Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Give Us This Day (1949)

Director: Edward Dmytryk                                Writers: Ben Barzman & John Penn
Film Score: Benjamin Frankel                          Cinematography: C.M. Pennington-Richards
Starring: Sam Wanamaker, Lea Padovani, Kathleen Ryan and Charles Goldner

Give Us This Day is an adaptation of Pietro Di Donato’s novel Christ in Concrete, which is actually more of an autobiography about an Italian immigrant’s son whose father died in a construction accident. This British production of Edward Dmytryk’s film was suppressed in the United States because of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s blacklist of the Hollywood Ten. Dmytryk had refused to answer the committee’s question as to whether or not he had been a member of the Communist Party. As a result, no one in Hollywood was willing to risk investigation themselves, or worse, and so hundreds of people were unable to work for years afterward. The star of the film, Sam Wanamaker, had been blacklisted as well and so the film was made in England. Studio sets were made for the New York exteriors, but rear screen projection effects were used to fill in the skyline during the few long shots of the city. Dmytryk won an award for the film at the Venice Film Festival the following year but received poor reviews in the United States. The title was changed to Christ in Concrete and was given very few opportunities to be seen.

The film begins with a noirish street scene at night. Sam Wanamaker stumbles to the front of a tenement building. He climbs the stairs to the top floor but can’t get into his apartment. He breaks down the door and his wife, Lea Padovani, tells him to leave, to go back to “her.” Then his three children rush out to sing happy birthday to him, but she tells him to leave again and he does, stumbling back to the apartment of Kathleen Ryan where she tries to comfort him. Wondering how his life became such a mess, the story flashes back to a time when he was working construction laying bricks on a New York City skyscraper. An accident almost pushes him off from forty stories, but his co-worker, Charles Goldner, saves him. The year is 1921, and wanting his life to mean something he finally asks his girlfriend, Ryan, to marry him. But she turns him down, not wanting to be the wife of a lowly bricklayer. Having seen a picture of a woman from Italy, Padovani, that Goldner knows, he decides to marry her instead. The wedding is great, and the reception scene is one of the highlights of the film, but their marriage starts out on a lie.

Padovani wanted a house and Wanamaker said he had one. But he didn’t, and it’s a rude disillusionment for her. After a beautiful three days in the house she thinks is theirs, they have to move back to the tenement. They put a down payment on the house and begin saving, but by the time the Great Depression rolls around the couple have four children and the money they saved to move into the house is going for expenses because Wanamaker can’t find work. Every day Padovani’s house gets further and further away from her. Like all people in similar circumstances, the decisions they make are not always the ones that are right, and the consequences of going against ones integrity can be worse than the physical deprivation. The most striking thing about the film is the screenplay. Reminiscent of a film like Force of Evil, there’s a poetry to the dialogue that is unique even in the highly stylized films of the time. And the style is not for everyone. One of the criticisms of the film is that it fails to really show the desperation of the characters, but I’m not sure that realism was really the goal. There’s a sense that the nobility of these ordinary people is reflected in the sanitized version of their lives.

While the look of the film is certainly that of the film noir style, this is a family drama, a social drama, a workers drama, an immigrant story more than anything else. Dmytryk uses all of the skills he learned from his years making actual films noir, though in this picture it is just a convention, a stylistic choice that frames the story in an unusual way. The score by British composer Benjamin Frankel is also part of that unique quality, emphasizing dissonance in the frame story, but a lush romanticism elsewhere. Sam Wanamaker does a solid job, but lacks the kind of charisma necessary for film work and, in addition to the suppression of the film and his blacklist status, went almost immediately into television work after this. The rest of the cast was half American and half British, and no one really has a distinctive Italian accent except Lea Padovani, who was Italian and learned some of her lines phonetically, and some of the supporting cast. There are some Marxist elements in the film as well, particularly the idea that Wanamaker brings trouble upon himself and others by becoming a foreman, as well as the idea that in that position he has no choice but to endanger the workers, but they don’t detract from the story. Give Us This Day is certainly not Edward Dmytryk’s best film, but it is a fascinating character study and well worth taking the time to see.

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