All My Sons (1948)

Dark secrets surfacing from the past ― a housebound woman obsessed with the belief that her dead son will return at any moment ― and the moral failings of suburban life barely concealed.

All My Sons (1948) is in its modest way a film noir showcase. 

Despite not being the most obvious contender for a hot-spot in the film noir canon, and despite its featuring Burt Lancaster and Edward G. Robinson, All My Sons does effectively what film noir should do. It explores fragility, secrets and demolishes the suburban American family dream.

The beauty of All My Sons lies in the source material. The play, as with the movie, builds carefully to a powerful climax that no amount of bad acting can damage ― the closing lines are always going to be powerful, if you’ve made the journey towards them.

The journey which takes up the most part of the drama of All My Sons, commences with American suburbia, portrayed at its cheesiest, most saccharine and sunniest boy-meets-girl and eats some apple pie best.

Arthur Miller was always keen to show this contrast. It’s how he built those powerful climaxes. The truly subversive element to Arthur Miller's drama is not that he shows the criminal underbelly of the city, and rips through it in a murderous sequence of failed choices; but that he shows the crisp suburban and successful middle class areas of the city, and then slowly opens their wounds to reveal failings that are devastating to behold.

Edward G. Robinson reiterates his hypocritical and ultimately murderous and mendacious self over and over again, with the same laugh, until confronted with the truth he makes the only dramatic move possible.

Burt Lancaster is perfect as his son . . . although not physically likely if you consider him as the potential progeny of Edward G. Robinson and Mady Christians! 

Burt Lancaster is great however, annd is something of a voice of sanity in All My Sons at times, and a dim-wit at others. 

It’s he who must make the choice of unearthing the truth, and when he does, it’s a certain end to his innocence. Louisa Horton, who made very few films in all, is tremendous as his sweetheart ― one of these young women who in these dramas, want for nothing more than the American Dream to come true. 

This was a speciality of Arthur Miller’s, and even as her character Ann Deever arrives, full in the knowledge of the truth ― more so than any of them ― she is the one that has the ability to out it to one side in order to achieve that dream.

Caged! A film noir favourite trope.

The film of All My Sons never becomes pedestrian, even though it seems to be veering towards that at times. The action jumpstarts repeatedly, and never more so than when Howard Duff, playing George Deever, whose father was betrayed and now lies in prison, arrives.

It’s hard to emphasise how nasty wartime profiteering would have seemed in the late 1940s, the post-war era. It’s something that hits harder in the play, and although there is plenty ensemble playing in the movie, which is direct and never upstaged by the rather simple settings, the film nips along so well it never seems like a piece of theatre.

The two business partners have had an intimate and long term family relationship ― like Cain and Abel ― so the close a relationship which draws the sons to the partner’s daughter is quite plausible.

Film noir does the rest, with deceit and the unravelling of the strength of the male.

The American Dream!

The film, in fact is quite an improvement to the play in some senses ― it certainly passes the test of time in a superior fashion, being less moral, less pious and quicker on its feet.

Enter Howard Duff

Burt Lancaster Edward G. Robinson: son and father

Part of the responsibility for the effectiveness of the film goes to Chester Erskine who side-lined Arthur Miller's leftist ideas and blames the crime of shipping defective aeroplane parts on Keller's own greed rather than the Capitalist system that created him.

One of the changes between this film and the play of All My Sons, is that on stage the business partner who is in prison is never seen and only talked about. In this movie, Burt Lancaster as Edward G. Robinson's surviving son has a new scene in which he goes to the prison to learn the truth about his father.

"All my sons . . . they were all my sons."

The House Un-American Activities Committee took this film apart in their glory days of 1948. Arthur Miller was blacklisted, and so was Mady Christians who played Mrs. Keller. Elia Kazan turned friendly witness and Edward G. Robinson was what was termed 'grey listed' ― that is to say, he was not forbidden to work as such, but he didn’t get any big budget work until Cecil B. DeMille hired him for The Ten Commandments.

Mady Christians had already publicly criticised the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1941 and likened the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee's investigation of propaganda in US film to Nazi harassment of film and radio artists in the 1930s.

In 1950, the FBI's internal security division began investigating Christians, who had been identified as a "concealed communist" by a confidential informant.

When Christians' name appeared in Red Channels, the so-called bible of the broadcast blacklist, her career was effectively over.

Mady Christians and Edward G. Robinson - blacklisted.

When, on October 28, 1951, aged 59, Christians died of a stroke, some attributed this to the stress of being subjected to FBI surveillance and being blacklisted.

Such a shame then, for her to flee the Nazi regime, only to land in the midst of this.

Film Noir remembers her, and never better than here in ALL MY SONS (1941)

1 comment:

  1. I loved this film and came back to it once I explored the rest of Lancaster's films. In many of them, there is one scene with an expression on his face that tells you all about the character he is portraying. In this one, that look of fear when he races up the stairs at the end is the one. Chris loves his father still, in spite of everything. Lancaster was not a mask-face as some people think. He was a subtle and brilliant actor.