Thieves’ Highway (1949): Apple Crates and Femme Fatales

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Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) makes a joyous homecoming to his parents after literally traveling the seven seas, armed with boxes of gifts to lavish upon them. In a matter of minutes, we already have a warm feeling and an affection, however cursory, for these characters we have just met.

With money to spare and a pretty girl (Barbara Lawrence) just waiting to marry him, it really does seem he doesn’t have a care in the world. However, he’s rudely awakened when he entreats his father to put on a pair of moccasins. The old man becomes dour for the first time and confesses he no longer has use of his legs.

It seems like a major reveal for the boy not to know, but it nevertheless gives traction to the forthcoming story. Mr. Garcos used to be a truck driver and yet one fateful evening, he took a load of tomatoes to San Francisco. Far from getting paid, he found himself receiving a vocal I.O.U. and getting into an accident late at night under dubious circumstances. One has to admit he’s a kindly man but a bit of a pushover.

While it doesn’t begin as a revenge story, Thieves Highway’ certainly becomes one as Nick looks to not only get his father’s money and clean up the mess left behind but also get even because its pretty obvious foul play was involved.

First things first, he looks to buy his father’s truck back, from a shifty old pro named Ed Kenny (Millard Mitchell). Instead, they wind up going into business together ready to carry the season’s first load of Golden Delicious apples to try and make a killing. With the other man’s know-how and Garcos youth and tenacity, they just might make out. Soon they’re caravanning up to San Francisco to cash out on their load. It seems simple enough, but such a journey never is.

Richard Conte fits seamlessly into this role that capitalizes on his versatility in playing both heroes and villains. Because while we can label Nick our protagonists, he exhibits violent tendencies only visible in noir films where the dividing line between good and bad is often inconsequential.

Valentina Cortese plays Rica, the hooker with a heart of gold who is initially paid $100 to lure Garcos away from his truck. If it’s totally a stereotype — she is an apple crate femme fatale if you will — then Cortese still manages to play the mixture of sensuality and genial warmth in a manner that makes us care for her as an individual. Because she gives us a couple hints, suggesting a character with more good than bad — someone who is in a tough bind, yet still out looking for goodness and love to welcome into her life.

If Rica is the embodiment of an opportunist getting their chance at redemption, Mike Figglia is pure deceitfulness. Lee J. Cobb played sour apples before but Figglia is just about as ruthless as any of his boisterous antagonists. He is a trenchant embodiment of crooked free-market industry. There is no integrity to him and even less humanity as he strives to swindle his way to one dishonest buck after another. It’s not simply survival of the fittest but the roost is literally ruled by those who have no sense of rectitude whatsoever. They absolutely relish sinking other people for their own gain.

Thieves’ Highway had its predecessors in the likes of They Drive by Night (1940), coincidentally taken from a story written by this film’s screenwriter. However, though it has its own gritty Warner Bros. elements, it’s nevertheless a studio lot entry. John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath (1940) as well, while more of a migrant story, shows us the merciless side of cutthroat capitalism.

Just to get to the marketplace takes a lot of winding roads. There are bribes stuck up tailpipes, Garcos jacks up his truck with the back of his neck, and the worst for Kinney involves his ride continuously conking out. All for the sake of a truckful of apples.

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Simultaneously, two vultures (Jack Oakie and Joseph Peveney) in a truck of their own, are ravenously following Kinney as his own vehicle moans and wheezes its way toward its final destination. If time is money, he’s losing cash value fast and everyone knows it.

Still, the young newcomer has done pretty well for himself. He’s not taking any flack from Figlia, and he comes out of the shrewd operator’s office with $500 and a $34000 check. It sounds good, but it’s already a red flag. Because we know something’s going to happen to that valuable piece of paper. We just know it.

Sure enough, the story takes a devastatingly fatalistic nose dive on both Nick and Kinney’s end of the story. It’s a film literally chewing up and spitting out its protagonist.

A truck decimated. A hillside covered with busted apple crates. Then, back in the market a big fat nothing. There’s a sense of helplessness even as despondency sets in. Surely, this cannot be worth it? And yet Garcos somehow pulls himself together instead of rolling into a ball. Because he has an injustice to rail against and the perfect target is Mike Figlia.

One can quibble over whether or not it is neutralized by a slightly gushy ending — noir is certainly at its most mordant in the pits of despair — but there is still much to recommend in Thieves’ Highway.

Director Jules Dassin is one of the prominent names in post-war noir, because he made the genre not simply stylistic but imbued it with real-world grit, palpable for different reasons. Because we feel it and could see roadways and back alleys that get closer to reality than the studios ever could on their backlots.

For those familiar with the real San Francisco, Thieves’ Highway authentically embodied the robust produce industry set up within the city, detailing the area formerly adjacent to the Embarcadero, not mention more images of Oakland Produce Market.

It’s the kind of immersive imagery you can’t begin to fake in a convincing manner, and it adds another fascinating accent to this picture. Because not only is it a story with heady themes of revenge, but it’s planted in cold hard historical reality. Films at their best provide such documentation.

4/5 Stars

Man of the West (1958)

220px-Motw1958The proverbial stranger rides into town looking for a place to wash up and grab a bite to eat. We get the sense he might be sticking around. Except, soon enough, he turns right back around and buys a ticket on the first train out of town. Because he has business to attend to.

The train gets ambushed but subverts expectations again by evading the bandits in time; one of the outlaws gets winged as the rest ride off to live another day. The only people left are three travelers thrown together by circumstance. We have reformed gunman Link Jones (Gary Cooper), the incessant chatterbox Sam Beasley (Arthur OConnell), and saloon songstress Billie Ellis (Julie London).

They must make it by foot and find some way to subsist off the land. But it’s precisely this predicament that causes our protagonist to fully revisit his past in the most direct way possible.

We get some hint of it the way a man at the train station looks him over and asks if they’ve ever met before. We receive our confirmation when he walks into an old cabin only to be confronted with the same outlaws who held up the train. Their leader, a veteran rogue named Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb), walks in and so begins the family reunion.

This used to be the place Jones called home working under his uncle and training to be a killer and a thief. He gave up that life long ago. But now he’s back out of necessity pretending he sought out his uncle purposefully. Meanwhile, the old man bemoans the fact nothing has been the same since Link left.

Lee J. Cobb, God bless him, is poorly cast. He is probably too young in spite of the makeup job. Just as Coop is slightly too old, in the final stages of his illustrious career, to be playing such a character. And yet with those minor qualms aside, their performances in most other aspects could not be better. Because they both remain fine talents who elevate the picture.

The cronies are played by a scruffy gun-crazed Jack Lord with Royal Dano as a mute sidekick, and prolific television actor John Dehner as Link’s cousin who warns him he should have never come back. London is our lone female character and her position is perfectly encapsulated by a single line, “Every man thinks he has the right to put their hands on me. All those lonely people looking for some special thrill.”

The prominence of the mise en scene becomes strikingly evident first in the interiors of the cabin in one particular sequence when a knife is held to Link’s throat as his girl is forced to undress. Then, the outdoor scenes are interspersed with close-ups bursting with color set against the backdrop of the prairie at large with deep blue skies. No more boldly then when Cooper and Lord go at each other’s throats and he returns the favor to the sniveling thug by stripping off his clothes as they both flail around bruised and bloodied.

Dock’s ultimate job to rob the bank in Lassoo is our obvious objective and Link agrees to be the one to ride in first to case the area. But imagine our surprise when the town and its bank turns out to be nothing more than an abandoned outpost with next to nothing to suggest civilization. In our heart of hearts, we knew this was never about a bank robbery or the heist. It’s no mistake the opening attempt is botched and the final outing is a far cry from what was expected. Lassoo is a bank robber’s Mecca that never existed. Maybe in the old days but alas not anymore.

Both these outcomes allow the action to be funneled right back to our characters. Because it is the events in question rousing our hero to act, even if it is against his wishes. To put people in danger and resort to violence become necessary choices. It leads to a resoundingly well-executed shootout on par with the best of the genre, both stylish and jolted with trademark tension from Mann. An obvious precursor to some of Leone’s finest rendered gunfights.

But once more, like The Far Country (1954), the western has been rewritten yet again to dwell in the dirt and the dust of the noonday sun. Violence is only an outcropping of some psychological turmoil that must be dealt with and met with some form of resolution.

What becomes crystal clear with Man of the West is how isolating the frontier is as an entity. Though we start in a big city, aboard trains, and look to end in what’s purported to be a bustling bank town, we are slowly diverted away from those spaces.

The film plays out with a small band of figures caught in interplay fraught with an undercurrent of volatility. The fact there are fewer people only seems to magnify this conflict. Because it is man-to-man they must face each other. There’s little white noise or distraction and Mann has staged everything so it’s clear and boldly laid out before us.

Certainly, if it’s about a handful of characters then at its core is a protagonist who must grapple with something crucial to this entire narrative of regression and decay. Where a man must resort to his old ways — dive back into the hell fury of his past — only to come out on the other side of the maelstrom to prove to himself he is no longer that man. In one sense, it’s playing with fire but it’s also a story that calls for a secondary redemption.

Cooper proves himself in the Town of Good Hope, a town we will never see and a town that acts more like an idea than a tangible place. Lassoo is very much the same — this ghost town that manifests itself as an open-air graveyard — an arena for our climactic showdown. They are points of departure imbued with thematic meaning just as the rundown homestead Jones used to frequent represents a part of his old life. He must throw them off once and for all.

Thus, the final wagon ride off into the wild blue yonder is not just a pretty picture. Yes, Anthony Mann has demonstrated a mastery for capturing the scope of the West here yet again but moreover, his hero is riding back toward the straight and narrow leading to redemption. He has seen the other side and comes back out a man of integrity again.

Whereas High Noon (1952) is a picture easy to admire and enjoy thoroughly straight away, Man of The West is arguably no less brilliant, especially rewarding for those who linger over it. Though strained relations meant James Stewart lost out on working with Anthony Mann again, there’s little doubt Gary Cooper was one of the great western heroes and it’s providential he was furnished this opportunity to ride tall in the saddle once more.

4/5 Stars

Boomerang (1947)

Boomerang!Boomerang shares some similarities to Call Northside 777 (1948) and Panic in the Streets (1950). Like the latter Elia Kazan film, this one boasts a surprising amount of real-world authenticity and a loaded cast of talent. Those are its greatest attributes as Kazan makes the bridge between the stage and the silver screen. He brings with him a sensibility for a certain amount of social realism matched with quality acting connections he had accrued in his career thus far.

The only problem is it’s not very compelling just a good, solid, well-made human drama without much fanfare. At the very least, it hits all the procedural beats it’s supposed to. Sometimes that’s alright and it is interesting the narrative goes fairly in-depth into actual events which occurred back in 1926.

In that year a beloved local preacher in Connecticut was gunned down by a fugitive who ran off in the night before he could be apprehended but not before seven witnesses caught a glimpse of his face. The rest of the film is a buildup of the frenzy churned up in the aftermath. The police frantically try and catch the man-at-large with the papers on their back and several political reappointments hanging in the balance.

It’s true Boomerang does become a more interesting exercise once we’ve entered a courtroom and a man (Arthur Kennedy) is put on trial for the murder of the aforementioned minister — a defendant who has pleaded his innocence since the beginning although the evidence is stacked up against him including a vengeful witness (Cara Williams). Except the district attorney (Dana Andrews) takes a stand to promote his innocence. In this case, it’s not quite so straightforward.

True to form and all parties involved, the acting is a great joy to watch with a mixture of untrained actors filling in as the locals of a sleepy Connecticut town and then bolstered by a formidable supporting cast.

We have Dana Andrews at the center but he is buttressed by some quality performers who would make a name for themselves in subsequent years on the stage and screen. These include Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, Karl Malden, and, of course, Arthur Kennedy.

Not one of them is a classically handsome or groomed Hollywood star but in the post-war years, they would be crucial to the trajectory of noteworthy films of the decade. Look no further than Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), or 12 Angry Men (1957) as living proof.

The underlining moral conundrum of this film is evident as Henry Harvey is faced with political opposition and heady threats with his doting wife (Jane Wyatt) acting as his pillar of strength. The sides begin to get drawn up as the District Attorney takes a stand to uphold real justice and not just win another conviction and approval from the local populace. It’s a risk but also a move of immense integrity.

The real-life inspiration for this man, Homer Cummings, far from becoming governor took on another position instead, as Attorney General of the United States under FDR. Not too shabby.  The same can be said of this picture. Not too shabby as far as docudrama noir go.

3.5/5 Stars

Call Northside 777 (1948)

callnorth1It’s not really noir and it’s hardly a procedural. After all, it’s not from the point of view of the cops, but an intrepid investigative journalist who is looking to clear a man’s name after 12 years. Henry Hathaway’s film has the feel of a docudrama much in the same vein as it’s post-war contemporaries T-Men and The Naked City.

It’s methodical. It goes through the paces. Setting up the story by first going back to the prohibition era in 1932. That was the year that the unassuming Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte) was sentenced to a 99-year sentence thanks to some eyewitness testimony.

Years later the story catches the attention of a newspaper thanks to an odd ad in a paper offering a $5,000 reward for answers. The editor of the Chicago Times (Lee J Cobb) thinks there’s a story behind it and that sends his ace bloodhound P.J. McNeal (James Stewart) out to dig around for answers. Others have sympathy for Wiecek, but McNeal comes into the story as a skeptic. He’s just looking for an angle, a way to spin it to get a good story. But after testimony, lie detector tests, and bits and pieces of information he begins to change his tune.

However, the puzzle pieces just aren’t fitting together completely and he even begins searching around the Polish sector for the key witness Wanda Skutnik, but the state attorney’s office is putting pressure on him. In the end, it ends up being technology, in the form of blowing up a picture, that is able to set Wiecek free and it’s all thanks to McNeal.

Obviously, the main reason to watch this film is Stewart because this film feels strangely different than anything else he ever did. After the war, he was done with the idealism of Jefferson Smith and later on he would devote himself to westerns and thrillers steeped in psychology. Call Northside 777 is a rather straightforward film, about cold hard facts, and the truth. Almost like an episode of Dragnet with Stewart’s reporter standing in for Joe Friday. His dynamic with Helen Walker feels genuine and real so it’s a shame that his home life did not play more of a role. Richard Conte also does a good job at exuding innocence (very different from his role in The Big Combo). Aside from an understated role from Cobb, we also have E.G. Marshall, and we even see Thelma Ritter for a brief moment.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: On The Waterfront (1954)

8542a-on_the_waterfront_poster“They always said I was a bum, well I ain’t a bum Edie.” That is what washed up prizefighter Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) must try and prove to himself and others for the entirety of this crime-drama. On the Waterfront is ultimately his story of conscience and redemption that we watch unfold. It’s not pretty, but you’ll soon see for yourself.

Living on the waterfront is a tough existence. The mob decides who works and who won’t. Longshoremen are expected to be D & D (Deaf and Dumb) or else they have something coming. That’s how big shot Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) and his boys can run the entire area. They utilize fear and money to keep the working masses at bay. No matter what police or the crime commission might try to do, they have no hold on the waterfront. It’s a jungle out there and if you want to survive you look out for number one, don’t ask questions, and live another day.That is Terry Malloy’s philosophy and it suits him just fine. His brother Charley is Friendly’sright-handd man and he’s made a good life for himself thanks to his brains. Terry is more brawn than brain, and he does what his brother says. One night he blows the horn on a young man named Joey because he called out Johnny Friendly. That same evening Joey is knocked off, literally. Terry tries to justify it. He only thought they were going to “lean on him” a bit. With that incident begins Terry’s inner battle.

The moral compass of the film is supplied by two people. Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint) returns to her town from school with her beloved brother Joey now dead. She cannot understand why no one else will speak out about it or do anything to carry his cause. It is ultimately Father Barry (Karl Malden) who does just that realizing that his parish is the waterfront. He must fight against the injustice of the mob and hope others will join him. It’s a tall order. At the first meeting he holds in the church, a window gets busted, and thugs wait outside for people to beat up on. Terry was sent by Johnny to check it out and it is there that he meets Edie. He is immediately taken by her, and she warms to him. She sees him differently than the others without knowing what role he had in her brother’s death. The Father and Edie encourage Terry to testify at the crime commission after another man is killed in an “accident.”

Friendly can’t have a canary and its Charley’s job to straighten out his brother. That’s when they take their fateful car ride. Terry spill his guts (I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. It was you, Charley.) and Charley responds the only way he knows how. He saves his little brother who he has always looked out for and pays the price.

Now Terry has his reason to testify and soon enough he goes before the crime commission to call out John Friendly. He has broken the waterfront code and gone canary. All respect for him is gone and Friendly wants his hide, but Edie is overjoyed in him. Finally, Terry has left the shackles on the waterfront and freed his conscience. He confronts the big man himself and is beaten to a pulp. But as Father Barry says he may have lost the battle, but he won the war.

Before getting to Brando, I must acknowledge the other players for their stellar performances. Eva Marie Saint is just that, a saint, and she gives a heartfelt performance as Edie. It is her love and care that leads Terry to turn himself around because she sees a little piece of humanity left in him. Karl Malden has perhaps one of his finest roles as the Father who represents a man of the faith remarkably. He is no joke, and he does not cave to hypocrisy. His waterfront sermon is one of the most powerful moments:

“You want to know what’s wrong with our waterfront? It’s the love of a lousy buck. It’s making the love of the lousy buck – the cushy job – more important than the love of man! It’s forgettin’ that every fellow down here is your brother in Christ!”

However, Rod Steiger’s poignant scene with Brando in the car is similarly extraordinary, because he realizes where he has failed. He does not need the words. He just stays silent, and we see it on his face. He is the one who pays for the mistakes, though, and he is far from a bum. Then, of course, there is Marlon Brando himself. He is often hailed one of the greatest actors of all time, but he usually played corrupt undesirables or rebels. Terry Malloy is perhaps his best role, and he is the good guy for once. He must struggle to do what is right by him, and he must struggle to prove himself to others. Brando plays him with some much genuineness, heart, and vulnerability at times. He is far more than the brusque meat head we take him for initially.

Elia Kazan was a champion of hard- edged dramas especially in the 1950s and he never succeeded more so than with this film. The black and white cinematography with perpetual fog drifting in fits the dire mood nicely and Leonard Bernstein’s score further compliments the drama. This is a fine example of Classic Hollywood cinema which was praised back then and lauded now. Our fake blood may have gotten better, but otherwise, it’s hard to top this film.

5/5 Stars

Review: 12 Angry Men (1957)

ebd81-12angrymen1With a title like 12 Angry Men you might come away with the false idea that all the characters in this film are the same, emotionally and otherwise. That is far from the truth. The reason a film like this stands up even today is because the fellows who sit down around that table are everymen that each and every one of us can relate to in some way. Yes, they are all male and all white, but they reflect little bits of us and our own humanity.

But getting down to the specifics, what is 12 Angry Men really and truly about? If you want to break it down, all it boils down to is 12 men gathering in a room to talk out a murder case. It sounds pretty dull and it had the potential to be so. In fact, calling it a courtroom drama is partially a misnomer because we hardly spend five minutes there before the jury is deliberating. We see the members of the jury, hear the final statement of the judge, and get a last look at the young defendant.

What comes next is the beginning of the decision-making process and seeing as it looks like an open and shut case, an initial vote is called for. If everyone agrees, this boy will be sent to the electric chair for killing his father. The vote is taken and it is 11 to 1 with one man holding out. Juror Number 8 (Henry Fonda), an architect, cannot bring himself to send the boy off without talking some more and so, begrudgingly, they do talk.

That is where the true heart of this film comes out, through the discussion and back and forth of the characters. They get around to evidence like the switchblade which the boy supposedly dropped. There were two witnesses: One being an old man living downstairs and the other a middle-aged woman who lived across the train tracks. Then, there is the business about the boy’s flimsy alibi about going to the movies. All are hotly debated and quarreled over.

It just happens to be the hottest day of the year and about an hour in it starts pouring cats and dogs. Tempers reach their apex, feelings are hurt, and major prejudices are revealed. The beauty of this film is not simply the sentiment that the jury switches its decision. The beauty truly comes from this wonderfully colorful ensemble of actors under the direction of Sidney Lumet in a confined space. But before mentioning the direction it is important to acknowledge the players because they are the heart and soul of this story.

Juror # 1: (Martin Balsam) He is the foreman who moderates, and he tries to keep the discussion civil with a relatively calm demeanor. All we know about him is that he is an assistant coach for a high school football team.

Juror # 2: (John Fielder) He is one of the younger members of the jury and a quiet individual with a timid voice. He is a banker.

Juror # 3 (Lee J. Cobb) The main driving force of conflict, he holds out when everyone else switches their vote. He is a businessman who also has familial issues with his son that come into play.

Juror # 4 (E.G. Marshall) A rational and measured broker, he holds that the boy is guilty until some facts are laid out that make him think otherwise.

Juror # 5 (Jack Klugman) A meek man and Baltimore baseball fan who also has a fiery side as well. It comes out that he grew up in the slums when he was a kid.

Juror # 6 (Edward Binns) A straightforward and kindly painter who is respectful in his conduct.

Juror # 7 (Jack Warner) The jokester of the group who makes his living selling Marmalade. He is looking forward to a Yankees baseball game and tries to push the proceedings forward as fast as possible.

Juror # 9 (Joseph Sweeney) The eldest member of the jury and the first to side with Juror # 8. He has a fighting spirit and also some thoughtful observations on the case.

Juror # 10 (Ed Begley) A loud-mouthed older man with a penchant for insults and unsavory remarks about foreigners.

Juror # 11 (George Voskovec) He is a watchmaker and the foreigner in the group. However, he is obviously quite intelligent and passionate about American democracy. He takes seriously the duty that comes with being a juror.

Juror # 12 (Robert Webber) Lastly comes the wisecracking man in advertising who tries to lighten up the conversation. He is the major flip flopper in the group.

A mention now must be made of Sidney Lumet’s direction, because for his first film he was extremely bold to film it essentially in one room. He does it so wonderfully, however, because the confined space only heightens the drama thanks to his progressive change in camera angles. They start above eye level and slowly get lower as the drama increases. He is very rarely stagnant either, having the camera on the move or cutting to different characters. A great example of this is the tracking shot as the jurors enter the room. We are introduced to almost every character in such a fluid, natural way that sets up the story nicely.

There is so much else that could be said about Fonda’s performance and individual actors who I admire, but I will leave this discussion by saying that this is one of the greatest ensembles I have ever seen brought together. The intensity they created makes me want to get up right now and serve on a jury. Too bad I already served my jury duty this year!

5/5 Stars

12 Angry Men (1957)

34a39-12_angry_men12 Angry Men is a very intriguing film, that begins with a jury that is 11 to 1 in favor of giving the death penalty to a young boy. In this ensemble cast headed by Henry Fonda (the one unsure man), tempers flare as the heat rises. By the end this lone juror finally wins over the opinions of the others through discussion. The cast is a wonderful mixture of veteran and young actors, with everything in between. The cast includes Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, Martin Balsam, Jack Warden, John Fiedler, and Jack Klugman. However there are no women or black jurors because this film was made back in 1957. Aside from that, it has a great story which takes place almost entirely in one room. In this way it is much like another classic and favorite of mine, Rear Window. Get ready to fight it out with every word and piece of evidence in 12 Angry Men.

5/5 Stars

 

On the Waterfront (1954)

In his first great crime film Marlon Brando teamed with Elia Kazan and played a very different sort of character. It tells a moving story of a man who chooses to change in very difficult circumstances and to do what is ultimately right. This film has great characters and memorable dialogue that show the complexity of the human race. It proved that Brando could play a true hero and not only a villain.

*May Contain Spoilers
In this film starring a wonderful cast including Brando, Rod Steiger, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, and Eva Marie Sainte, a washed up prizefighter redeems himself. The waterfront is a tough area controlled by a gang led by Cobb. Brando’s Terry Malloy gives them information about a young man, because his brother (Steiger) is second in command. Only afterwards does he find out they knocked the man off and now Malloy must deal with his conscience. He slowly falls for the dead boy’s sister and must tell her the truth. With the help of Sainte and a Father played by Malden, Malloy testifies to put away Cobb for good. However his brother Steiger pays the ultimate price after one of the most poignant scenes in movie history. Kazan behind the camera does a good job at allowing his actors to flourish. This film is definitely a great one telling a classic story of redemption.

5/5 Stars