« Dean's List - The Matt Helm Series | Main | The Wolves »

September 04, 2008

Give Us this Day

give us this day 1.jpg

Edward Dmytryk - 1949
Allday Entertainment Region 1 DVD

On the occasion of Edward Dmytryk's 100th Birthday.

Is now the time to give Edward Dmytryk a full reevaluation? Are we distant enough from the past events? I know that for myself, I feel a greater sympathy for the one member of the Hollywood Ten who recanted to reclaim his career if only because I understand in my own life how one makes a variety of compromises to pay the bills, and exchange ideals for a sense of security. While I have not seen most of Dmytryk's films, I have seen enough to agree with the majority opinion that he was a better filmmaker prior to his post-blacklist return to Hollywood.

Give Us this Day may be Dmytryk's finest film, where art and political ideals came together in a portrait of the corruption of the American dream. One of the interesting bits of the commentary, actually a dialogue that includes the son of the novel's author and the widow of the screenplay writer, is that there was previous interest in Pietro DiDonato's novel, Christ in Concrete by some more celebrated directors. The original project was set up at one point for Roberto Rossellini, and then Luchino Visconti. DiDonato bluntly refused Frank Capra. It was seeing Crossfire that convinced DiDonato that Edward Dmytryk was the man to make a film from his novel. As it turned out, it was also Crossfire that inflamed several members of the United States Congress, with producer Adrian Scott and director Dmytryk named as two of the Hollywood Ten. Unsurprisingly, this pessimistic story about America was made in England, and was barely released in the United States.

give us this day 2.jpg

Spanning a period of about ten years, from 1921 through the early years of the Great Depression, Give Us this Day is primarily in the form of an extended flashback. Geremio looks back upon the circumstances that brought him to a state of crisis on his birthday. A brick layer by trade, Geremio finds his life a battle to fulfill the dreams for himself and his immigrant wife, Annuziata, and his growing family. Work is sporadic, and the goal of buying a home is the main source of motivation. It is just on the eve of the Depression that the possibility of buying the home suddenly is out of reach. Bringing in a few dollars by shoveling snow, Geremio accepts the position of foreman on a dangerous construction project in order to support himself and his family. On the night of his birthday, Geremio confronts the reality that he has betrayed his wife, his friends, and his own ideals.

I was hoping to read DiDonato's semi-autobiographical novel before seeing the film again. From what I understood from the commentary, it was the British censor who asked for the title change as well as other changes that caused the religious aspects of the novel to be virtually eliminated. Two moments of visual symbolism stand out - in the opening sequence of the film, Geremio strikes his hand against the arrow shaped end of a fence, creating a self-inflicted stigmata, while the end of the film shows Geremio with his arms extended outward while drowning in wet concrete. The other significant points are the name of Annuziata, from Annunciation, and Geremio's death on Good Friday.

Screenwriter Ben Barzman may have also brought out the best in Dmytryk. This film and Back to Bataan are visually Dmytryk's strongest work. Shorn of the title montage of New York City street scenes, Give Us this Day almost resembles a horror movie, with Sam Wanamaker stumbling through the empty slum streets at night, foreboding clouds in the sky. Give Us this Day also serves as the flip side to Back to Bataan. While the 1945 film attempts to justify the importation of American democracy and ideal to Filipinos, Give Us this Day is about those who came to the United States in search of the imagined America only to find themselves marginalized. Both films are linked by the themes of idealism and betrayal, and the brutality sometimes required for survival.

The availability of Dmytryk's films on DVD is still spotty. I am hoping especially to see one of his early post-blacklist films, The Sniper, just for the opportunity to see virulent Commie hater, Adolphe Menjou as Police Lt. Frank Kafka. Also unavailable is Where Love has Gone with the triple threat casting of Bette Davis, Susan Hayward and Joey Heatherton. And while the rest of the film may have only fleeting resemblance to the novel, Dmytryk will be remembered for his association with the best opening credits sequence created by Saul Bass.

give us this day 3.jpg

Posted by peter at September 4, 2008 12:23 AM

Comments

What an incredible post. I think I mentioned that I had started reading Dmytryk's autobiography, which is OP but not hard to find on places like Alibris. I had put it aside temporarily. As I put it aside for Little Dorrit it may be a while before I finish. But this is zooming to the top of the Netflix queue.

Have you ever checked out Raymond de Felitta's blog, Movies Til Dawn? He was mentored by Dmytryk at AFI, which must have been quite the experience. He mentions Dmytryk's habits and aphorisms from time to time, as here:

http://moviestildawn.blogspot.com/2008/07/city-island-production-day-1-of-28.html

He also talked about him in comments on my Clift post:

http://selfstyledsiren.blogspot.com/2007/10/on-manliness-of-montgomery-clift.html

I am hoping to see Raymond at some point this fall (we have a mutual friend) and I'm going to urge him to do a full post about Dmytryk.

Posted by: Campaspe at September 11, 2008 12:54 PM

Thanks for the links. I was hoping to read Dmytryk's autobiography but it's not available at the Denver Public Library. What is interesting is that while Ben Barzman was blacklisted, Norma Barzman indicated no ill will towards Dmytryk in the commentary track. While the political aspects cannot be avoided, I hope that Dmytryk gets a more complete, and fair, evaluation on the quality of his work on screen.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at September 12, 2008 09:11 AM

The earliest extended commentaries on "Christ in Concrete" were by Professor Peter Bondanella and me and were published in RSA: Rivista di Studi Anglo-Americani 4-5 (1984-5), pp.227-256. The commentaries are in English.

Posted by: Harry Geduld at January 11, 2009 11:02 AM