Gentleman’s Agreement (Elia Kazan, 1947)

26May11

Gregory Peck (Philip Green). Screenplay by Moss Hart. Directed by Elia Kazan. Rating: PG. Running time: 118 minutes.

Martin Scorsese has a new documentary out that you’d be excused for being oblivious of given the poor publicity, but perhaps that’s an inevitable consequence of how niche and personal it is: there’s hardly a sea of people interested in watching an hour long gushing paean to Elia Kazan.

Still, I am interested. How can I not be? This is being brought to us by the director of No Direction Home, and it’s about the director of On The Waterfront. True, I’m more of a Scorsese fanatic than a Kazan admirer, but I imagine that’s only because I’ve delved deeper into the work of the former. What I had seen of Kazan – Streetcar, as well as On The Waterfront – had been brutally raw and effective. Both were all about Brando. Both were about characters and issues Hollywood would rather keep under the carpet. The realism running through both of those films, the perspective of a man bashing down American cinematic bravado and deconstructing the noir facade, was there for all to see. The same goes, albeit with less noise, for Gentlemen’s Agreement.

The subject is as you’d expect: politically fertile, perhaps taboo, ripe for a real actor to get his teeth stuck into. The opportunity is Gregory Peck’s, who of course plays an absolute gentlemen, Philip Green, who’s here on a mission to find out what it’s like to be Jewish, to experience anti-Semitism first hand by pretending to have a label that isn’t really his.

The result is far from rapturous. It is, rather, presumably intended to be quietly painful: the realisation that the prejudice permeates all walks of life and all social classes, even amongst those who consciously distance themselves from it yet act to reinforce it without even knowing.

Peck’s character despises it, but is troubled most of all when he sees it in the language of his lover. Kazan clearly likes this type of troublesome situation. It’s in On the Waterfront too, when a man and a woman become similarly divided on an issue of principle which matters to them both equally and strongly, but which it feels odd to fall out over when so abstract, in theory so detachable and unconcerned with their love and relationship in general.

Yet it’s not an easy difference to overcome, and it’s even more difficult to admit that to your counterpart, as Green discovers. It’s annoying how we’re left with this tension totally resolved, the joyful music as the couple are reunited playing awkwardly for the first time in the film just as the ending credits roll up. Kazan couldn’t quite escape his time period, then, or at least the studios wouldn’t let him. Still, this aside, the social exposure is a great one. We needed, and still need, more filmmakers who tackle topics like these.

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