Elia Kazan has been called the movies' greatest director of American actors, but the 15 films in Fox's Elia Kazan Collection make a compelling case that the description actually underestimates his talents. By Kazan's own admission, some of his early films were little more than filmed theater, executed with the skills he had honed in the Group Theater and at the Actors Studio. But there was a point at which, as Martin Scorsese puts it in "A Letter to Elia," his hour-long appreciation of Kazan's contributions to the art form, "a director became a filmmaker."
Kazan himself put that point at 1952, the year he testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, naming several of his former Group Theater colleagues as members of the Communist Party. Kazan had been a Communist himself, but he broke with the party after a humiliating episode in which he was labeled a "foreman," which is to say neither a worker nor a boss.
After his HUAC testimony, Kazan was an outsider again, this time for good. When he received an honorary Oscar nearly a half century later, some prominent Hollywood leftists pointedly sat on their hands rather than honor a man they saw as a traitor to the cause. (In fact, Kazan's crime was not testifying — others did that, some more enthusiastically — but justifying himself, via a full-page ad in the New York Times, and never apologizing for his acts.)
"On the Waterfront," written by Budd Schulberg, another cooperative witness, has often been read, with no small degree of contortion, as an apologia for Kazan's testimony. But more resonant than dockworker Marlon Brando turning on Lee J. Cobb's corrupt union boss are the final images of men returning to work, the door slamming shut behind them as if to close the book on Kazan's past.
Gathering every feature Kazan made between 1945 and 1963, including five not previously released on DVD, in a handsome two-volume set that also includes an illustrated coffee-table book, the collection fills some major gaps in his body of work, especially toward its end. Considering the familiarity of Kazan's best-known films — "Waterfront," "East of Eden," "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "A Face in the Crowd," for starters — it's hard to imagine one of his greatest could have been almost forgotten.
But a single viewing of 1960's "Wild River" confirms that. With its vivid colors and engrossing CinemaScope compositions, "Wild River" is visually enthralling in a manner more characteristic of contemporaries like Nicholas Ray and Vincente Minnelli than Kazan.
Starring Montgomery Clift as a point man for the Tennessee Valley Authority and Jo Van Fleet as an iron-willed matriarch unwilling to let her ancestral land be flooded, "Wild River" is a devastating account of the cost of progress. Clift's character, who becomes involved in a passionate romance with Van Fleet's widowed granddaughter, played by Lee Remick, is a charismatic advocate for modernization (including desegregation), but there's something mildly satanic about him as well. His lofty goals are thoroughly mingled with self-interest, a gospel of reduced idealism he preaches to Van Fleet: "Sometimes it happens that we can't remain true to our principles without hurting maybe a great many people."
Although they have ideals, Kazan's characters tend to be driven by more primal needs. When Remick discusses her longing for her dead husband, she throws herself onto the bed they once shared; later, she caresses the stock of his rifle. Brando, James Dean in "East of Eden," Carroll Baker in "Baby Doll": their lusts drive them in ways they can't articulate. ( Andy Griffith's populist demagogue in "A Face in the Crowd" is all id.) Kazan's brand of Method acting gave outlet to such inchoate emotions, although at a distance it seems as stylized as the style it replaced.
With that understood, it's easier to see the road to "America, America," the set's final film and its other major revelation. (For the moment, neither film is available individually.) Opening with first-person voice-over by Kazan, the film draws heavily on his paternal uncle's journey from Turkey, where he was part of a persecuted Greek minority, to the U.S. The cast is a hodgepodge of nationalities and backgrounds, and the abrupt swerve into the style of Italian neorealism leaves Kazan without some of his most valuable tools. But his eye for working-class faces, the kind so few others turn their cameras toward, is unerring.
Great as he was with actors, some of the most striking moments Kazan captured come from those who don't seem to be acting at all.