Continuing with the trend of reviewing films up for Best Picture of 1963, here is a film that I had heard very little about going into it: America, America. Directed by the legendary Elia Kazan (A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront) this film tells the semi-autobiographical tale of Kazan’s own Uncle and his journey to America from Anatolia (now Turkey).
Before I begin I’d like to give a very special shout-out to the B+ Movie Blog and their Oscar Quest. Because of it, and specifically their praise for America, America in the 1963 Best Picture segment, I made sure to record this obscure gem and watch it. Also the fact that this film currently holds only a 67% on Rotten Tomatoes is a crime against humanity. Though that could change if more people go out of their way to see this film. After all, 6 reviews is hardly enough to garner a valid consensus. Therefore, do not let this deter you. I know that I am spoiling my feelings towards this film before getting to the actual review, but I will say that America, America definitely deserves a far higher rating. But hey, what can you do?
Now then, on with the review.
America, America provided a nice break from the 1963 big-budget epics that I have seen recently: namely Cleopatra and How the West Was Won. Though I did enjoy both films, admittedly it is nice to see something that isn’t so overwhelming.
Contrasting these two mega-films, Kazan’s America, America is content to tell its story with great focus on intimacy. Like HtWWW, the protagonist’s journey and struggle to achieve his dream of reaching America is meant to give us a view of the broader movement of immigrants to the United States during the late 19th century. Instead of sweeping wide-shots meant to force the viewer to appreciate the imagery (not always a bad thing – I did like some of that in HtWWW even if it was a bit overdone) and large-scale conflict and action, the majority of the focus is on a single character and his personal or small-scale conflicts. Even when soldiers raid an underground meeting where men plan to detonate explosives it all takes place in a cramped basement, yet I did not feel like the film was holding out on the viewer.
This increased focus on intimacy also gives Kazan far more room to play and give viewers a very impressive showcase of his directing abilities. Some scenes that stand out in my mind include the protagonist stabbing the con-artist in the mountains of Anatolia and then continuing with his journey, as well as the entirety of the health inspection scene on the ship (immigrants thought to be a health risk were denied entry to the country) was extremely tense.
The black-and-white cinematography may is also wonderful, even if the film doesn’t have the painterly images found in those epics like Cleopatra or HtWWW. The D.P. Haskell Wexler most definitely deserved a nomination, and with the existence at the time of two separate cinematography categories – one for color and the other for black-and-white – I do not understand how this failed to receive one. Then again, perhaps it was too stylized for the Academy’s liking. Ben Mankiewicz’s introduction on TCM discussed Kazan’s decision to shoot hand-held for more of a documentary-esque feel, so that may have worked against it. Still, I thought it was beautiful and warranted at least a nom.
The only true criticism I can come up with is that sometimes the film got hard to follow (though that could just be failure on my end) and the acting of the actors was not always the strongest, which is a risk when working with first-time actors as Kazan did here.
Overall, however, I really loved this film. I would not go so far as to call it “one of the best films ever made”, as B+ Movie Blog did, but I do think it is a great film that has unfortunately flown under the radar to most people. It has great direction, a strong emotional pull, and a powerful story that should be seen just to better understand the risks and struggles that many immigrants have had in trying to reach America. Definitely, definitely check it out if you get the opportunity to do so. I will be adding this to the ‘purchase on DVD’ list for the future.
So far it is the best of the three ‘Best Picture’ nominees that I have seen from 1963. I have yet to see Lilies of the Field and the winner Tom Jones (I plan to read the novel first – also I have no idea where to watch it. The DVD costs something like $50 on Amazon, which is a little much for a movie I have yet to see), though I think it will be very difficult for either to top this little gem.
I did recently buy Fellini’s 1963 film 8 1/2. Once I watch it, chances are I will write a review. Hopefully my expectations have not been set too high for that one.