Elia Kazan | Subjects
| Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style
Films: Boomerang | Gentleman's Agreement
| Panic in the Streets | On the Waterfront
| East of Eden
Classic Film and Television Home Page
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:
- Scientific figures who try to bring social change (CDC hero: Panic in the Streets,
father and refrigeration: East of Eden, hero and Tennessee Valley Authority: Wild River)
- Other intellectuals who are outsiders promoting social change (magazine writer: Gentleman's Agreement,
woman college student: On the Waterfront)
- Technological work environments (morgue: Panic in the Streets,
refrigeration: East of Eden, cotton gin: Baby Doll)
- Railways, with people on foot (streetcar: A Streetcar Named Desire,
opening chase: Panic in the Streets, James Dean and train: East of Eden)
- Fathers and sons (Gentleman's Agreement, Panic in the Streets, East of Eden)
- Mass hiring places for working class men (sailors: Panic in the Streets, dock workers: On the Waterfront)
- Entertainment areas filled with crowds (bowling alley: A Streetcar Named Desire,
restaurant: Panic in the Streets, fairground: East of Eden)
- Greeks coming to the United States (Panic in the Streets, America, America)
- Christian churches physically attacked by bad guys (On the Waterfront, America, America)
related (murdered priest: Boomerang)
- Public speaking to groups of workers (doctor: Panic in the Streets, priest: On the Waterfront)
- Heroes on television (On the Waterfront, A Face in the Crowd)
- Women with nervous breakdowns (A Streetcar Named Desire, Splendor in the Grass)
- Water-side areas (docks: Panic in the Streets, docks: On the Waterfront, Monterey: East of Eden,
river: Wild River)
- Rural areas, shot on location (East of Eden, Baby Doll, Wild River)
- New Orleans (A Streetcar Named Desire, Panic in the Streets)
Elia Kazan: Structure and Story Telling
- Semi-Documentary films (Boomerang, Panic in the Streets)
- Films using some semi-documentary techniques or approaches (Gentleman's Agreement, Wild River)
Elia Kazan: Visual Style
- Settings high in sky (apartment building stairs, ship cable: Panic in the Streets,
people on high platform over train station in opening: A Streetcar Named Desire,
roof with opening murder, pigeon coops on roof, hook raising priest on platform: On the Waterfront,
ice house ramp, Ferris wheel, water tower, train roof: East of Eden,
man on house roof at start: Baby Doll)
- Outdoor staircases (apartment building stairs: A Streetcar Named Desire,
apartment building stairs: Panic in the Streets,
church fire escape: On the Waterfront, Monterey buildings at start: East of Eden,
doctor's building: Baby Doll)
- Vertical ladders attached to architecture (ship: Panic in the Streets, roof: On the Waterfront)
- Long docks leading to isolated waterfront areas (docks leading to couple's boat: Panic in the Streets,
ramp to corrupt bosses' shack: On the Waterfront)
- Fishing nets (boat with couple: Panic in the Streets, opening in Monterey: East of Eden)
- Parallel corridors (morgue: Panic in the Streets, hall and bedrooms-with-bathroom: Baby Doll)
- Pans through large angles (town square at start: Boomerang, apartment building: Panic in the Streets)
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.
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.
- It was produced by the same studio, Twentieth Century Fox,
as Hathaway's films, The Street With No Name, and Kazan's
other semi-documentary works.
- It features a hero who goes undercover in a new identity
to fight a major social evil. Here the undercover work consists
of telling everyone he is Jewish.
- As in T-Men, this undercover
work exacts a much higher price from the hero than he would ever
have guessed at the start of the film.
- The hero is backed up by a powerful institution: in this case
not a government agency, but a major national magazine.
- There is much location photography,
in this case, in New York City and environs, and in all scenes
there is an attempt at documentary like realism. Arthur Miller's
photography has much more gloss than those of the typical crime
film of the era, and is definitely not film noir in style. However,
the film is a faithfully realistic look at the lives of the upper
middle class WASPs who promoted Anti-Semitism, and a certain amount
of gloss was considered appropriate to illuminate their milieu.
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
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
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:
- The hero is a highly intelligent and educated man,
with progressive ideas based in science and modern thinking, who
works for a government agency, or other major institution.
Such heroes include the disease control specialist
of Panic in the Streets, and the Tennessee Valley Authority
representative (played by Montgomery Clift) in Wild River
(1960), who has to battle change-resistant locals.
- He sets out to convert a backward, primitive society to his approach,
and he encounters massive resistance from this tradition oriented,
ignorant group. In both cases, the people he meets are suspicious of all scientists, and determined
to resist cooperating in every way possible.
- Both films are made on location, and both emphasize the exotic nature of their locale:
the dock-side culture of Panic in the Streets, and the
river people of Wild River. Both locations are near water,
and center on it for their economy and culture.
- The hero in both
films is a man of modest financial means. Although he is highly
educated, he is by no means a representative of the upper crust,
at least financially.
- The lead in these films is played by a major
movie star type, while everyone else tends to be a more realistic
looking character actor. This too gives a contrast to the hero,
and underlines how different his background is from the people
- The hero of these films keeps reasoning with people.
Reason is his main tool, and his main orientation in life. He
keeps thinking and thinking, and he keeps challenging other people
to think, too. They simply want to follow tradition; the hero
wants them to think, and to take an informed, reasoned course
- Henrik Ibsen's play An Enemy of the People (1882) also
deals with a doctor who uncovers unpopular truths that his society
does not want to face. However, it deals more with the persecution
of the doctor by society, while Kazan's films tend to be about
the education of society by the informed outsider. His struggle
might be titanic, but he usually succeeds.
- Ursula K. Le Guin's science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
deals with a single man, literally an alien, who has to try to
persuade a whole planet of tradition oriented people to change.
Like Kazan's heroes, his entire approach is reasoning with people.
- The comic book writer Edmond Hamilton also often dealt with social
outsiders who had important but non-traditional messages for society.
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.
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:
- For example,
in the scene at the coroner's office, first we see one room, then
the camera and the characters move into another, then into a third
room. Each room is a different stage of an intricately choreographed
- Similarly, the stunning scene at the opening across
the rail road tracks moves from right to left through several
different areas near the tracks.
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.
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.