DVD Review HTF REVIEW: "Christ in Concrete"

Discussion in 'DVD' started by StuartGalbraith, Jun 18, 2003.

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  1. StuartGalbraith

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    Here it is again, folks....

    DVD Review – Christ in Concrete
    Director, Edward Dmytryk; Producers, Nat A. Bronsten and Rod E. Geiger; Screenplay, Ben Barzman, based on the book by Pietro di Donato; Director of Photography, C.M. Pennington-Richards; Art Director, Alex Vetchinsky; Editor, John D. Guthridge; Music, Benjamin Frankel.
    Cast: Sam Wanamaker, Lea Padovani, Kathleen Ryan, Charles Goldner, Bonar Colleano, Bill Sylvester, Sid James.
    A Geiger-Bronsten Production. A General Film Distributors/Rank/Eagle-Lion Release (as Give Us This Day and Salt to the Devil). Black and white. Standard size. 114 minutes. No MPAA Rating. Released 1949.

    DVD: Produced by All Day Entertainment. Street Date June 17, 2003. $24.99
    Full Frame
    Dolby Digital Mono
    Special Features: Audio Commentary by Norma Barzman (author of The Red and the Blacklist), Italian-American Studies Scholar Fred Gardaphe, Richard di Donato (son of the novelist), and DVD producer David Kalet; Isolated Music Score with Commentary by Pietro di Donato; 1965 Spoken Word Version Performed by Eli Wallach; Featurette with Film Scholar Bill Wasserzieher and Peter di Donato; di Donato Home Movie Footage; Photo Gallery; Talent Bios; DVD-ROM Supplements.

    Reviewed by Stuart Galbraith IV

    All Day Entertainment has done it again, releasing an obscenely obscure film with the kind of Special Edition treatment it has long deserved. As its jacket rightly describes it, Christ in Concrete uniquely blends "film noir, neo-realism, and hard-hitting social criticism," and the result is a disturbing but fascinating classic of its time. Film noir has long been a favorite genre of the label; indeed, All Day has released more noir to DVD than most major studio labels.

    The story, told mostly in flashback, is set in New York City in the 1920s and concerns bricklayer Geremio (Sam Wanamaker) and his wife, Annuziata (Lea Padovani). She is obsessed with owning her own home, but he can only provide a seedy apartment in a rundown, over-crowded tenement building. They scrimp and save over many years, trying to earn the $500 that is needed to move into their dream house. But as they begin to have children, as the Great Depression sends Geremio into long stretches of unemployment, their dream becomes increasingly remote.

    The film was based on Pietro di Donato's acclaimed proletarian novel Christ in Concrete, though picture was never actually released as such, with the intended title always Give Us This Day, which is what's onscreen here. (It was also released in some areas as Salt to the Devil.) Though set in New York, the film was made entirely in Britain. The reason for this is Wanamaker, director Edward Dmytryk, and screenwriter Ben Barzman, were victims of the Hollywood Blacklist and compelled to work in exile. In that sense the picture is like a long-lost brother to Herbert Biberman's Salt of the Earth (1954). Biberman's film is more famous (and made the Library of Congress' National Registry), but Give Us This Day is the better film, a genuine heretofore lost classic.

    Almost appropriately, the film seems lost in time and space. Its rich noir look is like something shot by John Alton for Anthony Mann, and its careful production design has a real New York feel, further belying its British origins. The performances, meanwhile, are so naturalistic as to appear contemporary, not the stuff of late-40s Hollywood. Set in New York's Italian-American community, the supporting cast consists of mostly British actors delivering flawless accents (only the child actors fall short here). Charles Goldner, among other things, had a big supporting part in The Captain's Paradise (1953). The Internet Movie Database doesn't realize this, but Bill Sylvester is the same man as William Sylvester, the American-born actor (also blacklisted?) who later starred in Gorgo (1961) and played Heywood Floyd in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Sid James, later the star of countless “Carry On” films, is especially good (and believably American) and impressively understated as a construction foreman who puts productivity ahead of safety.

    At the center, though, are Wanamaker and Padovani, both superb and utterly convincing as a married couple struggling with universal dreams and obstacles. They are the picture's best assets. Only near the end does the film's social criticism turn into an angry diatribe and the natural dialogue becomes stilted and archly literary (e.g., "I, too, felt laughter within me," etc.). Though awfully depressing, this is a rich, compelling piece of filmmaking.

    How is the Transfer?
    The film was transferred from a 35mm nitrate positive held at the BFI. The transfer is serviceable but not exceptional. Considering the rarity of the film, one can easily forgive the frequent print damage, which mostly comes in the form of pesky, reel-length scratches. The sound is alarmingly scratchy during the J. Arthur Rank logo, but is generally fine for most of the film, despite the occasional crackle and pop. All Day did a fair amount of clean-up of both the audio and video, and the end result is reasonably good, with some minor video artifacting here and there. If it were not for All Day's passion for these kinds of movies, the picture would likely not see any release at all.


    Special Features
    All Day has given Give Us This Day an exhaustive, Criterion-like special edition treatment with what was undoubtedly a miniscule budget. Best among the special features is a shakily produced but historically fascinating 35-minute featurette "Memories in Concrete," with film scholar Bill Wasserzieher and Peter di Donato discussing the origins of both the novel and film. Much of this information is carried over into the audio commentary, where di Donato is joined by Norma Barzman, Fred Gardaphe, and David Kalet, but the featurette is a good primer for the picture's background. There's also a 30-minute "musical monodrama," lifted seemingly from a scuffed-up LP, of Eli Wallach offering a self-consciously arty but well-produced dramatic reading of the material. All Day has also compiled 25 minutes of "home movies" of the late author (who died in 1992). Most of the footage is home video material from the early-1990s of di Donato's public appearances at screenings, libraries and whatnot, though there is also some earlier footage derived from silent Super-8. The home video footage is apparently the source for the archival commentary by di Donato that is coupled with an isolated music track. Finally, the DVD offers a DVD-ROM feature with archival correspondence, legal papers, and interesting clippings from the time of the picture's release.

    Parting Thoughts
    All Day's jacket art is finally up to the professional standards of bigger outfits like Criterion and Anchor Bay. However, the jacket offers no suggestion of what the picture is about, and while stubbornly reverting the title back to Christ in Concrete may appeal to champions of di Donato's novel, it serves mainly to make the film appear more cryptic than it need be. But All Day Entertainment has continually done more with less than perhaps any DVD label in the business; few would release a title as commercially marginal as Christ in Concrete. Despite a few technical shortcomings, this is one of the real finds of 2003.
     
  2. Ed St. Clair

    Ed St. Clair Producer

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    Christ!
    Are you sure this film wasn't held at the FBI?
     
  3. Randy A Salas

    Randy A Salas Screenwriter

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