The Plaza Theater in Atlanta, in cooperation with 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and Emory University, is running a film series devoted to Elia Kazan. Monday night’s double bill included A Letter to Elia (2010), Martin Scorsese’s new hour-long documentary (co-directed by Kent Jones) and Viva Zapata! (1952). Other entries in the series include A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (September 20), Gentleman’s Agreement (September 27) and the little-seen Wild River (October 4), which some critics regard as one of Kazan’s best. For more information see the Emory Film Studies Department’s events calendar.
For those who missed A Letter to Elia, it will be showing on PBS October 4 as part of the American Masters series. It’s a deeply moving tribute by Scorsese to a filmmaker whose work had an immediate, personal impact. The documentary does provide an overview of Kazan’s career, but the main focus is instead on Scorsese’s relationship with Kazan’s films and eventually his friendship with the man himself. It has generous, beautifully transferred clips from On the Waterfront, East of Eden, A Face in the Crowd (a brilliant film!), Wild River and America, America. (After all the clips, I’m dying to see the latter.) While the documentary doesn’t gloss over Kazan’s decision to name names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, it treats him with sympathy. In my view, it’s at least as good as Scorsese’s other documentaries My Voyage in Italy and A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies.
The screening was followed by Viva Zapata! (1952) Hollywood’s great, failed love letter to agrarian revolt, an absolute must on 35mm. There is that small problem of Marlon Brando in makeup… He’s a great physical actor–his movements and gestures are transfixing. The problem is that when he opens his mouth he sounds like Brando and not Zapata, and that pesky makeup never quite convinces. Brando almost-but-not-quite pulls off the stunt. But the film as a whole is superbly directed, demonstrating Kazan’s feel for locations and his compelling gift for staging within the shot. The black-and-white photography and Alex North score are also outstanding. After the screening, one of my colleagues pointed out that we still watch Touch of Evil (1958) despite Charleton Heston’s less than convincing performance as a Mexican, to which I replied yes, and Brando is a far better actor than Heston. When Fox finally releases the film on DVD as part of its forthcoming Elia Kazan box set, I recommend that you check it out with the caveat that it will lose some of its richness of texture on the small screen.