Where to begin with Elia Kazan

A beginner’s path through Elia Kazan's masterpieces of Method and melodrama.

27 January 2020

By Christina Newland

America America (1963)

Why this might not seem so easy

With his tender depictions of outsiders in American life – from disaffected dockworkers to the tenement poor to a light-skinned black woman who can pass as white – Elia Kazan remains one of the great filmmakers of mid-century Hollywood. With his deeply sensitive direction of actors, he first brought Marlon Brando and James Dean to our screens, created some of the most memorable screen moments of Hollywood history, and helped found the Actor’s Studio in 1947.

Yet Kazan’s reputation has been forever sullied by his involvement with the House of Un-American Activities Committee. After a stint as a member of the Communist Party of America in the ’30s, Kazan would leave, but his time there would come back to haunt him in 1951, when Senator McCarthy’s hysterical attempt to purge Hollywood of leftists led to the devastation of countless lives and careers. Kazan’s testified as a ‘friendly witness’ and decided to name the names of his fellow former communists at a HUAC hearing. The choice set him up for recrimination for the rest of his life; in order to keep his own career, he sold out old friends and colleagues. Such was the impact of his testimony that many of Kazan’s contemporaries refused to speak to him for the rest of their lives. And in 1999, when Kazan received a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars, many refused to applaud or even attend the ceremony.

Such controversy inevitably has affected the director’s legacy, particularly at a moment when the religitation of filmmakers’ histories and moral standing is back in focus. But Kazan’s flaws can be held side by side with the beauty and paradox of his work, and as two parts of the same whole. His greatest films, if you’ve yet to see them, make for some truly life-changing viewing experiences. 

On the Waterfront (1954)

The best place to start – On the Waterfront

There’s a genuine paradox at the heart of what is arguably Kazan’s greatest film, On the Waterfront (1954). Starring Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy, a dockworker and one-time prizefighter surrounded on all sides by vicious mob corruption, Kazan gave us one of the all-time great screen performers in one of his all-time roles. With his wounded, inarticulate machismo, Terry is increasingly drawn to speak out against the violent criminals who corrupt the local unions and bully ordinary workers into complicit silence. Brando is likeable in a sort of wilfully dumb, oafish way, with tense shoulders and a secret well of gentleness. Eva Marie Saint is so completely his foil; small, graceful, blonde, almost bird-like.

On one hand, the film’s story about how ratting someone out can be the right thing to do feels like an apology for Kazan’s past. On the other hand – even with its morally murky undertones – On the Waterfront is a masterpiece. It was shot on location during a bitterly cold New York winter, and each time an actor expels a visible breath into the freezing air we can practically feel it. The ending shows that Terry Malloy is no longer ‘a bum’ when he leads the dockworkers back to their work, bruised and beaten; he is a somebody. That might sound like mythic American claptrap, but it also sounds like redemption.

East of Eden (1955)

What to watch next

Now that you’re set up with a parallel sense of both Kazan’s greatness as a filmmaker and his weakness of character, you’re primed for his adaptation of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1955). This is his remarkable, profoundly sensitive look at the relationship between two antithetical brothers living in California during the First World War, which is best known for plucking an unknown stage actor named James Dean from obscurity. Dean is bad apple Cal, an oddball loner whose palpable need for affection is almost painful to watch. Aided by the intense crackle of the film’s performances – notably Julie Harris as the kind young woman stuck between the brothers – the mood of the film is both mournful and vividly overblown. Yet that melodrama is girded by a sense of absolute truth and need.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

After this, there’s probably an Elia Kazan movie for any of your preferences – violent thriller, romantic drama, epic realist saga – but in typical Kazan style, none of them are totally straightforward affairs. Instead, they are fraught with sexual tension (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951; Splendor in the Grass, 1961), implied malice (Panic in the Streets, 1950) and a fierce critique of xenophobia and racism (Pinky, 1949).

For a look back at Kazan’s early career and the themes that would continue throughout his work, try his debut feature A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), the story of a turn-of-the-century family living in urban slums, with a hardworking mother and an absentee, alcoholic father. A deeply touching tearjerker with no failure to recognise the grim realities of poverty, it’s a truly accomplished first film. Here, Kazan first showed his fascination with the immigrant experience of America and a deep understanding of the tiny gestures and tics that make for great screen performances.

Wild River (1960)

A highlight from later in his career is Wild River (1960), an excellent oddity and a flop at the time of its release. It centres around the true story of a Depression-era attempt by the Roosevelt administration to relocate impoverished Tennessee farmers and build a dam where their riverbanks would perennially flood. Pitting the locals’ mistrust of big government against progressive do-gooder Montgomery Clift, it’s a complex and beautiful story about class in the American heartland.

But the highest recommendation goes to Kazan’s most personal film, America, America (1963), in which he tells the story of his own uncle’s desperate flight from Turkey to Ellis Island. It departs from his other films in its visual flair – shot in gorgeous wide-angle black and white and borrowing from everyone from F.W. Murnau to Roberto Rossellini. Kazan once again cast an unknown actor, this time Stathis Giallelis, as a shifty-eyed and determined young man whose innocence is shattered on his perilous journey to the promised land. It combines a curious mixture of optimism and cynicism about human nature; a finely-tuned balance in most of Kazan’s major works. 

Where not to start

Kazan never made a terrible film, but if you’re new to his work, it’s probably not ideal to begin with Gentleman’s Agreement (1947). On paper, it sounds great: a strident work on antisemitism in American life, starring the legendary Gregory Peck and scooping a handful of Academy Awards, including best picture. The material was incendiary for the time, and it was praised across the board. But well-meaning as it is, Gentleman’s Agreement has aged badly, with a preachy, didactic urge that feels vaguely condescending to a contemporary audience. Kazan was not usually so literal, and it’d be a shame to start out on the wrong foot with him.  

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