Escapism and propaganda dominated movie screens during the World War II years, but after the rallying cries ceased and disillusioned soldiers returned home, a sobering cynicism crept into American culture. A thirst for more realistic stories tackling relevant social issues consumed the more mature American audience, which craved substance and complexity over the shallowness of lavish musicals and gooey romances. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck, the chief of 20th Century-Fox, spearheaded the trend, forging a new genre of motion picture driven by uncompromising grit, emotional ambiguity, and taboo topics. 'Gentleman's Agreement' was one of the first, and arguably best, films to fall into this fledgling category, as it addressed head-on the explosive and shameful problem of anti-Semitism.
Because our country prides itself on freedom of speech and religion, one would think post-war Americans would have been hyper-sensitive to the wrongful discrimination of Jews, especially after learning of the Holocaust's horrific events. Yet surprisingly, anti-Semitism infected large segments and afflicted many aspects of American society, and with tact and grace 'Gentleman's Agreement' blows the lid off this insidious cancer. Based on the best-selling novel by Laura Z. Hobson and adapted by award-winning playwright Moss Hart, the movie, at times, overzealously attacks the issue, pummeling us with righteous speeches and indignant outbursts as it loudly broadcasts its message, condemning in the process not only the unfair treatment of Jews, but also prejudice of any kind. (Ironically, though, not a single black face can be seen anywhere in the film, which speaks volumes about the unwillingness of 'Gentleman's Agreement' - and Hollywood - to even hint at the nation's gaping racial divide. To be fair, Zanuck would gingerly examine that topic in both 'Pinky' and 'No Way Out' a couple of years later.)
The story chronicles the forthright effort of widowed magazine writer Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) to expose anti-Semitic behavior in the U.S. by posing as a Jew himself. Though his new girlfriend, Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), suggested the topic, Schuyler slowly begins to question the degree of her tolerance, which puts a strain on their burgeoning relationship. And as he experiences firsthand the devastation even the quietest bit of prejudice can exact - and witnesses how it affects his young son (Dean Stockwell) and best friend (John Garfield) - he becomes even more fervent in his fight to unearth the seeds of discrimination and eradicate them from our soil.
Both 'Gentleman's Agreement' and its director, Elia Kazan, won Oscars in 1947, but in today's era of greater tolerance, the movie possesses a decidedly dated feel. Its ideas will always remain pertinent, no matter how evolved our culture becomes, but the precious, grandiloquent presentation is very much of its time. From the opening frames, it's apparent 'Gentleman's Agreement' is an "important" picture, and it often seems burdened by the responsibility. Several fine dramatic moments are bookended by talky, repetitive scenes that drag on too long, and as the minutes tick by, the earnest tone and lead character's obsessive vigilance become tiresome, prompting a beleaguered "we get it already" reaction from the viewer.
Yet despite these faults, 'Gentleman's Agreement' is slick, sophisticated, adult, literate, and thought-provoking, and contains a gallery of excellent performances. What the film depicts especially well is how people can harbor mild prejudices without even realizing they exist, and that words and actions don't completely encompass bigotry; attitude plays an equally large role and inertia fuels its proliferation. A raised eyebrow or involuntary stammer, the movie tells us, can communicate prejudice just as strongly as a caustic remark, and though speaking out against it in polite society is difficult, it's the only way to stem its rising tide. Such subtleties balance the screenplay's preachy passages and add welcome intricacy to what is often a far too straightforward motion picture.
Peck's quiet strength suits the role well, and during the scenes in which he provides counsel and comfort to his son, we see glimmers of the future Atticus Finch in 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' His scene in the hotel when he's denied a room despite a valid reservation stands as the film's most famous moment, and Peck plays it with just the right amount of simmering indignation, forcefulness, and barely contained decorum. He also shares a relaxed rapport with the always sincere, underrated McGuire and stalwart Anne Revere, who plays his mother, that makes both relationships natural and believable. All three actors were nominated for Oscars, as was Celeste Holm, who took home the statuette in the supporting category for her portrayal of a brittle, lonely fashion editor who befriends Schuyler, champions his cause, and secretly pines for him.
In all, 'Gentleman's Agreement' garnered eight Academy Award nominations, including ones for its script (it lost to 'Miracle on 34th Street') and editing, but it's hard to shake the notion that its victory in the Best Picture category was more for its message than presentation. During the course of his long career, Kazan directed better films, but 'Gentleman's Agreement,' despite its talky nature and laser focus, endures because - to quote its ad campaign - it calls a spade a spade. It may not be the finest film to examine anti-Semitism, but it was the first, and that counts for quite a bit.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Gentleman's Agreement' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no promos or previews precede it.
Fox has taken great care with this Best Picture winner, fashioning a stellar 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that beautifully showcases Arthur C. Miller's elegant black-and-white cinematography. The opening credits look wonderfully crisp against a textured background, and contrast and clarity continue strong across the board, with fabrics, fine details, and close-ups all sporting a nice degree of sharpness. As a result, rear projection work during the exterior New York sequences is noticeable, but that's not entirely a bad thing. Grain levels tend to fluctuate, and some scenes adopt a hint of softness, but the entire enterprise maintains a warm film-like feel that's especially pleasing to the eye. A varied gray scale enhances depth, distinguished by rich, inky blacks that only occasionally devolve into crush, and intricate patterns remain rock solid and resist shimmering.
No digital issues or enhancements afflict this transfer, and the print is pristine, with nary an errant speck or mark distracting us from the action at hand. Faithful to its source, natural looking, and inherently watchable, this strong effort from Fox does this Oscar-winning picture proud.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track supplies clear, clean sound with only a smattering age-related hiss that is only noticeable in the quietest scenes. Any pops or crackles have been meticulously erased, allowing the ambient noise of typewriters and traffic noise to shine through. Consistent with the original audio, all the sound is anchored up front, but Alfred Newman's string-laden score adopts a nice stereo feel and fills the room well. The swelling violins produce a marvelous purity of tone, along with a striking immediacy that makes the music come alive.
Dialogue, of course, is king, and the literate conversations come through clearly, even when competing with the score and background elements. Bass is muted and the dynamic scale doesn't get much of a workout. Though bells and whistles are absent from this track, it nevertheless serves the film well, and its unobtrusive nature is a plus.
All the extras from the 2003 DVD have been ported over to this release (with the exception of a still gallery), and it's a nice package that film buffs will appreciate.
'Gentleman's Agreement' may not be as incendiary as it was upon its release in 1947, but this message film still tackles a meaningful subject with tact, intelligence, and sensitivity. Anti-Semitism surely has waned in this country over the years, but Elia Kazan's drama reminds us just how virulent and insidious the seeds of prejudice - any prejudice - can become. Though its heavy-handed presentation often weighs it down, 'Gentleman's Agreement' remains a well-made movie filled with excellent performances by a standout cast. Fox's Blu-ray treatment earns high marks, thanks to a slick transfer, solid audio, and a nice array of supplements. This Oscar-winner may have lost its bite, but its bark is still potent enough to merit attention, and even today we can gain something from it. Recommended.