Photo Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Photo Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

April 14, 2016

WATCH ME IF YOU CAN | Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan

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For a long time, Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller were very good friends.  They worked together on plays and films, as the former directed the latter’s play Death of a Salesman, which eventually became one of the best American plays of all time.  However, the Red Scare and threat of communism had a bad reputation for destroying both personal and business relationships.  Their literary and cinematic responses were analogous to subtweets and retrospectively produced some of the greatest plays and films of the twentieth century.

Kazan and Miller were asked to testify under HUAC and identify names of those involved in communism in order to be let free and unscathed from this scandal.  Miller refused to come into court, while Kazan attended two hearings.  The second, which was in 1952, was when he denounced the names of seven writers, including Miller.  It cost him their friendship, and many other friends in the entertainment world.  Miller refused to save himself at the expense of accusing others who may not have been guilty.

In Kazan’s defense, naming names  was an anti-communist effort, while Miller felt otherwise.

As a response, Miller wrote The Crucible.  Intolerance and hysteria brewed amongst those gullible enough to believe in witchcraft make the story moving and incredibly captivating, political context considered or not.  Miller was influenced  by the time he spent in Massachusetts researching the Salem witch trials of 1692. He recalled in his memoir how the HUAC hearings were “profoundly ritualistic.”

Throughout the play, there was so much emphasis on the goodness of a name.  Overall, there were a total of 19 executions in Salem from the Witch Trials.  Everyone lived in a constant state of fear, similar to those frightened by Communists.  It was so crazy how everyone was so willing to believe the girls.  Their town was full of paranoia, finger-pointing and overall outrageous remarks.  The trials were scrutinizing and the hangings were made a public spectacle.

Photo Courtesy of Twentieth Century FOX

Photo Courtesy of Twentieth Century FOX

 

Retrospectively, many people think that Miller did not mean to poke fun at HUAC and write a play as a direct attack against Kazan.  The incredible and moving story of those in Salem, 1692, was merely similar to what was going on in the government, and a dramatization of the witch trials was best penned by someone who personally went through interrogation.  Regardless, The Crucible is the most widely recognized and discussed analogy when it comes to culture pieces and the Red Scare.

Kazan was highly criticized for his actions, and, as a result, he made On the Waterfront to further defend his stance after The Crucible was out as a play.  Kazan integrated issue-driven subjects into his films, out of concern for social issues.

When the FBI approaches Malloy to force any information he had out of him, Malloy is told “you have every right not to talk if that’s what you choose to do…the public has the right to know the facts.”  Similar to the pressure put on Kazan and Miller, authorities are trying to get Malloy to give information.  Father Barry (portrayed by Karl Marden) also calls for confessing (not sins but information) in order to emphasize Kazan’s point about informing as the morally correct choice.  He says, “how can we call ourselves Christians and protect us from the murderers with our silence?” And everyone who doesn’t step up when bad things are happening share the guilt.  Father Berry’s belief in the transformative power of faith guides Malloy in the right direction.

The film was influenced by a series of articles in the New York Sun by Michael Johnson, which followed longshoremen and their killing of a dock hiring boss from New York.  The leading characters were based on real people that worked on the docks, which also gave the Kazan’s content some veracity and authenticity beyond being an anti-communist propaganda film.  Many longshoremen were also used as extras in the film.

The raw power struggle is vividly depicted in both scripts, between the necessity of naming names, clearing your soul by doing so and ratting out your friends, whether or not the accusations were entirely correct.  These cultural artifacts were the result of betrayal, so even though Kazan and Miller remained on bitter terms, great works came into existence.

2 thoughts on “WATCH ME IF YOU CAN | Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan

  1. I feel I should correct some misinformation in this piece. While Kazan named names, Miller was not one of them, Miller was merely annoyed at Kazan for naming anyone. They fell out for sure, but did come together again in the 1960s, when Kazan directed After the Fall (that actually contains a character based on him, who testifies before HUAC!). Meantime, Miller was not called to testify until 1956, when his marriage to Marilyn Monroe brought him into the public eye–three years AFTER he wrote The Crucible. Also, On the Waterfront, rather interestingly was actually based on a Screenplay Miller had written for Kazan to direct back in 1951, called The Hook, for which they had been unable to find producers (because they weren’t willing to make the bad guys into communists).

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