One of the first classics by Elia Kazan.
Synopsis: A reporter pretends to be Jewish in order to cover a story on anti-Semitism, and personally discovers the true depths of bigotry and hatred. (IMDB)
Starring: Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, and John Garfield
Writer: Moss Hart
Director: Elia Kazan
Rating: PG (Canada)
Running Time: 118mins
Philip Green (Peck) is a highly respected writer who is recruited by a national magazine to write a series of articles on anti-Semitism in America. He’s not too keen on the series, mostly because he’s not sure how to tackle the subject; his best articles were always written from his own experiences, even if he needed to submit himself to them to write with property. Then it dawns on him: if he was to pretend to all and sundry that he was Jewish, he could then experience the degree of racism and prejudice that exists and write his story from that perspective. It takes little time for him to experience bigotry. His anger at the way he is treated also affects his relationship with Kathy Lacy (McGuire), his publisher’s niece and the person who suggested the series in the first place.
After World War II was over, American audiences were looking for more substantial material than just escapism. Films about real social subjects were gaining interest fast. It wasn’t something that was only happening in the U.S.; Italian Neo-Realism was a very strong artistic school that influenced artists in America. It didn’t really change the look of American films (Neo-Realism films were shot on location and had a very documentary feel to them) but it helped bringing a sense of realism and social commentary that was mostly lacking in American cinema. It actually started and entire new genre, the “Socially relevant” films, which “The Best Years of Our Lives”, “The Snake Pit” and “Pinky” are some early examples. 20th Century Fox was especially invested in those pictures and was responsible for many of them, including “Gentleman’s Agreement”.
This is a very good film that has somewhat aged over time but still maintains many of its strengths. Philip starts understanding what anti-Semitism really is right from the start: the way people look at him, the way they feel unease around him, how uncomfortable things get. He is looked down, talked about, shun from places. The strongest scene in the film is when he confronts the manager of a hotel that does not accept Jews – without saying it clearly, of course.
The most important aspect of this film is how it gets one message across very clearly: once you see how intolerance acts, you can’t go back. You may look away if you want, you can even close your eyes to it, but it will always be there, so it is our choice to do something about it or let it keep happening if we think it doesn’t hurt us. But what kind of world are we really building if we choose to look away? It should enrage us, it should make us fight as hard as we can against it. Especially since intolerance also works in insidious ways; sometimes it is just a small “joke”, a little comment or even a wordless reaction that we might dismiss because it is easier than creating a situation over something so “small”. But if we are all silent to what we know is wrong we are perpetrating it.
At the time of this film’s release, Elia Kazan had not yet received his genius status (that would happen in the 50’s) but his strongest asset is already in display here in that he was simply a master in directing actors. Peck is a great lead and it is noticeable some traces of Atticus Finch were created here, especially in his relationship with his son; Mcguire, never a very acknowledged actress had probably the best performance of her career, and she is quite strong in her scenes. Anne Revere is always a perfect mother and she does well with the few scenes she has.
The two strongest performances come from Garfield as Dave Goldman, the Jewish best friend who faces the prejudice with his head held up high and Celeste Holm, wonderful in her small number of scenes. Her performance, which won her an Oscar for best supporting actress, is very well balanced. Celeste was a master in reaction shots, her face and especially her eyes were always shedding her soul to us and she does it brilliantly here. Her character is the liberal friend, full of big gestures and with the biggest heart. But she’s also in love with Philip, and her silent reactions to his indifference are heartbreaking. She has a great monologue closer to the end that gives her plenty of room to impress (and lock that Oscar down).
Overall, Gentleman’s Agreement has its problems: in a lot of times the story stops so the actors can preach us about the horrors of prejudice. That happens a lot, but the cast is so extraordinary that one might just forgive that minor mistake. It’s really a great film.
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