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All Day Entertainment presents
Christ in Concrete (1949)

"How much a man earns—is this the value of a man's life?"
- Annunziata (Lea Padovani)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: August 03, 2003

Stars: Sam Wanamaker, Lea Padovani,
Other Stars: Kathleen Ryan, William Sylvester, Charles Goldner
Director: Edward Dmytryk

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:54m:39s
Release Date: June 17, 2003
UPC: 014381020328
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- B+B-C A-

DVD Review

The working classes have long gotten short shrift on screen—when Hollywood starts preaching about the nobility of labor, it's enough to send you screaming from the theater, with the patronizing tones and stereotypes that pervade the portrayals of those who may not have a string of letters after their names, but are decent, hard-working people, diligent, community minded, and respectful. In this post-Cold War age, the term "proletariat" has a quaint and archaic ring to it; twin that with the political environment in which this movie was made, add in a dash of copyright problems, and you've got a recipe for losing a film through the cracks, for decades.

But this DVD sets out to right some of the wrongs done to Christ in Concrete, a film that had a severely limited American release when it was first produced, principally because many of the participants in the production were blacklisted. Director Edward Dmytryk, screenwriter Ben Barzman and leading man Sam Wanamaker were literally run out of town—their political views and their sympathies with the Communist Party made them unemployable in Hollywood. Hence this particularly American story, with the exception of an opening credits sequence, was shot entirely on a London soundstage.

The film is based on a novel of the same name by Pietro di Donato, the title of which was deemed to be insufficiently secular; hence despite the DVD case bearing the title Christ in Concrete, the film itself bears the title Give Us This Day. (It was also known in various incarnations as Salt to the Devil and Salt and the Devil.) It tells the story of Jeremio (Wanamaker), an underemployed bricklayer in New York in the 1920s; his comrade Luigi shows Jeremio a photograph of the daughter of Luigi's great love, now married to another, and based only on the snapshot, Jeremio is ready to marry the girl, Annunziata. She lives in Italy; they correspond, and he sends for her—she's a mail-order bride, basically—but he has been shading the truth more than a little in his letters. Her one stipulation is that she live in her own house, that it would be too disgraceful to rent; Jeremio lies and says that he owns a house. He doesn't, but he does have an agreement to buy one, if only he can come up with the necessary down payment of $500, no easy feat for a day laborer who works only one week out of three.

Annunziata is played by the lovely Lea Padovani, and though her command of English isn't always perfect—neither is her character's—her face speaks volumes; her acting style bears a distinct resemblance to that of the wonderful Anna Magnani. Hard times are all that Jeremio and Annunziata encounter in their tenement, and the woes of their hardscrabble life are exacerbated by the arrival of their four children, and then by the Depression. The politics of the film are obvious, but aren't laid on too thickly; the danger in a politically loaded movie like this is that the characters can be reduced to cheap pamphleteering, but the filmmakers always maintain our empathy for Jeremio and his family.

Some of the language of the piece is a little florid—perhaps it's true to the period, or to Di Donato's novel, but it sounds a bit too poetic and precious when the characters say things like "Love is hunger, and wishes to devour," or "In the house of Jeremio, the dream is dying. Now we are eating our dream." There's an obvious affinity between the style here and that of the early work of Clifford Odets, and I don't know that it's a style that has worn especially well with the years.

Wanamaker is a stolid leading man, and we feel Jeremio's pain as he violates his own precepts, in the hope of feeding his family; of course, the ramifications are dark and deep, and the metaphor of the title is made literal in a climactic scene that even with all these years of hindsight remains difficult to watch. Much of the filmmaking is an odd mixture of classic Hollywood style (Dmytryk was an old hand, and his best work includes Crossfire and Murder, My Sweet), Di Donato's street poetry, and progressive politics. It's not quite a film noir, nor quite an epic family saga, either. But it is an impassioned and skillfully made film, and its return to circulation after years in cinematic purgatory is very welcome.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The transfer was made from a print long housed with the British Film Institute, and while apparently it looks vastly superior to the few frayed copies that had been in circulation, it's not quite as pristine as one might hope. A good number of scratches can be seen throughout, though the black levels are surprisingly steady. The cinematography by C. Pennington Richards merits particular acclaim, as does that of whoever directed the second-unit stuff, on location in New York, that runs over the opening of the film, which is deliberately evocative of the magnificent industrial photographs of Charles Sheeler.

Image Transfer Grade: B-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishno


Audio Transfer Review: The sound has fared much more poorly than the picture quality; in the first portion of the film particularly, there's a whole lot of hiss and crackle. This recedes somewhat as it goes on, but then you're in for some nasty pops, and some instances when the sound drops out altogether. I doubt that it was financially feasible to go hog wild with a restoration on this relatively unknown motion picture, but you can see what the ravages of time will do.

Audio Transfer Grade: C

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 30 cues
Cast and Crew Biographies
Isolated Music Score with remote access
2 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by Norma Barzman, Fred Gardaphe, Richard di Donato, David Kalat (track 1); Pietro di Donato (track 2 —see notes below)
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: AGI Media Packaging
1 Disc
2-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. a 1960 spoken-word opera based on Di Donato's novel (see below)
Extras Review: The voluminous extras package focuses less on the film and more on the novel and its author—it's a celebration of all things Pietro di Donato. The first commentary track is hosted by Richard di Donato, one of the author's sons; joining him are Norma Barzman, a colleague of the filmmakers; Fred Gardaphe, director of Italian-American studies at SUNY Stonybrook, and a champion of the film and the novel; and David Kalat, from All Day Entertainment, the company that released this disc. It's an article of faith among these four that Di Donato's novel is the great neglected literary masterpiece of the last century; I haven't read it, and can't weigh in, but even if the book is as great as they say, they strike me as unnecessarily snide about such minor authors as Steinbeck, Faulkner and Hemingway. Barzman tells us that a professor of hers at Radcliffe hailed the book as "the only authentic American proletarian novel," for instance, and Richard di Donato goes even further, that literature alone is not enough—he says that his father's book was "the single most seminal artistic influence on the style that became known as Italian Neorealism," pointing particularly to The Bicycle Thief and La Terra trema. (It's difficult not to think that the son claims too much for his father.) It's Pietro di Donato's genius that towers over their discussion, and while the film is hailed as a "cinematic masterpiece," about the highest praise they can muster for its director is: "My God, what a technician!"

They are, though, full of valuable insights about the film and its production, and in filling in historical gaps for those who may not be as well versed as they in the politics of the period. There's some logrolling here, too—Di Donato has even prepared a blurb for Barzman's upcoming book—and I will admit that at times their politics made me slightly uneasy. Not because I fault any of them for their progressivism; rather, they extol the virtues of "the people," but then deride anything in culture that's popular. Coming in for particular abuse are Walt Disney and Frank Capra.

The second track features Benjamin Frankel's lyrical and powerful score in isolation, and here, under the scenes that lack scoring, you can hear Pietro di Donato reminiscing, talking us through his family history, and offering sociological observations on these generations of Italian Americans. It's not a commentary track exactly—it sounds as if this was recorded in a room full of students, perhaps during a campus appearance—but he's a grand raconteur, and it's nice to hear his voice. (Di Donato died in 1992.)

Flip over that disc for the next round of extras. First up is Harold Seletsky's monodrama (25m:36s), composed in 1960 and based on Di Donato's novel—it's an odd little piece, a spoken-word opera, essentially, with Eli Wallach reading the text. It was performed at Carnegie Hall, recorded on an LP, and then, like the novel and the film, largely forgotten. Memories in Concrete (36m:32s) is an extended poolside discussion between Peter di Donato, another of the novelist's sons, and Bill Wasserzieher, a film scholar, and it's full of peculiar tidbits—both Rossellini and Visconti expressed interest in directing the film, for instance, and Pietro di Donato published a story about the loss of his virginity in Penthouse.

A reel of the author's home movies (25m:25s) show us the man himself, in the 1980s and 1990s—we see him visit a college campus, pal around with Mario Cuomo, chat with his wife Helen. The audio quality on these is atrocious, and while it's fine to hear Di Donato telling his stories, at some point you come to realize that you're just watching someone else's boring home movies. A final silent sequence shows the Di Donato family preparing spaghetti sauce; sadly, no recipe is provided for us to play along at home.

A photo gallery (03m:22s) features pictures of the Di Donato family, along with publicity materials for the film. Biographies are provided for the director, screenwriter, producer, leading man and composer. I'm on a Mac, and hence couldn't access the DVD-ROM content; what's here is reportedly a raft of production correspondence, and a link to the All Day Entertainment website.

Extras Grade: A-

 

Final Comments

The wrongs done to this film and its creators over the years were many, but All Day rights many of those with this impressive DVD, crammed with information and insight. This is a finely produced disc reclaiming a cinematic orphan from the clutches of obscurity.

 


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