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Christ in Concrete
All Day has outdone itself with this release, an almost totally unknown film of excellent quality and considerable significance. The 1949 Christ in Concrete was hounded from American screens after one or two bookings. Its director, writer, and several cast members had filmed it in England after being driven from Hollywood by the blacklists. This absorbing emotional experience is a socially-conscious scream by artists not yet ready to surrender. The disc cover calls it a 'supressed master work', which for once is no exaggeration.
Director Edward Dmytryk eventually recanted and named names, thus reclaiming a Hollywood career for himself, while earning the scorn of those he betrayed. The result was that Christ in Concrete was never re-discovered. Except for two brief weeks in a tiny New York theater in 1949, and one museum showing in 1975, it has never been shown in America - no 16mm prints, no television showings, zilch. I doubt there are many who have heard of the picture. As English censors would not allow a title to go out with the word Christ in the title, it was changed to Give Us This Day at the last minute; All Day has stuck with the original title of the source book, a classic of 'proletarian fiction' that is thought to have been a core inspiration for the Italian neo-realism movement.
Beautifully cast, acted and directed from a sensitive and literate script, the picture plays like a classic. Unlike some other rediscovered oddities that could well have stayed hidden under the rug, this one's a keeper. All Day's excellent presentation is technically polished and ready to recommend to all.
This is a superior movie and a moving, strongly felt drama that needs a major rediscovery. It's an unsentimental tale of very sentimental people with a vibrant feeling for the struggle to subsist in a harsh world. Based on a classic 'proletarian' novel, it stays refreshingly free of nostalgic reveries and fatuous homilies about the virtues of hard labor. Geremio's community of bricklayers hangs together beautifully when pulling for the common good, and fails miserably when the depression pits them against one another. Geremio is no Communist, but he is part of a guild of workers who fully understand what exploitation is - in this case, shaving profit corners by forcing unsafe conditions on laborers.
Christ in Concrete is a religious allegory - the artwork on the cover of the book is a crown of thorns around a pick and shovel. Direct Christ parallels usually fall flat on their faces, but this one is handled beautifully. There's a visual reference to the Pietá, and a strange moment of self-mutilation that is clearly meant to represent a stigmata. Hero Geremio calls out in agony for help and forgiveness, conveying the idea that Christ's experience is in all of us.
In the blacklist-crazed late 40s, a film didn't have to spout anti-capitalist slogans to be refused exhibition. Movies that concerned themselves with working realities always walked on thin ice. When old James Cagney movies examined poverty, they treated it in Horatio Alger terms - slums were a great place to learn character and were happy breeding grounds for priests and violin soloists. Movies implying that basic social change might be needed, just didn't get made. Over at MGM, labor concerns were often portrayed as Red agitation - see Riff-Raff, where we're invited to cheer as thug Spencer Tracy roughs up a labor organizer. Christ in Concrete was met by protests and pickets (according to the liner notes) when weakling distributor Eagle-Lion tried to book it in the states. I wouldn't be surprised if the majors didn't tag the film as Commie Propaganda as soon as it was offered to them for release. The show doesn't narrow its viewpoint to the approved movie fantasy of happy American living.
Labeling individual movies as 'pinko' was a quiet game played in top studio offices, and then screamed out in newspaper 'editorials'. Nobody actually studied films to see what was subversive -individual artists were blacklisted by hearsay, innuendo and malicious rumors. It was decades before film scholars examined the films made by blacklisted leftists. When one scratches a Dalton Trumbo or an Abraham Polonsky film, one doesn't find Communist propaganda, but Humanist and Internationalist themes. Although some of its bricklayers wear curious, unidentified badges, Christ in Concrete never mentions unions. It's more concerned with human basics, and even with its allegorical edge, is more honest and direct about the struggle of those on the bottom of the American Dream than anything I've seen. It's the picture Barton Fink, if he had talent, would have given his left arm to write. 3
Christ in Concrete is almost shockingly well-made. When one thinks of socially-committed films by blacklisted talent, well-intentioned but comparatively amateurish efforts like Abner Biberman's Salt of the Earth come to mind. For production and aesthetics, Christ in Concrete can stand alongside any of its contemporaries. The production is technically very sophisticated.
Except for some snappy behind-the-titles back plates, Christ in Concrete was filmed entirely at Denham studios in England. For a moderately budgeted film, it's a remarkable job of recreation - tenement streets, construction sites and family saloons of the twenties all look more authentic than they do in Hollywood pictures. Cameraman C.M. Pennington-Richards stages an opening scene 40 stories up in a building under construction, using rear-projected plates of New York, and somehow makes the lighting look like bright daylight instead of a studio interior. At night, the movie resembles a classic film noir, with ominous animated clouds moving behind sinister buildings. By day, it's an Italian neo-realist film (but with a sturdier tripod). 2
The performances are sensational. Lead Sam Wanamaker (The Criminal, Superman IV) is compelling as the life-loving bricklayer who desperately wants a wife. Even when given slightly expressionist actions to perform, he comes through. Lea Padovani is the soul of the film - the two of them easily give the best performances of 1949. Italian actress Padovani helps center the film on the Italian immigrant experience. They almost sent her back when they discovered she couldn't speak English, but she learned her part phonetically and kept the role. Kathleen Ryan plays the other woman faultlessly, adding a third classic noir performance to her work in Carol Reed's Odd Man Out and Cy Endfield's Try and Get Me!. 1
The supporting cast includes a number of great English talents, a couple of whom even slipped by the IMDB. 'Bill Sylvester' is William Sylvester, the actor known for his calm performance in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here he's lively and convincing as an Italian worker. And 'Nino Pastellides' is really George Pastell, the all-purpose middle-Easterner instantly recognizable from the later Hammer films The Mummy and The Stranglers of Bombay, and the Bond film From Russia With Love. Bonar Colleano is familiar as 'the American' in many English films, especially as a flyer in A Matter of Life and Death. Charles Goldner is a chameleon who steals as many scenes in this picture as he did in the Alec Guinness comedy, The Captain's Paradise.
Only the child actor portraying the bricklayer's eldest son betrays an English accent. Sidney James (Trapeze, Quatermass 2, the Carry On Movies) sounds like a Yank, instead of his usual Cockney. Scandinavian Karel Stepanek (Sink the Bismarck! does an excellent job as the owner of the house our hero tries to buy.
Director Edward Dmytryk made impressive films before the blacklist, like Crossfire and Murder My Sweet, and mostly CinemaScope junk afterwards. Potential classic Raintree County was ruined by blah camera direction and The Young Lions just looks cheap. Here, working in a foreign country before his sellout to the HUAC, he easily does his best work, both with the actors and with the camera. Angles and compositions are inspired and unforced, and the construction montages are amazing.
All Day's DVD of Christ in Concrete is their classiest presentation yet. The 35mm source element has some fine scratches and one slight splice, but is a sharp 35mm source given a very good encoding job. It's easy to appreciate the fine lighting and Benjamin Frankel's impressive score, which is isolated on a separate track, with commentary by original book author Pietro di Donato.
The other extras are a goldmine of insights and revelations. Norma Barzman, the screenwriter's widow, is the star attraction on a commentary shared with the author's son Richard de Donato, academic Fred Gardaphe, and All Day's own David Kalat, who keeps the sometimes boistrous ensemble on task. Richard explains how Christ in Concrete was his father's attempt to tell the story of his grandfather, who died in a Manhattan construction accident in the early 1920s. Fred positions the book as a key piece of literature in the Italian-American experience, that directly inspired the Neorealist movement. Norma's story of the Blacklist is one of the best first-hand accounts I've heard. Still fiery on the subject, she's an original 'progressive' from the 30s who has opinions on everything from Edward Dmytryk's commitment to leftist ideals, to movies about the blacklist, like Guilty by Suspicion. The group has a fascinating anecdote or fact to offer for every scene.
On side B of the disc are even more extras. Eli Wallach recites a spoken word opera version of Christ in Concrete by Harold Seletsky, from a 1965 record. A short featurette is an illustrated interview with Peter di Donato by film scholar Bill Wasserzieher. There are also some home movie videos of Pietro di Donato from the early 90s, text talent bios and a photo gallery that includes a rare poster or two, plus snapshots of the lone Manhattan theater that played the film late in 1949. For those even more curious, there's a wealth of documentation about the film's development, production and distribution (or lack thereof) in a DVD-Rom supplement.
Just when a reviewer gets complacent, along comes a major DVD find like Christ in Concrete, to take its place with All Day's 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse and Ganja and Hess, Anchor Bay's Queen of Hearts and Kino's Dementia/Daughter of Horror. Unlike the other titles, this stunning film is virtually unknown in cinema circles ... hopefully it won't be for long. The Blacklist nightmare appears to have been a Black Hole into which careers and films disappeared wholesale; Christ in Concrete makes us want to examine more movies between WW2 and the early 50s, to find more gems at the edge of the political abyss.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Give Us This Day rates:
Supplements: Commentary, spoken-opera recital, featurette, home videos, photo gallery.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June, 2003
1. Irish actress Kathleen Ryan played the downtrodden girlfriend of James Mason in the allegorical Odd Man Out, which ends with a mercy killing. In the equally allegorical Christ in Concrete, she's a Mary Magdalene character. In Try and Get Me!, Ryan plays the innocent suffering wife of an unemployed man who sinks into robbery and murder. Kathleen Ryan is the unsung angel of late 40s subversive cinema.
2. Participants in the supplemental commentary assert that all of the film's exteriors were done on interior sound stages, when they really look like well-shot exterior scenes. On one four-story set of a crumbling building being demolished, the claim is made that the hard one-shadow lighting was achieved by four massed arclights up in the corner of the stage. It's really tough to believe this, as there's no reason the sets couldn't have been built outdoors, in the space between the stages. But the wife of the screenwriter and the other experts seem very sure of themselves, and provide compelling details such as the fact that the London weather wasn't reliable enough to shoot outdoors. I've seen quad arclights at work - they don't throw hard shadows like these. But I'm not the lighting expert, and I wasn't there, they were ...
3. Christ in Concrete has some things in common with It's a Wonderful Life. There's a similar flashback structure, with the hero caught in a terrible bind. Then we go back ten years or so to see how it came about. The flashback functions well here, because as the enthusiastic couple work toward their dream house, we already know something's going to prevent them from getting it, and their happy life might go down in ruins. Just like the Capra film, there's a key scene where the distraught hero can't deal with a noisy house of kids, and takes his problems elsewhere to make a bad decision (jump off a bridge/see another woman). The telling difference is that Annunziata encourages Geremio to go off by himself to think, whereas Frank Capra has the loving Mary Bailey break character and send George Bailey away with a harsh rebuke.