There’s really no IMAGERY at all in this film, but look — a primordial Dean Stockwell!
“Be nice to the next Jew you meet, because he might be a gentile,” is how one friend characterized GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT, rather acidly, in which journalist Gregory Peck goes undercover as a Jew. This doesn’t involve the use of a big papier-mache head, as we used in NATAN (we had our reasons), but simply a bit of barefaced lying. The film means well, and director Elia Kazan does manage to get human hatpeg Peck to unclench very slightly, plus it has Dorothy McGuire and Celeste Holm. But it notably comes to life in scenes with actual Jewish characters (John Garfield, Sam Jaffe), actual antisemites, or both (self-hating Jew June Havoc). Which suggests that the plot device, rather than being an accessible way in to the story for middle America, may in fact be acting as a barrier between the subject and its emotional potential.
Plus it’s all very serious, despite being basically SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS. It never pokes fun at its earnest hero, who’s always right. It never really acknowledges that for all the tension he feels and humiliation he puts up with (in ONE SCENE), he has it dead easy compared to actual, genuine Jews, and that his ability to go back to his true identity at any instant rather lessens the burden he feels (think Pulp’s Common People). And nobody comments on the fact that his article, conceived as I Was Jewish for Six Months, finally appears as I Was Jewish for Eight Weeks. Time off for good behaviour?
An intriguing and cold frame about the distance between people — but Kazan doesn’t recognize it for what it is, thinks it’s just an establisher, and cuts to a cosy two-shot the second Garfield (right) sits down.
Kazan reckoned that he didn’t start shooting expressively until PANIC IN THE STREETS, and that’s borne out by the staid, static, medium-shot-heavy “photographs of people talking” approach on display here. The nice liberal story gets a nice, bland treatment. The performances do help, and Moss Hart’s placid script is entertaining in a gentle, trundling way, springing to something more like life whenever we get closer to the actual issue. Kazan admitted the film wasn’t unsettling and didn’t go deep, but at least the story idea allows a WASP into the drama, whereas his other race movie, PINKY, the story of a mixed-race girl passing as white, is totally compromised by the placing of white girl (and limited actress) Jeanne Crain in the lead. You can make valid points, but your credits sequence has already announced that you don’t entirely believe in any of them, or not as much as you believe in the law of box office.