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February 12, 2006

Three by Martin Ritt


The Black Orchid
Martin Ritt - 1959
Paramount Pictures Region 1 DVD


The Brotherhood
Martin Ritt - 1968
Paramount Pictures Region 1 DVD


The Molly Maguires
Martin Ritt - 1970
Paramount Pictures Region 1 DVD

Crawling up my queue of films to see were these three titles directed by Martin Ritt. I saw Hombre at the time of its theatrical release and found it pretentious. As Andrew Sarris did not consider Ritt worthy of even a sentence in The American Cinema, and only listed three of his films in the bottom rungs of their respective release years, I saw no reason to make a point of seeing his films. The only reason I saw Sounder had to do with my religiously seeing every film nominated for Best Picture. I saw Ritt's debut film, Edge of the City in a class at NYU and had to admit to myself that it was pretty good. I saw The Front due to my interest in the Hollywood blacklist, knowing that co-star Zero Mostel was blacklisted, but not knowing how personal the film was for Ritt and screenplay author Walter Bernstein. The later films with the unlikely muse of Sally Field as well as Cross Creek with Mary Steenburgen brought out the best in Ritt's filmmaking abilities.

I don't know how much of what's best in The Molly Maguires is due to screenwriter Walter Bernstein or cinematographer James Wong Howe. There are several dialogue free scenes with the fluid camera visually informing the audience about the life of Pennsylvania coal miners in 1876. Several shots take advantage of framing devices such as windows and fences. Released in early 1970, The Molly Maguires was a major flop, regarded as old-fashioned and unfashionable. The casting of Richard Harris and Sean Connery made no difference to the box office. Like several of his films, Ritt examines the "American dream" for those whom it is out of reach. In this film about Irish immigrants, Connery is the rebellious worker seeking justice for those who are both literally and socially at the bottom. Harris is the undercover detective who finds himself caught between sympathy with the miners' goals and his own need for success, even at the expense of others. Thematically, The Molly Maguires is most obviously similar to Norma Rae as a look at labor in America. It is also one of Ritt's best films in terms of visual composition, both in positioning of actors and use of color.

Right after The Black Orchid, screenwriter Joseph Stefano wrote the screenplay for Psycho, while cinematographer Robert Burks shot North by Northwest. The Black Orchid looks much worse in comparison to those two Alfred Hitchcock assignments. The only reason to watch the film now is to see two forces of nature, Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren, together. Loren is the widow of a small-time criminal pursued by Quinn, overcoming the obstacles involving his daughter and her son. The film comes off as a contrived look at Italian-Americans, that tries to be a slice of life, but looks more like a slice of baloney.

Did Mario Puzo see The Brotherhood? The film came out the year before Puzo's bestselling novel was published. The failure of the earlier film made Paramount uneasy about the prospects for Francis Ford Coppola's film with its expanding scope and budget. One can see several elements that are shared in both films. Lewis John Carlino continued to explore organized crime in other screenplays. Even with location shooting in Sicily and New York City, the film is not particularly involving. This is a tourist's view of organized crime families, distant and faintly exotic. I don't remember which documentary used clips of The Brotherhood to explain how it inspired the use of a cast and crew of Italian descent for The Godfather. If it has no other value, it seems that at least once, with The Brotherhood, Hollywood proved it could learn from one of its mistakes.

Posted by peter at February 12, 2006 05:16 PM


I saw "The Molly Maguires" ages ago, and I remember thinking the movie was dull but amazingly beautiful to look at. You didn't mention Samantha Eggar, another redhead who photographed beautifully in color.

That has got to be one of the funniest stills of Kirk Douglas I have ever seen. I always read that he was a meddlesome sort on the set. So how the hairdresser avoided getting killed when Douglas saw what he did to him is a mystery.

I see its flaws, but I really like "The Front." Mostel is so good in it. Sarris didn't mention any Ritt at all? Not even "Hud" or "Hombre"? and "The Long Hot Summer" is way up on my list of guilty melodramatic pleasures.

Posted by: Campaspe at February 19, 2006 09:58 PM

I should have mentioned Eggar, although for a poor miner's daughter, she looked way too glamorous.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at February 19, 2006 11:49 PM

You are absolutely right, Eggar was too gorgeous for the part. Reminds me of Adrian Lyne's supposed remark on Jennifer Beals: "God! Of COURSE a girl who looked like that wouldn't be working as a welder!"

Posted by: Campaspe at February 22, 2006 08:06 PM