'Elia Kazan Collection' A Must-Have For Film Fans The late director Elia Kazan had a profound influence on American film in the decades after World War II. Critic John Powers says a new box set featuring 15 of his films, including On the Waterfront and Wild River, is a "terrific collection anchored by some of the most mythic performances in film history."
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'Elia Kazan Collection' A Must-Have For Film Fans

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'Elia Kazan Collection' A Must-Have For Film Fans

'Elia Kazan Collection' A Must-Have For Film Fans

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The late theater and film director Elia Kazan had a profound influence on America in the decades after World War II. One of those he touched was filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who says that Kazan inspired him to make movies. Scorsese has selected the Kazan films that are included in a new DVD set called the "Elia Kazan Collection." In addition to familiar classics, like "On The Waterfront," the collection includes Scorsese's cinema essay "Letter to Elia," and five Kazan films never before available on DVD, such significant titles as "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," "Viva Zapata!" and "America, America."

Our critic-at-large John Powers says this is one collection that's as exciting for the films you don't know as for the ones you do.

JOHN POWERS: It's one of life's teasing truisms that artists' landmark works aren't necessarily their best ones.�A good example of this is Elia Kazan, one of the defining - and polarizing - figures in post-war American culture.�Not only did Kazan help revolutionize the theater, he forever changed the movies, ushering in a whole new era of screen acting.�He worked with the holy trinity of Method dreamboats - Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and James Dean - and he launched the likes of Warren Beatty, Lee Remick and Eva Marie Saint.

The trajectory of Kazan's career has now been charted in "The Elia Kazan Collection," a box set featuring 15 of his key films. It's a terrific collection anchored by some of the most mythic performances in film history: Brando and Vivien Leigh in "A Streetcar Named Desire," Brando again in "On the Waterfront" - he could've been a contender - and, of course, Dean in "East of Eden," a groundbreaking performance so quirkily histrionic in its vulnerability that, seen through today's wised-up eyes, Dean appears to be acting in a story by Kafka, not Steinbeck.

These are films that everyone should see.�But for me, the true pleasure of this set lies in other, lesser-known films that I actually like better. The finest is "Wild River," a 1960 film set in the Tennessee Valley during the 1930s.� Clift plays Chuck Glover, a young federal administrator who's been sent to get an ornery old matriarch - that's Jo Van Fleet - to leave her plantation before it's flooded. He winds up getting romantically involved with her widowed granddaughter, who's played by Remick with such intense purity of emotion - and such blueness of eye - that she takes your breath away.

Here, Glover tells the old lady that the TVA dams will give everyone electricity, but she's not buying it.

(Soundbite of movie, "Wild River")

Ms. JO VAN FLEET (Actor): (as Ella Garth) I expect that's what you call progress, isn't it?

Mr. MONTGOMERY CLIFF (Actor): (as Chuck Glover) And you don't.

Ms. VAN FLEET: (as Ella Garth) No, sir. I don't. Taking away people's souls, putting electricity in place of them - ain't progress, not the way I see it.

Mr. CLIFF: (as Chuck Glover) It - we're not taking away people's souls, just the opposite. We're giving them a chance to have a soul. And it isn't just this dam. It's dam after dam after dam. We aim to tame this whole river.

Ms. VAN FLEET: (as Ella Garth) You do? Well, I like things running wild, like nature meant. There's already enough dams locking things up, taming them, making them go against their natural wants and needs. I'm against dams of any kind.

POWERS: Kazan always had a fondness for cussed characters like that, no doubt because he was one himself. He was born of Anatolian Greek parents who emigrated to the U.S. when he was four. It was a difficult life that made him a difficult man. In his great autobiography, "A Life," he wrote that he woke up mad every single day. But his experience gave him an immigrant's sense of America - its possibilities and its harsh realities - and this lead him to big, juicy American stories, usually with serious social themes.

Kazan tackled everything from anti-Semitism in "Gentleman's Agreement" to public health in "Panic in the Streets," a terrific New Orleans noir starring Richard Widmark as a military doctor who's trying to run down a gang of crooks infected with plague.�My favorite of these social pictures is "A Face in the Crowd," a riveting, nasty 1957 movie about a demagogic TV star played with sinister brilliance by an Andy Griffith you'd never let around Opie.�You can foresee today's media culture in every frame.

Although Kazan could be a clunky director, he made great use of locations, boasted a gritty sense of reality and guided actors into unfamiliar psychological depths. He was superb at exploring personal relationships, be it the love between father and daughter in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," exquisitely acted by James Dunn and Peggy Ann Garner, or the immigrant ruthlessness of the hero in "America, America." Based on his own uncle's story, this fiercely unsentimental movie follows a young man who does what it takes - and it takes cruel things - to make it from Anatolia to American soil.

Bursting with chutzpah, Kazan himself did whatever it took to make it big in America.�Even as he enjoyed the fruits of success - he was a man who bragged about his sexual conquests - he joined in the Red Scare of the '50s, naming names in his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee.� Although this tainted his own name in Hollywood to this day, it also made his subsequent movies far more interesting. Not coincidentally, his most powerful work is "On the Waterfront," the story of an ex-boxer turned longshoreman -Brando's Terry Malloy - who informs on corrupt union bosses.

In one of that film's most beautiful scenes, Terry and his girl - played by Eva Marie Saint - are up on a rooftop where Terry keeps pigeons. He tells her the city is full of hawks. They hang around on the top the big hotels, he says, and when they spot a pigeon in the park, they pounce.

It's one measure of what made Kazan such a dominating figure that, more than half a century later, it's hard to be sure who he identified with more: the victimized pigeons or the predatory hawks.

BIANCULLI: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and Vogue.com. He reviewed "The Elia Kazan Collection," now out on DVD.

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