All My Sons (Irving Reis, USA, 1948)

A film of Arthur Miller´s famous play that made me think about Pauline Kael’s views on Long Day’s Journey Into Night, something like, ‘People argue about whether this is cinema or merely filmed theatre. I don’t care, whatever it is, it’s great’. The play, now considered a great American classics, opened to mix reviews in 1947, its run prolonged mainly by Brooks Atkinson´s appreciation in The New York Times which, according to Christopher Bigspy in Arthur Miller, ´welcomed a new talent and praised All My Sons as an honest and forceful drama, identifying Arthur Miller´s talent for unselfconscious dialogue, for creating characters as individuals with hearts and minds of their own (p.282). Word of mouth made it a hit, and in April of 1947 it won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award as best play over Eugene O´Neill´s The Iceman Cometh.

I saw the film in two stages. In the first, which amounted to the first act,  you’re introduced to the characters: Joe Keller (Edward G. Robinson), a rich industrialist who’d been taken to trial for manufacturing and shipping defective plane parts that caused the death of 21 airmen but found innocent by a jury; His wife Kate, (Mady Christians), warm, dutiful, and with a core strength, who nonetheless seems to be living in a fantasy world where horoscopes matter and her son Larry, a pilot who’s been missing in action for three years, is still alive; their other son, Chris (Burt Lancaster), back from the war, working with the Dad he seems to worship, and having fallen in love with Anne (Louisa Horton), who used to be Larry’s girl.

Watching the first part, it seemed to me that the film was going to be about Chris being able to marry Anne without sending Kate to an early grave. It had brilliant dialogue and the actor are magnificent. But it looked so dull. The direction is atrocious, like a film made by someone who knew nothing of the medium, the camera first using establishing shots and then merely following or focussing on whoever’s speaking next. I see that that’s not actually the case and that aside from filming many of the films in the Falcon series, Irving Reis also directed films that are still remembered including The Big Street (1942) Crack-up (1946 ), and The Batchelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947). But let’s just say he’s not a major visual stylist.

After I returned to the film, I saw the last two acts in one swoop, and it made me better understand those who go to cinemas to see filmed plays even without a live broadcast. This is such a great play and it seems more relevant now than ever. According to Kate Burford in her great biography of Lancaster, Burt Lancaster: An American Life, the film was made at a time when ‘the mistakes, chicanery and treachery of the home front’ during the war had become the stuff of daily postwar headlines. The New York Times would suggest that screenwriter Chester Erksine, had carefully deleted from the original play anything that might explicitly suggest that there are ‘faults in the capitalist system’ and had confined the drama to the greed of one man (Loc 1455 on Kindle). But what drama!

As the play unfolds, we find out that Anne, the girl Chris wants to marry ,is not only his brother’s ex but that her father is the man who’s taken the fall for sending defective equipment, and that Larry is not just missing in action but that he committed suicide out of shame for what his father had done. After worshipping him all his life, the son even raises his hands to the father, which when it’s Burt Lancaster raising it to Edward G. Robinson, is really something to see: ‘You can be better’, he tells him, ‘Once and for all you know that the whole earth comes in through those fences. That there’s a universe outside and you’re responsible for it’.  In the end the father realises that all those young airmen who died because he shipped defective equipment were also his children, thus the title, All My Sons.

 

The film might not be great cinema but it does offer the opportunity of seeing two great stars — Burt Lancaster and Edward G. Robinson — performing in one of the great plays of the era. The casting might at first seem incongruous: Burt Lancaster as Edward G. Robinson´s son? But movies have their own logic. They´re both movie stars and so they belong together, they share a consanguinity of stardom. Plus their differences in shapes and sizes also evoke something of the ideology of the era and the message of the play. The parents not too distant from the old country and the journey that brought them to America, building a base there so that the next generation can be safer, bigger, better, stronger; and then how that their focus rests so squarely on themselves and their immediate family blinds them to a larger community, to full citizenship and its inherent responsibilities.

I found passages in the film like the one above very moving. It´s the siren song of immigrant parents, the dream that gives their life strength, meaning and purpose. To hear a truly great actor like Edward G. Robinson say lines like this is, as you can see above, a thrill: ‘I want a clean start for you kid…I´m going to build you a house….I want you to use what I made for you …with joy not with shame. Sometimes I think you´re ashamed of the money…..Because it´s good money. There´s nothing wrong with that money´

 

 

Edward G. Robinson´s other aria, sparked by the moment when Burt Lancaster as the son begins to clock about his father´s actions on the line, ‘If you want to know ask Joe,’  I find unbearably moving, ‘Can´t you trust your own father? …. My own son…. Going behind my back’. The betrayal Joe feels, the hurt Chris knows he´s inflicting on someone he loves. The lashing out by the father. It´s familiarity crept up on me and its resonance moved me:   ‘I don´t have to explain. Not to you. You´re my son. You´re in it with me. My flesh and blood. You wear my clothes. Eat My Food. You live in my home. I don´t have to explain to you. If I´m guilty, then you´re guilty too’. And of course, it´s a thematic pivot: Joe´s actions have also become Chris´s responsibility. His very father tells him so.  And thus he must make his father answer.

Burt-hits-Edward-G

 

Burt Lancaster here plays the juvenile role. The quiet, All-American, typical boy next door. But Chris has been to the war. He´s survived it. And he´s now in love and wants a future. And he feels guilty, probably about both surviving the war and having fallen in love with his brother´s girl. Lancaster well conveys the sensitivity of Chris, his love for his father and his mother, the slow dawning that his father and therefore he himself is also responsible for what happened. He doesn´t offer the nuances or the bravado that Edward G. Robinson does. In much of the movie, he represents rather than acts. But the scene where he jumps on his father, the violence of an action both of them would have found unimaginable a few weeks before, is truly frightening and heart-breaking.

It´s also another part he´d had to fight for. According to Burford, ‘Ignoring (Hal) Wallis´doubts and Erskine´s protests that signing him was ´like casting Boris Karloff as a baby sitter,’ Lancaster pushed hard for the untough guy loanout part of Chris…’I wanted to play Chris Keller,’ he told one reporter, ‘because he had the courage to make his father realize that he was just as responsible for the deaths of many servicemen as if he had murdered them’. Happy for the chance to portray ‘an average guy — a solid character with high standards,’ his own best dream of himself, he insisted that his choice was a step forward in the direction he, not any studio, had chosen. The overnight star that Universal called ‘the hottest thing in pictures’ was not acting like one. ‘(Burford,  Kindle location 1466)

According to Christopher Bigsby in Arthur Miller, Miller himself derided the film, ´Watching the film forty years later, he found the result, starring Edward G. Robinson, a laughable melodrama that ought to be burned. His speeches had been re-written and all the subtleties blasted away(p.282)´ If so, he’s quite wrong. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a thrill to see great actors attack a great play like this. In the clip above, after Robinson has displayed his genius in the aria where he accepts responsibility it’s left up to Burt Lancaster to once more underline the theme of the play, the taking of responsibility : ‘It’s not enough to be sorry…you can be better….that’s there’s a universe outside and you’re responsible to i’ and then that great moment with the mother as she goes into the father’s room. It’s not a great movie. But I found the experience of watching it very moving.

 

The film is often described as a noir, which baffled me a bit. As you can see in the images there is noir lighting throughout, very effectively deployed, particularly in the scenes where Chris and Anne first kiss, their faces barely visible, the relationship haunted by the past and the actions of their parents, and there are more examples of that throughout the film (see examples below).

 

 

It didn´t seem to me to be a noir but I was perhaps stuck on it being an adaptation and overly focussing on noir in terms of recurrent techniques  (though see examples of Russell Metty´s superb noir cinematography above) or narrative conventions (though there are flashbacks). However, if one focusses on thematic and atmospheric attributes one might come to a different conclusion. According to Robert Sklar in Movie-Made America, ‘the hallmark of film noir is its sense of people trapped — trapped in a web of paranoia and fear, unable to tell guilt from innocence, true identity from false (p.253) ‘.  Thomas Schatz in Boom and Bust: Hollywood in the 1940s, notes that David Cook follows a similar tack, describing film noir as a ‘cinema of moral anxiety’ whose films thrived upon the unvarnished depiction of greed, lust, and cruelty because their basic theme was the depth of human depravity and the utterly unheroic nature of human beings.’ Cook notes that this style first emerged during the war but reached full maturity only with the paranoia, pessimism, and social angst of the postwar era(p.232).´

 

Seen that way, All My Sons is a noir. But more importantly, though not a great movie, it remains a great opportunity to see great actors perform in a great piece. I for one was surprised at how moving I found it.

 

Those interested in such things may want to look at the billing in the three posters at the top of this post. Edward G. Robinson is top billed in the first and second. This is before his career began to suffer from the blacklist almost from the time this film was released. You can see that Lancaster receives solo top billing in the third, poster, a historical erasure of both Robinson´s position in the industry then and what he brings to the role.

José Arroyo

 

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