Elia Kazan | Subjects | Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style | Rankings

Films: Boomerang | Gentleman's Agreement | Panic in the Streets | On the Waterfront | East of Eden

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Elia Kazan

Elia Kazan is an American film and stage director.

Kazan's films have ties to the Semi-Documentary Film. Readers can follow the link, to my chart showing these films and their characteristics.

Elia Kazan: Subjects

Science and Social Change: Subjects: Locales:

Elia Kazan: Structure and Story Telling

Semi-Documentary (Please see my chart Semi-documentary crime films for a list of Semi-documentary films and their key characteristics.):

Elia Kazan: Visual Style

Architecture: Camera Movement:


Here are ratings for various films directed by Elia Kazan. Everything at least **1/2 is recommended. The ratings go from one to four stars.



Several of Elia Kazan's films are related to the Semi-Documentary Crime Film paradigm. Boomerang (1947) is a true crime story. It was actually produced by Louis de Rochemont, who previously produced Henry Hathaway's semi-documentaries. It is set not in an underworld, however, but in Connecticut suburbs. It is shot on the authentic locations, and takes us inside prosecutor's offices. It has little of the look inside great institutions of the other semi-doc films, however, being very low key and suburban. In my judgment it is dull.

Gentleman's Agreement

Kazan's Gentleman's Agreement (1947) is not usually regarded as a member of the Semi-Documentary Crime Film, and with good reason: it is a fictional tale not about a policeman, but about a magazine writer who does an expose about Anti-Semitism. However, this classic film, which won the Oscar as Best Picture, has many elements in common with the semi-documentaries: Gentleman's Agreement has a similarly highly educated hero as in Kazan's other semi-documentary films, such as Panic in the Streets and Wild River. Once again, this man attempts to convert a resistant traditional society to his way of thinking, in this case, the WASP culture of the United States. Although our hero is much better informed than the people he meets, once again, they feel they have all the answers, and fight him every step of the way. Kazan is deeply suspicious of tradition. In his films, it promotes anti-Semitism (Gentleman's Agreement), disease (Panic in the Streets) and poverty (Wild River). He also shows what a struggle it is to change such traditions, and what an effort has to be made.

Kazan gives his hero a personal life, as well as a professional struggle. Both the doctor in Panic in the Streets, and the writer in Gentleman's Agreement, have a small son with whom they have a warm relationship.

Panic in the Streets

A Semi-Documentary

Panic in the Streets (1950) is a major work. This films tracks down crooks who are unconsciously spreading plague. The hero is a disease control worker, played with his usual tremendous vitality by Richard Widmark.

Panic in the Streetsis a key example of the Semi-Documentary Film. Like the other semi-documentaries, this takes us inside the hero's government institution, in this case the United States Public Health Service. This group has a quasi-military feel in the film, just like the FBI, the Treasury Department, and other crime fighting units of previous semi-documentary movies. Although he is a medical worker, the hero wears a military uniform, carries a gun, and has police enforcement powers. There is a great deal of both action and suspense in the film.

The film is oddly anticipatory of the virus hunter melodramas of the 1990's, such as the TV show, The Burning Zone (1996-1997).

Panic in the Streets is also a detective story. It has some good moments of detection. Picking up on the shish kabob clue is inventive.

Links to Wild River: Scientists and Social Change

Some of Kazan's films show a similar collection of themes and characters: Kazan's films can be compared with a number of literary works, that also deal with outsiders who try to change a society's beliefs:

Location Filming: Visual Style

Panic in the Streets features location photography on the streets of New Orleans. Cinematography is by Joe MacDonald (The Dark Corner, The Street With No Name).

One type of location shot in Kazan's crime films shows a frieze like expanse of building. This fills the shot from the left to right hand side of the screen. The building wall is parallel to the frame of the film. There are openings along the top of the wall, such as windows or balconies, that are smaller and more regularly repeated than any opening below. All of these building walls tend to have a "monolithic" look. They appear to be huge rectangular slabs that dominate their environment, and any people in it.

Long Takes

Panic in the Streets emphasizes both long take and deep focus staging. Kazan prefers to avoid cutting wherever possible in a scene. Consider the shot at the apartment house. It opens with an exterior shot, a huge panorama of the apartment building and its occupants, taken from an upper floor. All the people in this shot are very tiny figures, seen from a distance. The camera turns around nearly 180 degrees, to show a series of steps leading up to the second floor. Policemen climb these stairs, eventually getting larger and larger in the frame. Then they start moving along the second floor outdoor passageway, moving toward the foreground. Eventually two performers are right in front of the camera, with their heads in medium close-up, while they have a dialogue scene. All of this is in a single unbroken take. It is typical of many shots in the film that mix close-ups, medium shots and long shots all in a single take, with both the characters and the camera in motion to accomplish this.

Some of the long takes are organized into stages:

On the Waterfront

On the Waterfront (1954) is a social drama, about corruption on New York City's docks in 1954.

Outsiders and Social Change

The heroine is another of Kazan's educated outsiders who try to bring change to a community. Much is made of her being a college student, and not fitting in to the tough waterfront milieu.

The priest keeps trying to get workers to speak up, and inform against the bosses. In some ways, this recalls Panic in the Streets, whose doctor hero keeps trying to get waterfront workers to speak up about the infected sailors. However, Panic in the Streets is about revealing illness, while On the Waterfront is about informing. Both men are always speaking to large crowds of workers.

Both Panic in the Streets and On the Waterfront show locales where groups of tough looking men get hired for jobs. Public discussions ensue in both locales.

High Settings

On the Waterfront shows Kazan's love of high settings. The opening murder shows a multi-story building facade, recalling those of New Orleans in Panic in the Streets. Action takes place up on its roof. Many later scenes take place on the roof where the characters raise pigeons.

Later, the fire escape at the church is one of Kazan's outdoor staircases.

The ladder on the roof used by Brando looks very similar to the shipboard ladder in Panic in the Streets. Both have round, curling tops; both are firmly attached to architecture.

East of Eden

Scientists and Social Change

East of Eden (1955) is a historical film, taking place in California in 1917. It anticipates Wild River, being a lyrical look at a farming region, shot gorgeously on location.

Like Wild River, there is a good deal in East of Eden about technological innovation, and its impact on characters' lives. The father is trying to bring refrigeration to the farmers in the Valley. If he succeeds, everybody's life will change.

Like Panic in the Streets, we see industrial buildings, here housing the ice. The docks and ships of Panic in the Streets are replaced in East of Eden by trains.

The fishing nets in the opening shots are also technological tools.

Unlike Panic in the Streets or Wild River, the father is not the central character of East of Eden. And the refrigeration subplot is not the central story.

Technological Environments - and the Sky

The Ferris wheel is a photogenic technological environment, like the ice house. Both get the characters high up into the sky.

The early shots in Monterey also repeatedly show water towers. James Dean is also linked to outdoor staircases in the opening. No one climbs these, but both the towers and the staircases are high structures.

On the first shot of Dean on top of the train, he passes by two angled ramp structures on the right.

Dean also uses a coal chute to clean the lettuce.


James Dean wears a yellow sweater and white shirt. This is the same "clean cut young man" outfit Tab Hunter wears at the start of Battle Cry (1955), directed by Raoul Walsh. Battle Cry was filmed immediately before East of Eden, early in 1954. These clothes look terrific in both films. They make the hero stand out in the color scheme of both movies. They also suggest innocence. Please see my list of yellow sweaters and white dress shirts in comic books and film. They are often worn by refined young men from upper middle class families.