Saturday, June 16, 2007

ALL MY SONS (1948)

I tend to like movies based closely on plays, even when they're a bit stagy, so I was predisposed to like this one, based on Arthur Miller's first hit play. It's a powerful family melodrama, though not as powerful as the play since, as Robert Osborne noted on TCM, Hollywood took out any references to the possibility that greed and corruption are inherent in the capitalist system, making it instead a story of one man's greed and corruption. When the film opens, WWII has been over for a while, though not so long that missing-in-action soldiers might not plausibly show up alive. Edward G. Robinson is a manufacturer, a self-made success, who made airplane parts during the war. His partner (Frank Conroy) was found guilty of knowingly shipping defective parts which resulted in the deaths of 21 American pilots and is still in jail; Robinson was exonerated. One of Robinson's sons (Burt Lancaster) is ready to take his spot in the family business; Larry, the other son, is officially MIA, but his mother (Mady Christians) is certain that he will show up one of these days, and everyone else tiptoes around the issue when in her earshot. Lancaster has fallen in love with Larry's fiancee (Louisa Horton), who is also the daughter of Robinson's disgraced partner, but Mom assumes that Horton will wait for Larry, and Robinson asks Lancaster to cool his jets for a while. Though Robinson is generally liked and respected in town, we see that some folks believe that he was just as guilty as Conroy, but that he was clever enough to stay out of jail. Not long after Lancaster awkwardly proposes to Horton, her brother (Howard Duff), a lawyer who has been digging into his father's case, shows up in town, sullen and distrustful of Robinson's family. The matronly Christians softens him up a bit, but Lancaster begins to doubt his own father's story (Robinson was supposedly sick and off work the day that the defective parts were shipped), so he goes to visit Conroy in prison where we get a flashback view of what really happened. It's no spoiler to note that Robinson indeed bears some responsibility for the shipment, but I won't give away the machinations that lead to the tragic climax, which is played out very powerfully by Robinson in perhaps the strongest acting of his career. Even though I figured out what was coming, Robinson moved me to tears. The character is a bit like a Scrooge figure who figures out his lesson ("Mankind should have been my business!") too late for redemption. I enjoyed one throwaway line from a secondary character: "Sleep's a wonderful thing--best thing about living." A few years ago I would have laughed at that, but now I can appreciate it. The cast also includes Arlene Francis (the stalwart "What's My Line" panelist) and Harry Morgan as chatty neighbors who are mostly present to provide exposition. Lancaster, Christians, and Duff are fine, Horton a little less so, but it's Robinson's game all the way and he's reason enough to seek this gem out, which Universal issued on VHS but not yet on DVD. Now if only Columbia would unearth the rarely-seen 1951 film adaptation of Miller's "Death of a Salesman." [TCM]

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