Though I can’t truthfully say that Gentleman’s Agreement is a bad film, it is an example of a case in which I’m inclined to because I expected more based on who’s directing it. Its examination of antisemitism is interesting and morally gratifying, but unfortunately the film just doesn’t have the emotional intensity I’ve come to associate with Kazan. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement, but that doesn’t mean the film is a total loss.
Phil Green (Gregory Peck) is an average American. He’s a widower with a young son, Tommy (Dean Stockwell), and lives with his mother (Anne Revere) who helps out around the house. They just moved to New York, where Phil is given an assignment to do a series for a liberal magazine on antisemitism. He struggles to find an angle, eventually hitting upon the idea of pretending to be Jewish for a period of several weeks and then write about any persecution he may encounter. This takes a toll upon his new relationship with Kathy (Dorothy MacGuire), and affects every part of his life. He learns some tough lessons along the way, exposing antisemitism in places where it was assumed not to exist.
Generally, I agree with the viewpoint that is presented here, and it must have been especially relevant back in 1947. Kazan is meticulous in showing antisemitism in various forms, from very subtle and insidious to outright and obvious. While he’s pretending to be Jewish, his son gets picked on, and Phil’s best friend Dave (John Garfield) gets called names in the middle of a high class restaurant. He encounters a secretary with low self esteem, brought on mostly by the discrimination she faces because she is a Jew. Less obvious is the discrimination that happens for no apparent reason. We know it’s wrong, Phil can see it’s wrong, but the people involved are generally good people and just put up with prejudice because it’s easier to maintain the inertia instead of fighting against it. It’s a profound point that probably needed to made after the United States had just gone through the ordeal of World War II. Unfortunately it’s still relevant today.
The film also has an interesting way of getting around the fact that the hero of our story is actually not, in point of fact, Jewish. He pretends to be Jewish, and gets some flack about it, mostly from his fiancee Kathy. Does he have a right to fight antisemitism even though he is not Jewish himself? He has a very good conversation with Dave about this: “I don’t care about the Jews as Jews. It’s the whole thing, not the poor, poor Jews.” They attack it from more of an equality for all standpoint than anything else. This could be seen as compromising, but I think it works well with the story. Plus, once Phil reveals to people he’s actually a Gentile it changes a lot of people’s perceptions and make them think a bit about their assumptions, which can only be a good thing.
So, this is all very interesting and I like the approach that Kazan and the gang took here, but all in all it just doesn’t do enough. The whole point of Phil pretending to be Jewish is to involve his readers emotionally, to deal with human issues as opposed to statistics or impersonal second hand anecdotes. He wants to write from the heart and ends up touching a lot of people in the film, but it doesn’t translate to the audience as well. I’m not sure why exactly the film fails on this front, one reason could be the acting, and another could be the everyday setting in which all of these events take place. There aren’t too many big confrontation scenes, which a film doesn’t necessarily need to be interesting, but it helps. There are a lot of good conversations about intolerance, and people changing their minds, but we don’t necessarily see the carryover into action, which I think was a mistake on Kazan’s part.
Gentleman’s Agreement won three out of its eight Oscar nominations. It ended up winning picture, director, and supporting actress from Celeste Holm (who played a colleague of Phil’s at the magazine). It’s not a terribly important part, but she does have a good scene towards the end. It lost out on adapted screenplay, editing, best actor for Peck, best actress for MacGuire, and supporting actress for Revere. Though Gentleman’s Agreement is a thoughtful movie that dares to tackle a difficult and controversial subject, the heart and daring the filmmakers must have felt in order to get the film made fails to make a dramatic impact on the screen. There were problems with censorship and the House of Un-American Activities Committee; people went through a lot to get this film made. It made a big impact at the time, but I just wish it had been a better film.
“So far I’ve been digging in facts and data-I’ve sort of been ignoring feelings.”
Long story short: 2.5/4