Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Gregory Peck is The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

By Steve Evans

“The Motion Picture That May Very Well Be THE VERY GREATEST!” ~ From the promotional poster.

Studio hyperbole aside, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit remains a powerful film of post-World War II hopes and dreams when Americans started chasing elusive promises of the good life engineered by cynics on Madison Avenue.

Although the film may not be "THE VERY GREATEST," it certainly feels like one of the longest. Another entry in the Fox Studio Classics series, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is available in a newly restored and digitally remastered print originally screened in Cinemascope. The images are stunning; the story, less so.

Self-indulgent preamble…
My interest in writing about this film stems from a midnight conversation with my brilliant wife about the myriad ways society attempts to control, cajole and coerce people into conformity. From the moment we are old enough to attend preschool, perhaps even earlier through exposure to television, the conditioning begins. We learn to be good citizens, become educated, find jobs and spouses, get mortgaged for 30 years and keep the system operational by working jobs we hate for bosses we despise in order to buy things we don’t need. And to pay taxes.

Some of us wonder why. Most of us don’t. We just do it.

There is subtle regimentation: Stay in line. Move along. Remain orderly. Consume. Abide. These are powerful forces that can compel us to make decisions we might later regret. I think occasionally about the jobs I have held for too long, knowing that it was time to move on, yet needing a paycheck and kidding myself into thinking that security is more important than happiness. The same can be said for relationships that have run their course. Anyone who ever toiled too long in a bad marriage with a coarse, manipulative spouse can certainly relate.

Speaking of fools, I have spent some time in the proximity of MBA students, whose obsession with money is both appalling and amusing, considering that they appear to have little else to fulfill their lives. Contrary to their shrill insistence and arm-flapping histrionics, I have seen firsthand that MBAs create nothing and merely extract the value produced by other individuals. They do this through clever accounting, seductive marketing and shell games that involve moving money, debt, contracts and risk instruments of tangible value around and around in a circle, peeling off pieces of that value with each rotation until there is nothing left. They are proud of this behavior. And yes, it is meaningless. We need only to trace the origins of the current economic crisis to see that MBAs and people of their mindset are the greatest threat to society in the world today. Occasional acts of terrorism pale in comparison to the harm that greed-fueled individuals can and do cause in their quest for wealth.

And even if they achieve their goals, what then? I've heard people say with complete candor, “You've gotta play the game,” as if that was reason enough to play it. As musician Alan Price sang on the unforgettable soundtrack to O Lucky Man!, they smile while they're faking it, laugh while they're taking it, as if nobody's gonna know. And when they are inevitably wheeled to the cemetery, what have these self-absorbed fools really accomplished?

We don’t have long to enjoy this world, as I was reminded last month with the sudden death of an old college friend, who sustained a massive stroke and died at the age of 45, reportedly leaving behind a slate of unfinished projects and unfulfilled dreams.

Perhaps some perspective is needed as we race headlong toward death.

The California Redwood, or Sequoia, can grow to heights in excess of 350 feet. Some are more than 1,500 years old. That’s more than 20 generations of people. Entire dynasties have come and gone during the life of a Sequoia, as it reaches inexorably toward the heavens.

Time means different things, depending on your lifespan. As an aside, there is a thought-provoking scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo set in a redwood forest near San Francisco, where Kim Novak ponders the fleeting nature of her existence to a puzzled Jimmy Stewart. That scene encapsulates precisely what I mean.

Since this is a site devoted to cinema, let’s bring it on home with a closer look at a little parable made half a century ago, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956).

And now for a bit of plot…
Gregory Peck (Spellbound, To Kill a Mockingbird) stars as World War II veteran and New York executive Tom Rath, a man in conflict. He struggles with a natural desire to provide the best for his wife and children against the dawning realization that grabbing for the brass ring of corporate success is not only less important than his family — the two objectives may be mutually exclusive. Adjusting to civilian life hasn't been easy. As he makes his way through each difficult day, Rath often finds his mind wandering back to the war (presented in lengthy flashbacks). Troubled by his gnawing conscience over a secret, wartime affair, Rath tries to placate his nagging and status-obsessed, but ultimately loving wife Betsy (Jennifer Jones, who had starred with Peck a decade earlier in Duel in the Sun). Betsy wants to keep up with the Joneses and pushes Rath to take a better job with a Madison Avenue advertising agency (where he can make a whopping $10,000 per year; how times have changed). But the new position working for an obsessive executive (Frederic March, A Star is Born) throws Rath’s delicate family life out of balance, adding office politics and backstabbing to the daily barrage of aggravations. As the pressure mounts, a revelation from his former lover in Italy plunges Rath into a moral crisis.

Context, Historical Significance
Based on a novel by Sloan Wilson, the film was written and directed by Nunnally Johnson (The Three Faces of Eve), who has a flair for character-driven drama. So it’s disappointing to report that good performances and outstanding action sequences in the war flashbacks are punctuated by long stretches of turgid melodrama. This is a rewarding film experience, but viewers may wish they could spend an afternoon in an editing suite with the original negative, which would benefit from judicious tightening. Seldom have I seen this many plot points competing for dominance in one movie. Let me be clear: This is a very good picture, just not the masterpiece it was advertised to be and that I had hoped for.

The intriguing narrative structure may throw off some viewers. Peck’s character immerses himself in wartime flashbacks that last unusually long, leaving the contemporary story of family and responsibility marooned, yet never completely forgotten. The long-flashback technique enriches our understanding of Peck’s tortured executive, but gives short shrift to other characters when the story switches back to the present. At 2½ hours, the film covers plenty of turf, though not at a pace calculated to induce edge-of-your-seat anticipation.

Gregory Peck in action at war reminded me of no one more than Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan (1998). Both are essentially decent men prepared to do whatever is necessary to get home, although Peck’s soldier creates an unforeseeable dilemma when he falls in love and begins an affair with an Italian woman, Maria (a gorgeous 24-year-old Marisa Pavan, The Rose Tattoo).

The war sequences are harrowing and expertly staged for maximum emotional impact and spectacle. Famed Fox producer Daryl F. Zanuck pumped money into his productions, but more importantly, at least in this picture, every dollar is on screen.

Those who enjoy star gazing will see Lee J. Cobb (Call Northside 777, The Exorcist) as a gruff judge, but look fast for an uncredited DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy of “Star Trek” fame) as an Army medic in one of the flashback sequences. The picture features starkly realistic war scenes and may be among the first movies to explore post-traumatic stress disorder before there was a name for the condition.

Back home, the film also offers some pretty potent observations on marriage and parenthood in an era when coping with a troubled career and family responsibility often meant finishing the day with a stiff jolt of gin and a splash of vermouth. As a message movie with a dire warning, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit remains as relevant today as half a century ago.

What’s on the disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. Fox presents a gorgeous restoration of the film in the original Cinemascope aspect ratio of 2.55:1 in warm, glowing Technicolor. The restoration comparison on the extras menu provides compelling proof that the cost of film restoration and preservation is a vital, worthwhile investment. Fox treats the cinematic legacies in its vaults with as much care as discriminating film collectors have come to expect from boutique companies like Criterion. Truly, this is a sharp restoration job by technicians and film historians who know what they’re doing. Audio is crisp in digital stereo.

Disc extras are generous and include a MovieTone news reel of the film's premiere, five trailers of classic Fox pictures, a stills gallery, and a commentary track by James Monaco, author of How to Read a Film, a landmark 1977 text on understanding motion pictures. With a suggested retail price of about $15 this DVD offers tremendous value to the collector.

Caveat lector…
This is a tale that did not require 152 minutes to tell. The picture drags for long stretches in New York, as Peck's character grapples with the stress and strain of modern (mid-1950s) life. These sluggish sequences are almost offset by the gripping flashbacks to World War II, as intense as anything to come out of American cinema in the 1950s.

If Arthur Miller posed a question about the human condition and tried to supply an answer in his 1949 play Death of a Salesman, then The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit could serve as a rebuttal. The film would make an excellent tonic to Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) on a double feature, which is highly recommended.

Though occasionally tedious (ironically, like much of modern life), the film ultimately transcends its own excessive length to deliver an enduring message about the importance of living an examined life.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. nice essay. kill the fucking music that blasted me out of my fucking chair.


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