CHRIST IN CONCRETE (GIVE US THIS DAY)
(director: Edward Dmytryk; screenwriter: Ben Barzman/from a story by Pietro di Donato; cinematographer: C. Pennington Richards; cinematographer: C. Pennington Richards; editor: John Guthridge; music: Benjamin Frankel;cast: Sam Wanamaker (Geremio), Karel Stepanek (Jaroslav, House Owner), Lea Padovani (Annuziata), Kathleen Ryan (Kathleen), Charles Goldner (Luigi), Bonar Colleano (Julio), Sidney James (Murdin), Bill Sylvester (Giovanni); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Rod E. Geiger/N.A. Bronston; Rank Films/Plantaenet; 1949-UK)
“A fine example of a neo-realism drama.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Edward Dmytryk’s Christ in Concrete is a fine example of a neo-realism drama and a worthy social conscious film about the Italian-Americans and immigrant workers exploited by the bosses, but it feels burdened with stilted language and contrivances. It was shot in the Denham studio in England, where the tight-budgeted film had to use the money hustling skills of producer Rod E. Geiger to constantly raise money to bring the film in on time for its 60-day shooting schedule and to build in England a costly New York setting. The British studio satisfactorily re-created the gritty New York atmosphere, and upon Dmytryk’s suggestion built steamy street manholes to make things seem realistic. There was also hiring trouble with the exiled director, as it was especially hard to get English speaking Italian actors needed to make the film authentic. The only one with an Italian name in the cast was Bonar Colleano, but that was his family’s circus name. His actual family name was Sullivan, hardly Italian. The casting of the lead actress also was difficult, as Dmytryk felt Louise Rainer who was tentatively cast for the part by the producer was not suited for the role. By seeing Lea Padovani in an obscure Italian film, Dmytryk thought she might be better suited to play the part of an immigrant Italian wife. The problem was that she could hardly speak English. But luckily she managed with the aid of a dialect coach to learn enough English for the film. Dmytryk ended up quite pleased with her performance. The casting of Sam Wanamaker, also blacklisted like Dmytryk by Hollywood, was a good decision. He looked like an immigrant and was a forceful actor. The only problem, was he knew the film had money problems and demanded to be paid in dollars beforehand. Dmytryk talks with affection about this movie in his wonderful bio It’s a Hell of a Life But Not a Bad Living.
Dmytryk (“Murder My Sweet“/”Crossfire“/”The Caine Mutiny“) was blacklisted during the witch hunts for his Communist party affiliations and was also jailed for contempt of Congress as a member of the infamous Hollywood Ten who refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. “Christ in Conrete” has just been released on DVD and video after years of being lost or possibly destroyed. The film was carefully restored from its archival 35mm nitrate originals at the British Film Institute. Though well received by critics and receiving many foreign awards, including the Grand Masterpiece Award at the Venice Film Festival, it failed to do any box office. The English released it as Give Us This Day, since the original title they thought of as blasphemy. The film ran into trouble when released in America, as the Legion of Decency threatened exhibitors from showing it. The J. Arthur Rank company tried to generate business in America by further changing the title to Salt to the Devil, but to no avail as the film’s bitter indictment of the American Dream didn’t play well with a prosperous postwar American audience.
The film is based on the autobiography of Pietro di Donato. His father was a bricklayer killed in a construction accident on Good Friday, leaving young Pietro as the family provider. Christ in Concrete became a best-seller, and was chosen as Book-of-the Month Club Selection for 1939 over The Grapes of Wrath.
The film opens in the beginning of the Depression in NYC. Bricklayer Geremio comes home late at night when drunk after seeing another woman. At his tenement apartment he’s met by his upset wife Annuziata, whom he hits out of frustration, and the disturbance awakens his three children. The oldest is the 9-year-old Paul, who greets his beloved father by singing Happy Birthday. But Geremio abruptly leaves rather than cause any more friction. In a flashback that begins in 1921, we trace what events led Geremio to come home drunk. The flashback starts with Geremio’s marriage proposal to pretty local girl Kathleen being rejected because he doesn’t make enough as a bricklayer. Later Geremio becomes nostalgic about a photo his friend Luigi, the veteran bricklayer, shows him of people in his Italian hometown. Anxious to get married quickly, an arranged marriage is contracted with the girl in the photo Geremio is attracted to. In her letter, she insists on living in a home. Geremio can’t bear to wait any longer and lies, telling her he owns a house in Brooklyn. But the truth is that the poverty-stricken worker is buying the house on the installment plan and can’t move in until he makes all the payments.
For the next nine years the hard-working bricklayer struggles to make the payments but since his work is not steady and the wages are low, he is forced to lived in a tenement. They almost have enough, but the Wall Street crash in 1929 leaves him unemployed. When his former foreman Murdin informs him he has become a contractor on a dangerous demolition job and wants him to be the foreman, Geremio is reluctant to take this unsafe job. Murdin cut corners and disobeyed safety regulations in order to put in a low bid. But Geremio is pressed for cash and decides to risk it. He hires Luigi and three other friends who always stick together on the job. But when Luigi gets crippled in an accident, guilt overcomes Geremio and he takes up with Kathleen and goes on a drinking binge.
Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.
The film now returns to the point the flashback started and carries on in the present. Annunziata forgives her hubby when he comes to his senses, and since it’s Good Friday he is inspired to make peace with his loyal bricklayer friends and tells them the job is unsafe. Just before quitting time, the area Geremio is standing on collapses and he falls into the tub of setting concrete with his arms outstretched like Christ on the Cross. His last words are “I can be saved, save me! And he further exclaims: “This cannot be the answer to my life.” In the last scene the grieving widow is comforted by a priest, as she attends an insurance hearing to decide on how much she is to receive for the accident. Annunziata asks “How much is a man worth?” The priest responds, “That according to man’s laws, it is the figure he earns the rest of his life.” As a bitter irony she receives $1,000 in compensation which is enough to buy the house after nine years of struggling.
“Concrete” is strongest in the simplicity of its moving message against exploitation and its questioning of the American Dream. It’s a sincere work that doesn’t point out anything that is untrue, but its political message is clearly a liberal one. Sam Wanamaker as the hard-pressed bricklayer gives a stirring performance. It just would have been easier to digest, if it eased up on all the heavy symbolism and self-pitying among the main characters.
REVIEWED ON 6/7/2003 GRADE: B +