of an investigation of waterfront gangsterism, are characteristic not only of the director but of a whole school of Hollywood thought….

Budd Schulberg has written a script which is vigorous, credible, at...

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Lindsay Anderson

It has been remarked that the success this year of three films like From Here to Eternity, The Caine Mutiny and On the Waterfront is a hopeful sign, demonstrating that inflationary techniques are not essential to the seduction of mass audiences. All we need are good films…. On the Waterfront is a bad film. Unfortunately, bad films are important too. This one is important because of its special kind of badness, and because of the enormous degree of acceptance it has won….

The film, in fact, has been accepted at its face value; or, more correctly perhaps, at its sensation value—as if it were a strong drink or an electric shock—and liked to a greater or lesser degree,...

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Bosley Crowther

Only a small part of John Steinbeck's "East of Eden" has been used in the motion picture version of it that Elia Kazan has done, and it is questionable whether that part contains the best of the book….

Compressed in a script by Paul Osborn, which reduces the mother to little more than a black shrouded figure of a madam of a sporting-house in a California town, this quarter-part of the novel is boiled down to a mere review of the coincidental way in which the conflict between the father and son is resolved.

Yet Mr. Kazan has at it,… with such elaborate pictorial build-up and such virtuosity on his actors' part that he gets across the illusion of a drama more pregnant than it is....

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Robert Hughes

On the Waterfront is "political," Lindsay Anderson claims [see excerpt above], in a way comparable to The Grapes of Wrath. I would put the whole emphasis differently. Whatever its origins, the film comes to us and should be judged primarily as personal drama. Implications there are, of course—but apparently not the ones Mr. Anderson wants.

There are two sides in the film, one characterised by a thorough-going viciousness, the other given a Christian shading. To which sides does Terry owe loyalty? The question is central to the action, and we get the answer in the last sequence. One value dominates the waterfront: loyalty. It is the moral criterion of docker and thug, a mechanism...

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Andrew George Sarris

[In East of Eden] Kazan has done more than master the static temptations of Cinemascope. For the first time in his film career, he has harnessed his violent technique to the emotional content of his material.

As a consequence, East of Eden is the deepest film Kazan has ever made and, in many respects, the best. The shock effects in East of Eden are even more jarring than those of On the Waterfront because they occur within the feelings of his characters rather than without. Also, there is none of the superimposed melodrama in Eden that we find in Waterfront just as there are no easy melodramatic solutions….

Where Steinbeck had reinforced...

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Derek Prouse

Somewhere about the middle of East of Eden … there is a scene when the boy Caleb,… visits his mother whom he has discovered to be the proprietress of a brothel, in the hope of borrowing money for a business venture. This scene … is handled with such meaningful economy, and seems the result of such cogent understanding, that it contrasts sharply with the empty show of so much of the rest of the film, and the unhappy preferences this talented director seems in danger of continuing to follow.

East of Eden is a film without a centre. One feels that Kazan has been impressed by the allegorical universals implied by the pretentious Biblical parallels of John Steinbeck's novel…. To the...

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Pauline Kael

The subject matter of On the Waterfront is alienation at the lowest social level…. Terry Malloy, the hero of On the Waterfront, is alienated at the instinctive level of the adolescent and the bum, and the drama, as those who made the film see it, is in his development of consciousness and responsibility, his taking his place as a man.

The attempt to create a hero for the mass audience is a challenge and a great big trap. On the Waterfront meets the challenge, falls into the trap. (p. 47)

On the Waterfront succeeds brilliantly in creating a figure out of the American lower depths, a figure simple in reasoning power but complicated in motivation and...

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Andrew Sarris

Baby Doll is a complex of mannerisms, some of which come perilously close to self-parody. Elia Kazan's uneasy blend of surface realism and theatrical exaggeration, Tennessee Williams' injection of the commedia dell' arte into the decaying corpus of the Deep South, and the unmotivated virtuosity of "method" acting give Baby Doll a dated, almost antique quality. This film is for Kazan what The Sun Shines Bright was for John Ford, Meet John Doe for Frank Capra … a stylistic throwback, too calculating in its effects, culturally anachronistic, and, as in all instances, a faithful reflection of the director's most popular weaknesses.

The violent climaxes that flawed...

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FrançOis Truffaut


All great filmmakers aspire to be free from the constraints of drama; they dream of making a film without progression, without psychology, in which the spectators' interest would be aroused by means other than changes of place and time, the cleverness of the dialogue, or the characters' comings and goings. Un Condamné à Mort s'est échappé (A Man Escaped), Lola Montès, Woman on the Beach, and Rear Window all achieve a considerable amount in this tricky game, each one in its own way.

In Baby Doll, Kazan has succeeded almost completely, by means of a style of direction that is unique, in making this sort of film, while simultaneously...

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Henry Goodman

Considering the abundance of good story material for the screen contained in the social issues of the day, surprisingly few American films have tackled the public problems from which spring the personal dramas. Of the occasional ventures into this area Elia Kazan's have been among the best—for instance, On the Waterfront, Panic in the Streets and A Face in the Crowd, films which grew out of "documentary" materials and drew the private story from a wider social context. And now with Wild River Kazan explores a community issue and the private sorrows stemming from it….

In Kazan's film the subject [the Tennessee Valley Authority] gives rise to a moral issue that is the surest...

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John Coleman

Splendour in the Grass … comes from the canvas-backed chair of Kazan, the typewriter of William Inge and the camera of Boris Kaufman: it is accordingly a very glossy, punchy, expert piece of something or other. Unfortunately, it is also ludicrous. (p. 96)

The end of this packed film (there is an unjustified, recalcitrant air of jumbo novel about it, like Giant) brings together the two kids, now older and saner, in a wistful encounter. They lost that Wordsworthian 'splendour in the grass'—here interpreted as a roll in the hay—presumably for 'strength in what remains behind'…. In ways too devious to recount in full, this long film forfeits seriousness and sympathy by being either...

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Ernest Callenbach

Kazan is a director who gets powerful performances from his actors…. Where he has had strong scripts also, as in Streetcar Named Desire, the under-rated East of Eden, or On the Waterfront, his particular kind of talent has come through extraordinarily well; these are films which will last, though none of them is a really great work. Even Kazan's worst films are by no means the filmed plays turned out by lesser men coming from television or the stage; in fact, in avoiding that danger, Kazan tends to fall into a decoratively "cinematic" style in which strong effects are a little too obviously worked for, rather than allowed to rise out of the material, out of the structure of the work itself. In a...

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Estelle Changas

Kazan's career is marked by a striking progression from films expressing a detached, liberal social consciousness towards more personal and emotional films. His career reveals a basic tension: an intellectual desire to deal with social issues as viewed in his less satisfying urban films which utilize a broad and contemporary canvas, versus his instinctual response to the past and to the unworldly inhabitants of cohesive ethnic communities or simple agrarian environments….

While his work would continue to be marked by a concern for social problems, Kazan's most interesting films—especially East of Eden (1955) and Wild River (1960), his richest works—combine a careful...

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Jim Kitses

Questions of personal conscience, individual freedom and social responsibility have often supplied Kazan with his material; in this sense Kazan can be said to have become the victim of his concerns when McCarthyism arose. Despite this ostensible continuity, however, fewer directors reveal sharper changes of emphasis in their careers than Kazan….

In the films of the forties the treatment of moral and social issues is unexceptional. Kazan here is working within well-established genres and a general ethos of post-war optimism and conventional social awareness: Boomerang and Panic in the Streets are documentary thrillers after [Louis] de Rochement; Pinky and Gentlemen's...

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Peter Biskind

On the Waterfront is one of the earliest and most effective attempts to suppress politics with morality and private values that the fifties produced. It takes an important first step in detaching the self from a larger social context so that the idea of self can be redefined in narrower, safer terms. Splendor in the Grass, America, America, and The Arrangement merely develop the notion of personality initially presented in On the Waterfront….

Films like Viva Zapata! and On the Waterfront bear the marks, the inscription, as the French would say, of their historical context. They cannot be fully understood outside the passionate political controversies...

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Pauline Kael

Monroe Stahr, the young hero of Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, is meant to represent the last of a breed; he's an individualistic artist-businessman who runs his movie studio like a small grocery store…. [As] Fitzgerald sees him, Stahr has the heart and soul of an artist without the crazy weaknesses of artists. (p. 216)

Harold Pinter is said to have spent a year and a half working on the script [for "The Last Tycoon"]—presumably in reverent noodling, since he has rearranged the book's dialogue and hasn't added much. Kazan has been quoted as saying, "I didn't change any of Pinter's words." This is reverence piled upon reverence. If the movie is, as I think, a tragedy—a series of...

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Louis Marcorelles

As Elia Kazan acquires a measure of financial as well as artistic independence, the importance of the place he holds in the American cinema increases. Intentionally or not, he has become the spokesman of certain contemporary attitudes; and from On the Waterfront to Baby Doll we have the complete circle, the picture of homo Americans as a victim of blindly destructive forces, painfully engaged in waging his battle of conscience.

Baby Doll is only indirectly and by implication a social drama: its real subject is the sexual awakening of a young girl married to a man twenty years older than herself….

Like Blanche Dubois, like the paralysed heroine of The...

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Gordon Gow

Gentle by comparison with the thrusting mainstream of current cinema, Elia Kazan's film of The Last Tycoon evokes a romanticism which persists and glows against the commercially orientated ethos of Hollywood in the 1930s. The spare and sensitive adaptation by Harold Pinter is respectful to the source material, the final and unfinished novel of Scott Fitzgerald—so respectful, indeed, as to eschew the profusion of indications left in the author's notes about the resolution of the story: the film is curtailed, only slightly rounded off, and therefore like what exists of the novel it places its main emphasis upon Monroe Stahr's vain efforts to recreate his former love life, while the fascinating social background...

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