Wednesday, October 6, 2010

A [Love] Letter to Elia and Panic in the Streets (1950) at the Brattle

Last Tuesday, Kevin and I got to see the Martin Scorsese documentary, A Letter to Elia, at the Brattle followed by a screening of Kazan's Panic in the Streets (1950). I really wanted to write this post last week but I didn't have a chance. I especially wanted to write about it before PBS showed the documentary (last night), but alas life got in the way. If you didn't get a chance to see the documentary last night, no worries. It'll be available in the super ultra mega sexy Elia Kazan Collection that's coming out in November (which I will plonk down hard cash for). And I'm sure PBS will show the documentary again.

In A Letter to Elia, Martin Scorsese delivers a beautiful and touching tribute to Kazan, the director who inspired him and whose work moved him. Scorsese and Kazan became close friends towards the end of Kazan's life. Scorsese made sure that he was by his side when Kazan was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar award at the 1999 Academy Awards. If you remember that ceremony, Kazan got a lot of grief from people in the audience who were still not too happy about his involvement in the HUAC and for ratting out other communists. At this point in the documentary, I got a bit teary eyed. The fact that Scorsese stood by Kazan's side and gave him a big embrace publicly supporting his controversial friend moved me. I really believe that this documentary should have been called A Love Letter to Elia because that is what it was: a love letter directed by Scorsese for Kazan.

Scorsese's love for Kazan and his work goes back far into Scorsese's childhood. As a teenage, he followed Kazan's East of Eden (1955) from cinema to cinema. Scorsese takes the audience through one scene in which the James Dean character visits his mother at a brothel. Having seen this film some time ago, I didn't remember the scene, or even the film, as anything special but when Scorsese broke down the complex layers of the scene, the lighting, the cinematography, the acting, the significance to the plot, all elements that a director would choreograph with his crew, it made East of Eden seem nothing short of genius!

Scorsese's passion for East of Eden made me wonder about what it meant to be a fan of a single film. I mean truly a fan. Then I thought of the films that I "follow". There is Metropolis (1927) which I have seen in various versions, at the HFA, at the Coolidge Corner Theater, at home, on my computer and soon I'll be seeing it again and this time with live musical accompaniment. It's a film I want to keep watching over and over and over again. Then there is Out of the Past (1947). The reason I'm a classic film fan. The inspiration for this blog. The main source of my love for Robert Mitchum. The most confusing yet enchanting film I've ever seen. I've counted the number of cigarettes in the movie, I gave the main character a profile, I've shared it with friends, I've kept it to myself, it's the foundation upon which I build my love for movies.

What I enjoyed about the documentary what that this was Scorsese's personal perspective on the life and work of Elia Kazan. Because this little blog of mine, is all about the personal perspective so I really love it when people share their own. We get to see Kazan through Scorsese's eyes. And because Scorsese had such admiration for the man, we start to develop some admiration for him too. It was fitting that I went to see this with my good friend Kevin who just happens to be a Kazan expert. He gave a lecture about Kazan back in 2007, which I attended and prepared for by doing a marathon of Kazan film viewings. And even though I met Kevin during his Film Noir class, it was really after the Kazan lecture when we started to bond and become friends.

The documentary was followed by a screening of Panic in the Streets (1950), one of my favorite noirs. Keeping in mind some of what Scorsese said about Kazan in the documentary, I paid close attention to details in the film that I could possibly attribute to Kazan. The pacing, the camera angles, the set-up of the shots, the choreography of the final chase scene, etc. Something I noticed in this viewing that I hadn't in past ones, was how the gigantic Jack Palance was positioned over very small and diminutive characters. The contrast exemplified his character's power and the level of control he exerted over everyone around him. Everyone looks up to him, not because he's a good person but because he physically and symbolically towers over them.

I learned recently was that Panic in the Streets is now in the public domain. Which means you can watch the entire film on your computer thanks to Internet Archive. But between you and me, this film, and any other Kazan classic, begs to be seen on the big screen. It's the way Scorsese fell in love with Kazan films and it's really the best way to watch any classic movie.


  1. ah yes, Martin Scorsese - one of the finest, if not THE finest, filmmakers of his time and also probably the most ardent, passionate and knowledgable film lover living today. i truly enjoy listening to Marty talk about the films he loves and he's had an enormous infulence on where my film tastes have lead, that's for sure! he is directly responsible for my interest in John Garfield (i have yet to do a blog tribute to him, for shame!!!) simply because of the line in Mean Streets where Harvey Keitel quoted from Pride of the Marines, lol! i wanted to know where it came from and ironically it was Kazan's Gentleman's Agreement that was my introduction to John Garfield on film.
    i too saw the oscar show when kazan got his award. what i saw was a very tired and nervous old man and i too was touched by Scorsese's devotion and admiration. watching them onstage together, it was so crystal clear that Scorsese idolized and loved that man.
    none of us can know what it was like to be in one of those HUAC trials. it was scary stuff, people panicked, people went to prison, poeple couldnt work, it was madness. makes a person do things they might not do under normal circumstances but regardless, Kazan's work speaks for itself and has more than stood the test of time. The influence of his work is certainly beyond calculation. think about the 2 main actors he helped bring into prominence - Brando and Dean and think about their influence alone! then think about method acting in general, Kazan probably more than anyone else brought the method to the forefront and people like Paul Newman, Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel, Daneil Day Lewis, Ed Norton and Ed harris (who if i recall, remained seated during Kazan's ovation at the oscars) and so many others all owe a debt to him.
    luckily, several years ago i got to see Waterfront and Streetcar on the big screen and it was a treat for sure.
    i can so totally relate to what you say about following or studying certain films and how another persons insights can lead to an even deeper appreciation than you already had. case in point: when i read Donald Spoto's incredible critical analysis of the films of Alfred Hitchcock at age 18 or so, it simply gave my appreciation and understanding a whole new dimension and helped me in my own studying of films in the future. ditto for Scorsese's passionate, insightful analysis on the "Force of Evil" video release. i could go on all day but i've babbled enough, great post Quelle! thank you :D

  2. It's interesting to read about a director who was an influence on Scorsese. A few months ago, the library in my hometown had a showing of "On the Waterfront." Wish I could've been there. Saw it on screen at the Depression-era, art deco theatre in my hometown several years ago. It really needs to be watched on the big screen.

    Thanks for the tip about "Panic in the Streets." I will have to look it up.


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