Ranking the films of director Elia Kazan from best to worst.
Elia Kazan is one of my top five favourite American filmmakers of all time, and so I decided to ask our staff to rank his films. If you are not yet familiar with the filmmakers work, now would be a good time to start. Kazan was one of the most honoured and influential directors in Broadway and Hollywood history and introduced a new generation of unknown young actors to the world, including Marlon Brando, James Dean, Warren Beatty, Carroll Baker, Julie Harris, Andy Griffith, Lee Remick, Rip Torn, Eli Wallach, Eva Marie Saint, Martin Balsam, Fred Gwynne, and Pat Hingle. Noted for drawing out the best dramatic performances from his cast, he directed 21 actors to Oscar nominations, resulting in nine wins. The source for his inspired directing was the revolutionary acting technique known as the Method, and Kazan quickly rose to prominence as the preeminent proponent of the technique. During his career, he won two Oscars as Best Director, received an Honorary Oscar, won three Tony Awards, and four Golden Globes. Elia Kazan’s career spanned more than four decades of enormous change in the American film industry and often he was the catalyst for those changes. Here is our list.
18: The Arrangement
One of the low points of Kazan’s career, The Arrangement attempts to tell the story of ad man Eddie Anderson (Kirk Douglas), who is slowly experiencing a nervous breakdown. Disillusioned with the ennui of 1969 America, bored with wife Florence (Deborah Kerr), and burdened with a dying, spiteful father, Anderson starts to unravel after he survives a spur of the moment suicide attempt on the highway. Like a non-violent precursor to his son Michael’s film Falling Down, The Arrangement finds Douglas attempting to stretch his performance, playing a cooler, more relaxed doppelganger to Eddie and giving the actor plenty of opportunities to yell, sweat, and stare his way through a cacophony of Modernist editing and sound techniques. Adapted from Kazan’s own novel, the film rambles on for nearly 130 minutes of navel gazing self-aggrandizement, and confines the usually electric Kerr to a bland, concerned housewife part that doesn’t suit her. There’s a universe in which the viewer could draw a spiritual connection between Anderson and Blanche Dubois, but that would be giving this unpleasant, suffocating slog of a film too much credit. If then rising star Faye Dunaway can’t elevate seduction scenes due to poor writing and odd editing choices, something has gone very wrong. For the curious only.
– Gabe Bucsko
17: The Sea of Grass
Kazan’s second film as a director and second literary adaptation after the immortal classic A Tree Grows In Brooklyn finds the Greek master attempting to mount a glossy studio picture starring one of the most popular onscreen teams of all time, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. While successful at the box office in its day, the film has not aged well. What starts out as a seeming forebear to Giant focusing on the usual spark of stubborn chemistry between Tracy & Hepburn becomes a sad sack melodrama weighted down by its own pretentions. Robert Walker gives the story a shot of adrenaline in the second half, when his rambunctious rebel Brock becomes more prominent, but his storyline also veers the narrative down a soapy spiral from which it never recovers. Due to the nature of the story, Tracy and Hepburn are also forced to spend that second half mostly apart, interacting very little and bringing an odd emptiness to the scenes featuring only one of the core duo. Supposedly Kazan spent most of his later years warning people off The Sea of Grass, but for Tracy/Hepburn as well as Kazan completists, it could be worse (see The Arrangement). The film is currently available on iTunes and Amazon Instant Video in the US for said completists to view.
– Gabe Bucsko
16: The Last Tycoon
Elia Kazan directed this adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished final novel, about Monroe Starr, a brilliant and efficient studio executive – based on MGM’s boy genius Irving Thalberg. Kazan came out of retirement for one last try at greatness, but ultimately failed. Kazan’s direction is extremely unfocussed, and rumour is, the pic suffered from studio interference and high demands from producer Sam Spiegel. And it sure didn’t help that the novel was unfinished, so the movie itself, is based on an unresolved storyline. Still, if there is one reason to see this film, it is for the fabulous ensemble cast which includes Robert Deniro, Tony Curtis, Robert Mitchum and Jack Nicholson.
– Kyle Reese
15: America, America (1963)
It’s no surprise this is one of the few films Kazan wrote himself as it is easily – confirmed by his own admission – his most personal film. It’s right there in the movie’s first words, a voiceover spoken by Kazan himself: “I’m Elia Kazan. I am a Greek by blood, a Turk by birth, and an American because my uncle made a journey.”
Based on Kazan family stories, America, America tells the saga of Stavros Topouzogloum, Kazan’s real-life uncle, and his Sisyphusian efforts to make passage from Turkey to the U.S. in the 1890s. Played by non-actor Stathis Giallelis, Stavros’ story is a constant one of one step forward, two steps back as he begins to put together the money for the trip, then loses it, makes it again, loses it again, etc.
Topouzogloum’s story is about more than leaving for a better life; it’s about leaving for any life. The Greeks and Armenians of Ottoman Turkey’s Anatolia region are treated so brutally it conjures up images of Russian pogroms, Klan lynchings in the American south, Serbian ethnic cleansing, the persecution of the Jews under the Nazis. Topouzogloum is looking for survival as much as opportunity.
The passion Kazan put into the film is clear and sincere. In scenes like the torching of an entire village and the killing of women and children by trapping them in a burning church, Kazan’s outrage is as apparent and hot as the flames on-screen. Kazan manages to capture more than the singular experiences of his ancestor; he captures what the immigrant experience was for so many who were disenfranchised in their home countries, who saw America as a near-mythic Eden offering safety along with possibility.
Yet for all its heartfelt emotion, America, America is more a movie to be appreciated than enjoyed. Neither as compact as such Kazan films as On the Waterfront or as electric as A Streetcar Named Desire, the deliberate pace of the film over its 168-minute running time, combined with the rough-hewn look which came from shooting on-location in Greece, takes a toll on the average viewer. The film’s not helped by the casting of Giallelis, an energy-sapping black hole of an actor.
America, America is an essential chapter in the cinematic chronicling of the country’s immigrant heart, but one you only want to read once.
– Bill Mesce
14: Man on a Tightrope
There should be more to this effort than there is considering the pedigree here: Kazan directing a script by one of the best screenwriters of the period (among his many accolades, Sherwood had won an Oscar for his screenplay for the touching WW II coming-home drama, Best Years of Our Lives ), working from material inspired by a true-life escape from behind the Iron Curtain, shot on location in Europe.
Frederic March is Karel Cernik, manager of a family circus now nationalized and used as a propaganda vehicle in communist-controlled Czechoslovakia during the grimmest years of the Cold War. Tired of watching his circus wither day by day under the strictures of the repressive authorities, Cernik executes a daring escape for his crew across the border into West Germany.
All the earmarks of a strong Kazan production are there: it’s well cast in-depth with March backed up by Gloria Grahame as his trampy wife, Adolphe Menjou and the great character actor John Dehner as slimy commie honchos, a pre-Have Gun, Will Travel Richard Boone, and providing the young love interest, Terry Moore and Cameron Mitchell. Having gotten a taste for the kind of authenticity location shooting could lend a film with his plague-in-New-Orleans thriller, Panic in the Streets (1950), Kazan shot on location in Bavaria which, thanks to lenser Georg Krause, has an appropriately who-wouldn’t-want-to-escape-from-here bleakness. Trying to give the story still more of Kazan’s Method school reality, Kazan filled his movie circus with acts from Circus Brumbach, an East German circus whose escape to the west not only inspired Paterson’s novel, but whose real-life border-leaping machinations were incorporated into the script.
Yet the movie lacks the spark of Kazan’s best and it’s hard – knowing Kazan’s bio – not to see the movie as more of an overly earnest effort to demonstrate true-blue loyalty to the good ol’ U.S. of A. than to tell an effective drama. The year before, during the height of the country’s McCarthyist paranoia, Kazan had testified in front of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, reversing his earlier stand of not naming names when one studio boss told him such a refusal would guarantee he’d never work in Hollywood again, and named a number of high profile talents as Communists ruining a few careers in the process. March, too, may have been trying to get out from under a cloud having been considered for blacklisting in 1949. Adding to the movie’s flag-waving bonafides is the presence of Menjou who had not only cooperated with HUAC, but was one of the more active members of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American ideals, a right-wing group dedicated to opposing Communist influence (whatever that meant) in Hollywood.
With a half-century remove from the politics of the time, Man on a Tightrope loses its sense of the imperative and comes off, instead, as a well-performed but routine escape drama.
– Bill Mesce
13: The Visitors
Kind of like Kazan’s version of Straw Dogs, The Visitors is the director’s second-to-last film and a low-budget effort sandwiched between two far more opulent productions.
Featuring James Woods in his first film role as Bill Schmidt, a pacifist Vietnam veteran visited by two former army buddies whom he ratted out for war crimes, The Visitors can be heavy-handed at times, but its grainy 16mm look, handheld feel, and young cast certainly prove that Kazan was still aesthetically relevant into the changing 1960s and 70s.
Like many films he made post-1952 HUAC testimony, The Visitors has a clear “naming-names” theme; conflicted, sexually repressed, and naive, Woods’ Schmidt is a late descendent of Brando’s Terry Malloy in Kazan’s classic On the Waterfront.
– Neal Dhand
It’s impossible to view Pinky today as anything other than compromised, yet it retains a certain charm that can’t be denied. As flat as Jeanne Crain can be in other roles, her performance opposite supporting standouts Ethel Waters and Ethel Barrymore elevates into something lively. Kazan was a replacement for John Ford, who would not make many more films for Darryl Zanuck & Fox after his firing. Dorothy Dandridge and Lena Horne were also considered for the lead part of Pinky (Horne in particular would have been excellent in the role) before Zanuck went with contract player and bland girl next door type Crain. So as an assigned director dealing with an assigned leading lady, Kazan’s hands were tied during production. Progressive in its time for its story of a black woman passing for white in the North who must return to her Southern hometown to care for her grandmother, the film retains an uncomfortable air of whitewashing when viewed today, but the central message of the film, and Waters’ emotional and winning turn as Pinky’s grandmother Dicey, fight through the cobwebs of 1940s studio interference and create something vital under the clutter. It is a certainty that Pinky will provoke different responses, ranging from revulsion to curiosity to, perhaps, acceptance of emotional investment. In any case, it is well worth a first time rental.
– Gabe Bucsko
Boomerang is the sort of motion picture Elia Kazan was known for making even though it is not near the top of the list of his most popular and oft mentioned projects. Kazan was not only a good storyteller who revelled in exploring daring, thought provoking stories concerning protagonists worthy of the audience’s empathy and time, he also tackled on critical subjects that resonated loudly with the culture he lived in at the time. In fact, some of the topics raised in his films are still of important today in the early 21st century, most notably backroom political wheeling and dealing and the less then exemplary behaviours of people in power when they careers are on the line, which is what Boomerang explores with an unforgiving eye.
– Edgar Chaput