Fall 2013

Message Movies

Following World War II, a host of directors, led by Stanley Kramer, began tackling the hot-button issues of their day. We celebrate Kramer’s centennial with a look back at a time when movies mattered.


Kazan on On the Waterfront (1954)

"If you have a message, call Western Union" was Hollywood’s accepted wisdom at the height of the studio era—a truth so universally acknowledged that no one knows for sure who said it first. (Although usually attributed to Sam Goldwyn, it has also, at various times, been pinned on Moss Hart, Frank Capra, and even Humphrey Bogart.) But after the Second World War, producers and directors felt the urge to send their messages in a different way, the way they knew best: by making movies. Among the earliest filmmakers to use this alternative form of delivery for their urgent thoughts about the state of America and the battered postwar world was a man named Stanley Kramer, born in Brooklyn a hundred years ago, who, beginning in 1949, produced and later directed a long string of surprisingly successful movies about the hot-button issues of the time.

There were plenty of issues to go around, but Kramer began modestly, producing the fierce boxing melodrama Champion ([1949] directed by Mark Robson), which dealt with racketeering and corruption in the sweet science. Later that year, he and Robson teamed up again to take on the bigger, riskier subject of racism, in Home of the Brave (1949). Although the films don’t much resemble one another, they share an overall strategy: in each, an established, familiar genre—film noir in Champion, the war movie in Home of the Brave—is pressed into service to help put the message over to entertainment-hungry audiences.

That wasn’t a completely new approach, of course. In the 1930s, the Warner Bros.’ gangster pictures sprayed social commentary like tommy gun fire, and moviegoers didn’t mind a bit. In 1947, Edward Dmytryk had made Crossfire, a crackling mystery in which the motive for murder is anti-Semitism. The picture is done in high film noir style, complete with ominous angles, woozy flashbacks, hard-bitten dames, and a brutal murder shown in shadows on a wall. But there’s one distinctly un-noirish effect—a slow track into a close-up of the investigating detective as he talks about the hatred that fueled the crime. Uncharacteristically, the murder victim gets to give a speech, too, in flashback, as an attempt to explain the unease of returning veterans like himself. “I think maybe it’s suddenly not having a lot of enemies to hate anymore,” he muses. “Now we start looking at each other again. We don’t know what we’re supposed to do, we don’t know what’s supposed to happen. We’re too used to fighting, but we just don’t know what to fight.”

Zinnemann on The Search (1948)

In a way, that little barroom oration (spoken nicely by Sam Levene) says a good deal about the mood that created the postwar surge of message movies: anti-Semitism, racism, shabby treatment of veterans, and other societal ills were things to fight, right here at home, and filmmakers like Kramer, Robson, and Dmytryk—along with Elia Kazan, Fred Zinnemann, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and many more—dug in for battle with the new (or newly acknowledged) enemies. The complexity of deep-rooted social issues isn’t nearly as easy to represent on screen as the stark and inherently dramatic good-guys-versus-bad-guys conflict of a world war. Even filmmakers as resourceful as Kazan sometimes struggled to give vivid cinematic life to their movies’ relatively abstract ideas. His picture about anti-Semitism, Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), was directed, he later admitted, “like a stage play,” with the characters “all going through these well-read maneuvers of social behavior.” That was, and would continue to be, the bane of the message movie: laying out the “problem,” as in the first act of a play, and then talking it to death.

Kazan learned his lesson. By the time of On the Waterfront (1954), seven years later, he had come to understand the value of location shooting and had developed his own style of dynamic, propulsive editing: There’s plenty of talk in that exposé of corruption on the New York docks, but it’s the action, not the dialogue, that makes the movie memorable. Fred Zinnemann had been working in something of that vein already, in pictures like The Search (1948), about child refugees in postwar Europe, and The Men (1950), produced by Kramer, about paraplegic veterans in a stateside hospital. The Search, filmed largely in Germany, looks more like the Italian neorealist films of Rossellini and De Sica than it does any Hollywood movie of the time. It feels so much like a documentary, in fact, that the producers were moved to tack on an earnest voice-over narration, which is entirely unnecessary: the pictures tell a better story. The Men, which was Marlon Brando’s screen debut, was shot in part at a Veterans Administration hospital, with actual patients as extras. Zinnemann, in his quietly inquisitive manner, again lets the plain, devastating images do most of the work.

His next film with Kramer, High Noon (1952), is a remarkable example of using genre to get the point across: It’s a Western about social responsibility. In this case, the message is delivered by railroad—a train slowly, inexorably crossing the plains and dropping a good-size bag of meaning at the depot. Zinnemann’s documentary-like attention to visual detail again serves him well here, allowing him to tell his tale in real time, with very little action until the classic shootout at the end, and to freight every ticking moment with significance. (High Noon, like On the Waterfront, is in many ways a response to the anti-communist fervor of the 1950s, which claimed a number of victims in Hollywood, including Edward Dmytryk.)

Most message pictures didn’t dare to be so patient, though. More frequently, everyone involved seems antsy from the start, amped up, spoiling for a fight. At its best, that nervous, willfully overstimulated style can be electrifying. It certainly is the case in On the Waterfront, and in some less celebrated films, too, like Mankiewicz’s racially-charged thriller No Way Out (1950) and Martin Ritt’s powerful Edge of the City (1957), which combines an On the Waterfront-like exposé of labor corruption with a fairly nuanced consideration of the relations between white and black workers. Those films, both of which are graced by terrific performances by Sidney Poitier, are especially interesting for their uncharacteristic focus on racism in the North rather than—as was usual at the time—in the drawling, sullen South.

Mulligan on To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

In the ’50s, thanks to the violent battles over court-ordered desegregation of the Jim Crow South, race became the most popular topic of message-minded moviemakers. This, they clearly felt, was a fight worth making. When Kramer turned to directing his own pictures, one of the first films he did was a chase picture called The Defiant Ones (1958), in which a black prisoner (Poitier) and a white one (Tony Curtis) escape from a Southern chain gang while shackled to one another—a situation clearly fraught with message-delivery possibilities.Kramer makes the most of it, using the suspense of the manhunt to heighten the moral drama. The movie isn’t subtle, but it plays like gangbusters, and it earned Kramer the first of his four DGA nominations.

Perhaps emboldened by the success of The Defiant Ones, Kramer moved on to the biggish subject of The Bomb in On the Beach (1959), and from there to a couple of ambitious courtroom dramas: Inherit the Wind (1960), a fictionalized version of the notorious Scopes “Monkey” trial, and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), a dramatization of the 1948 war-crimes tribunal in Germany. Judgment may be the stronger film, because it was shot on location—though its visuals aren’t quite as eloquent as those of The Search, which was also filmed in Nuremberg—and because Kramer’s camera in the long courtroom scenes is a good deal more active than it is in Inherit the Wind. The torrent of talk washes over the viewer more gently here. But in a way it feels as if the message movie, a decade and a half after the end of the war, is running out of steam, losing a bit of its enthusiasm for the fight; even in the hands of one of its most passionate practitioners, it’s beginning to revert to the debating-society dramaturgy of Gentleman’s Agreement.

Arguably the last hurrah of the noble genre—at least in its initial, major-studio incarnation—was Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), which is also a legal drama, but whose most vigorous scenes take place outside the courthouse. Set in the prewar South, it’s a race drama about a white lawyer defending a black man unjustly accused of rape, but it’s framed as the coming-of-age story of the lawyer’s young daughter, Scout, who narrates in hushed voiceover. There’s plenty of local color—though not literally. Like virtually every other message movie of its time, To Kill a Mockingbird was shot in black and white. And Mulligan directs in a very fluid, almost dreamlike Southern-gothic style, full of spooky shadows cast by old, gnarled trees. It’s an unusual tone for sending a message about race relations, but audiences got it loud and clear—maybe because Mulligan lets it sneak up on them, like something unexpected in the night. As a result, To Kill a Mockingbird is the only Hollywood message movie that’s beloved.

Kramer on Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

Kramer continued making films through the ’60s and ’70s, remaining loyal to both his high social purpose and his favorite techniques—the last picture he directed, The Runner Stumbles (1979), is about religion, and takes place largely in a courtroom. And although Hollywood is now nearly as message-averse as it was in the “call-Western-Union” days, filmmakers do periodically rouse themselves to speak out on social issues through their popular, expensive medium. The ground on which the good fights are joined changes, of course.

Issues of gender and sexuality are more frequent subjects now than they were in Kramer’s time, and the threat of nuclear annihilation has largely given way to the looming dangers of climate change. The problems of race relations have never disappeared from our screens, in part for the melancholy reason that racism has itself refused to go away, and in part for a much more cheering reason: There are so many more filmmakers of color now, who can speak on the subject in a different, more personal way. Western Union doesn’t deliver messages anymore, but American directors still sometimes do, and Stanley Kramer can smile down on his descendants.

DVD Classics

A look at the careers of historically significant directors or genres through new DVD releases.

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