During the late 1940s, filmmaker Edward Dmytryk found his career in grave jeopardy due to the McCarthyist witch-hunts that disrupted Hollywood. The creator of such classics as “Murder My Sweet” and “Crossfire,” he refused to cooperate with the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee and was jailed for contempt of Congress. With other noteworthy film professionals, Dmytryk became part of the so-called “Hollywood Ten” and was effectively barred from Hollywood. In order to keep his career alive, he moved to London and began working in the British film industry (which was not involved in the Communist blacklist).
Dmytryk’s most famous production while in London was his 1949 adaptation of “Christ in Concrete,” based on the best-selling novel by Pietro di Donato. Starring fellow expatriate American Sam Wanamaker (himself a victim of the blacklist), the film was honored with the Grand Masterpiece Award at the Venice Film Festival and enjoyed commercial success throughout Europe and was picked up for U.S. commercial distribution in the 1950 by Eagle-Lion, a small but prestigious distributor best known for its release of the 1948 masterpiece “The Red Shoes.” However, the difficulty in marketing a film with blacklisted talent kept “Christ in Concrete” (also known as “Give Us This Day” and “Salt to the Devil”) in very limited American release; advertisements for the film’s New York premiere conspicuously omitted reference to Dmytryk and Wanamaker. Although Dmytryk eventually returned to the U.S. to actively denounce Communism and thus resume his career without interruption, “Christ in Concrete” virtually disappeared and for a while the film was actually considered lost. Bootleg videos made from worn 16mm prints emerged in the late 1980s, but beyond that dubious channel “Christ in Concrete” was unavailable for reappraisal.
Mercifully, “Christ in Concrete” has finally come back in a fully restored edition that briefly played in theatrical presentations and is now on DVD. While perhaps not the classic some cineastes would hope for, “Christ in Concrete” is nonetheless a challenging and important film which provides a very unusual look at the concept of the proverbial American dream gone sour and violent.
“Christ in Concrete” takes place in New York in the 1920s. The Italian-American Geremio (played by Wanamaker) is barely eking out a living despite the construction boom that brings the city’s skyline higher and higher. When his proposal of marriage to the lovely Irish-American lass Kathleen is rejected due to his unsteady financial status, Geremio arranges with his friend Luigi to bring over a girl from Italy for a quickie marriage. The girl chosen is the lovely Annunziata (the beautiful Italian actress Lea Padovani, in her first English-language role), who agrees to marry Geremio only if he owns a house. Impulsively, Geremio lies in his correspondence to her that he is a homeowner, even though he only has a deposit on a home in Brooklyn and is hundreds of dollars away from buying it. The owner of the house agrees the rent the structure to Geremio and Annunziata for their honeymoon, and Geremio keeps the truth from her until the last day of the honeymoon when the house’s owner abruptly shows up while she is preparing lunch in the kitchen.
Geremio takes Annunziata to his residence: a dismal apartment in a noisy, chaotic tenement. The following years are harsh on the young couple: they quickly become parents and the increasing expenses keep their financial goal further from reach. The Great Depression strikes a near-fatal blow to their dreams, and the desperate Geremio takes a job at a demolition site with a history of occupational hazards. When his old friend Luigi is severely injured, Geremio blames himself and, strangely, seeks out Kathleen for comfort (she never married and somehow always seems to be hovering on the periphery of his life). Needless to say, this creates further problems for Geremio’s life.
Clearly the most striking aspect of “Christ in Concrete” is the film’s meticulous recreation of New York on a British sound stage. Except for the title sequence, which was shot by a second unit around New York, the entire film brilliantly rebuilt the city indoors. From the horrible tenement slums where the shocked Annunziata finds herself stuck to the seedy bars where the workmen get drunk to the construction sites where the towering New York skyline soars higher and higher, the film’s production design and art direction is a marvel to behold. Cinematographer C. Pennington Richards’ crisp camerawork frames this handsome production, and the restoration of this title brings this exception black-and-white artistry to its fullest.
Yet “Christ in Concrete” is anything but perfect. There are no major flaws, but rather a series of little problems which eventually add up. Occasionally, the film’s British roots peek through this Italian-American tale, most notably when the wedding sequence is abruptly punctuated by an extended serenade performed by a distinctly Irish tenor (which seems fairly unlikely for an Italian-American celebration circa 1920). Also, the make-up for all of the male characters is very heavy and dark, as if no one realized that Italy is also home to fair-skinned and light-haired people. Furthermore, some actors also do a barely-passable job in hiding their natural speech patterns by affecting Italian and New York accents: Kathleen Ryan’s portrayal of Geremio’s mistress Kathleen sounds very British-proper while the youngsters playing Geremio’s children sound like they came out of a West End production of “Peter Pan.” And fans of British comedy will inevitably get distracted by the appearance of funnyman Sid James in the serious supporting role of construction foreman.
Dmytryk played on his talents as a film noir director to employ intelligent camera blocking and lighting, making this sad tale visually darker as its storyline progresses. Sometimes, though, the film noir look seems too glossy and artsy for this particular story; one could wish that Dmytryk would have been more influenced by the neo-realist approach which was coming out of the Italian cinema at that time and which might have reflected the tone and scope of the film more appropriately. Still, Dmytryk was always pleased with his work here and was even quoted as saying “Christ in Concrete” was his favorite film project.
In case you are wondering about the somewhat strange title, it would be impossible to explain it without dropping a major spoiler. Strangely enough, religion plays a surprisingly small role in the film and the reference to Christ seems to be more of a marketing provocation rather than an overview of what happens on screen. In any event, the resurrection of “Christ in Concrete” from its long period in oblivion to a new place in commercial channels is clearly a reason for film lovers to give thanks.