No one who loved the race track as much as Martin Ritt did could be anything but an optimist. The realist and the pessimist tear up the tickets and walk away never to return. Ritt, who died Saturday morning of cardiac arrest at the age of 76, never lost his faith that the next horse was a sure winner, or that his next film could make a difference.
Socially, Ritt was an odd and admirable mixture of realist, optimist and idealist, all toned with a dark-voiced truculence. The director saw the real world with a hard-eyed candor and one of his finest films is “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” with Richard Burton as the doomed agent Lemass in that iciest of the Cold War dramas.
But Ritt also saw the good guys, or the good women, coming out ahead now and again, and his blend of social realism and ultimate hope made “Norma Rae” the best and most successful film of his later years. Sally Field as a defiant mill worker was a character dear to Ritt’s heart.
Like Winston Churchill, Ritt favored the one-piece coverall garments known in wartime as siren suits because you could get into them quickly when the air-raid sirens blew. For Ritt, the suit doubled as a convenience and as an implicit statement of his impatience with social conventions and tie-wearing conviviality. He was a very private man in a profession whose members occasionally vie with their stars for publicity.
Like many private people, he was intensely loyal to friends, who were often longtime colleagues and collaborators. His association with the husband-and-wife writing team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. was one of the longest and most productive in the industry.
It was a major regret to Ritt that their last collaboration, and his last film, “Stanley and Iris,” was a critical and commercial failure. Its theme--the solvable tragedy of adult illiteracy--was characteristic of his concern with social issues. But he and the Ravetches could look back on such honored films as “The Long Hot Summer,” “Hud,” “Hombre” and “Norma Rae.”
With another colleague and friend, producer Robert Radnitz, Ritt had done “Sounder,” which remains one of the best (and most successful) films about the black experience in America. “Cross Creek,” their film about writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, had a mixed response but it carried the inevitable Ritt hallmarks of impeccable craftsmanship, sensitive performances, and an appreciation of the influence of environment on character and lifestyle (captured in the fine images of another Ritt friend and collaborator, cinematographer John Alonzo).
Ritt was not alone among filmmakers in his insistence, born of his bone-deep liberal humanism, that movies ought to be about something and should ideally address the real world with some indication that good can prevail if good people will work at it. Like nearly all filmmakers, his efforts to achieve his vision often meant conflicts with controllers of the purse strings and, like nearly all filmmakers, he did not always win, as in the compromised ending and the starry (Jane Fonda, Robert DeNiro) but inappropriate casting of “Stanley and Iris.”
But Ritt won often enough to create an invaluable legacy of socially concerned dramas which have helped to define not only what the movies can do, but what they ought always to be doing, and can now do as a salute to the memory of a scrappy Hollywood warrior.