The Big Wheezy

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Pneumonic plague in New Orleans — that’s the set-up for Elia Kazan’s tense drama PANIC IN THE STREETS (1950), which he claimed marked a turning point in his work. Having previously worked with the actors and filmed everything in medium shots — what Hitchcock would call “photographs of people talking” — here he decided to shoot it like a silent movie, to trust long shots and to try to make a story that could be understood without the words. I didn’t try watching it with the sound down, but the visuals are certainly a million times more dynamic than the staid GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT. (His first, A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, is an exception because DoP Leon Shamroy handled the visuals, which made for some powerful, expressive compositions.) And he decided to follow the influence of John Ford, and “trust the longshot,” instead of shooting everything in medium shot, what he called a “theatrical style,” what we would call a televisual one. Kazan was also building on the use of all-real locations, a fashionable approach at Fox, which he had first exploited in BOOMERANG! (1947). The result: Kazan has abruptly become a filmmaker.

If the filmmaking is exciting — the dance of cast and camera is thrillingly choreographed — the world-view is quite conservative. New Orleans has been ethnically cleansed for the occasion, with only a few black sailors to represent the city’s ethnic mix. Sure there are some immigrants, a Greek restaurateur and an Irish dwarf (the ultimate minority?), but the story contrasts a respectable suburban naval doctor (Richard Widmark) and a tough cop (Paul Douglas, partnered more comfortably with Widmark than he was with Leslie Phillips in THE GAMMA PEOPLE) with the various disease-harbouring low-lifes who must be tracked down, arrested and decontaminated. So I’d argue the comfortable middle-class viewpoint stops it being noir. On the other hand, the family scenes (with Barbara Bel Geddes) are nicely drawn, and cute. And the lowlifes — what lowlifes they are! (But shouldn’t that be “lowlives”?)

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“Walter” Jack Palance (he would soon drop the first name) and Zero Mostel make a remarkable team. Palance, especially sinewy here, basically lost a layer of fat when burned in WWII. Mostel seems to have inherited that layer. The two men, one lean, impossibly dynamic and snarling, the other baggy, perspiring and whimpering, almost manage drag the movie down into the sewer where a good noir should live. You can practically see the germs swarming around them. Palance shoves and rolls Mostel before him, then drags him. The highly physical chase sequence at the end looks about to kill both men, though it isn’t as hair-raising as the opening, where Kazan has Patient Zero (Lewis Charles) wander in front of an oncoming train, for real, escaping messy death by seconds.

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Perhaps aptly, Kazan cast himself as a mortuary assistant.

This criminous double-act reminds me oddly of the cat and fox in  PINOCCHIO — ridiculous in themselves, they are nevertheless capable of bringing great harm.

Mostel has a dual role, as goofy cat to Palance’s wily fox, and as conscience to Kazan. I suspect every pre-testimony Kazan film features at least one incipient blacklistee, haunting the scene. Mostel is paunchy wraith from the future.

 

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10 Responses to “The Big Wheezy”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    Barbara Bel Geddes telling husband Widmark she’s pregnant anticipates the scene in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, which was directed on stage by Kazan, where Maggie — first played by Bel Geddes — tells her husband of her own pregnancy.

  2. It sure didn’t take long for her to find the wife-and-mother roles! I think she’s cute as a button and very sympathetic, but somewhere up above somebody decided she was no sexpot.

  3. “The result: Kazan has abruptly become a filmmaker.”

    Then when he was preparing “On the Waterfront” Gadge became creep.

    Or more to the point fully realized himself as a creep.

    Zero’s was one of the names he named.

  4. And he worked with John Garfield in Gentleman’s Agreement, which also casts a kind of non-diegetic pall.

    Kazan was clearly very bright. His arguments about why he testified are dumb, and don’t even make sense. So we have to assume they’re insincere constructs and the real reasons are things he wasn’t prepared to face or admit.

  5. chris schneider Says:

    Re “no sexpot” … reputedly, what Kazan was interested in, at least directorially, was choosing a “nice girl” and discovering the unexpected sexpot therein. Which is, of course, worlds away from what happened with Richard Brooks and Taylor. Perhaps this attitude can be seen in Kazan’s work with Lee Remick.

  6. He certainly got a sexiness from Remick that’s shockingly overt, though she’s not exactly icy in Anatomy of a Murder.

  7. For the real story of why and how Gadge finked-out READ THIS BOOK.

  8. Matthew Davis Says:

    I’ve just been reading Daniel Fuch (one of the screenwriters) this week. In later years he wrote a number of memoir/essays about his career as 1930s Social Realism underselling novelist and his pragmatic decision to make a career in Hollywood. He seems to be a rare example of a screenwriter who came to a reasonable accommodation with his role in the studio system of the 30s, 40s, and 50s.

    Many of them were written for Commenatary magazine, who’ve made them available at:

    https://www.commentarymagazine.com/author/daniel-fuchs/

    The better essay is a 1962 one, in which he’s rather circumspect about naming Faulker, Jack Warner, Sam Spiegel, et al. In a rather round-about poetic fashion he pre-empts Goldman’s “Nobody knows anything” dictum. But for Fuchs the reward is that so many people are engage communally, each bringing their experience and talent to make something better and worthwhile for the audience.

    ” I used to stand in front of the theater and look at their loose, yielding faces, and wonder what kind of pictures could be given to them; if it was possible to reach them in any important, meaningful way; if it even made sense to try….And yet the exasperating dilemma remained that what you were to give the audience was a quantity really indefinable, ephemeral, everlastingly elusive. Here was the heart of the problem, the problem which was to plague and occupy me in all my time in the studios. It lay at the bottom of the commotion that went on in these places. It accounted for much of the puzzling behavior—the excesses, the hi-jinks, the strife and alarms, the wild, demented flights. It was a tantalizing, almost constantly frustrating pursuit, and the movie people gave themselves over to it with a tenacity that amounted to a kind of devotion.”

    Another essay from 1989 names names but is rather more piecemeal.

  9. That’s lovely. And he has quite a list of credits.

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