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Gentleman’s Agreement’ powerful but dated

Analise Lipari | Monday, February 27, 2006

The world in which director Elia Kazan’s “Gentleman’s Agreement” takes place is strikingly different from the one we know today. The film’s subject matter deals with the issue of anti-Semitism in American and world cultural ideas or beliefs. Kazan attempts, using the ever-gentlemanly Gregory Peck, to tackle this issue head-on with strength and subtlety, but the film suffers from being dated by its subject matter.

Peck stars as Skylar Green, a subdued but passionate magazine writer who has recently moved to California with his young son and mother. Green’s latest assignment is to write a piece on anti-Semitism in America, and decides to live undercover as a Jew in order to get a fresh new angle on what he sees as a tired subject riddled with statistics. He tries to use the experiences he gains firsthand by claiming his name is “Greenberg,” and the results are rather striking.

What hurts the film as it ages is the subject matter itself. While for a modern audience the subject feels somewhat tired, it was certainly more relevant to Peck and his costars. The issue of anti-Semitism is less prevalent today, and this lack of relevancy hurts the film’s potency. The issue was undoubtedly important when it came out, since it was chosen as Best Picture at the 1948 Oscars.

The film is to be commended, however, for its tackling of a complex and deeply felt issue at such a time in American history. Examining prejudice acutely and on multiple levels is the film’s true strength. Peck’s episodes of encountering anti-Semitism, however subtle or overt, prove to be the emotional pull and strength of the picture. It is during the smaller incidences of prejudice that the depth of the issue comes to light, and Kazan directed these moments beautifully.

One of the film’s strongest mo-ments is when Green’s young son Tommy (Dean Stockwell) comes home from school after having been taunted for “being” Jewish by his classmates. The immediate reaction of Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), Green’s love interest, insists that it’s simply a dirty trick, insisting that he isn’t really Jewish.

For Peck’s character, this is more appalling than the actions towards his son, as it displays her own subtle prejudices. The widespread influence of Green’s experiment, impacting even his child, is an understated way for Kazan to characterize the depth of the issue’s multifaceted nature.

“The movie even touches on Jewish self-hate,” critic Pam Grady said in an article from Reel.com, “when Phil’s secretary, Miss Wales (Havoc), who has been passing as a gentile, finds out that Phil has gotten management to bar discrimination on the basis of religion at the magazine, telling him, ‘It’s no fun being the fall guy for the kikey type.'”

The film suffers from choppy editing in several spots, unnecessarily jarring the viewer’s perception from time to time. Technical issues aside, the subject matter of the story overshadows smaller faults in the filmmaking.

The film’s final moments, especially the exchange between Green and his ill mother about the nature of the constitution and their shared belief that “freedom for all” includes the Jews, is arguably overplayed but, again, is powerful in essentials. It again proves that the quiet necessity of the subject matter keeps the film relevant for its time and a potent learning experience for the modern film viewer.

The standout, however, is John Garfield as Peck’s childhood friend – and Jew – Dave Goldman. Garfield proves the strongest performer, portraying the life of the victim of a most subdued form of prejudice with genuine emotion and a delicate sense of realism.

The film ultimately proves to be an interesting albeit somewhat dated look at a hotly-debated issue in American society.