Saturday, February 25, 2006

Finely Pressed

A Movie Review

Based on Sloan Wilsons semi-autobiographical novel, and with screenplay and direction by the great Nunnally Johnson (The Grapes of Wrath), The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit has been called the ultimate 50's movie. This title comes not by way of the movie being highly representative of films of the era (because its not) but rather due to the fact that the picture taps so deeply into the layer just below the surface of the notoriously banal decade. Gregory Peck plays Tom Rath a WWII veteran earning $7,000 dollars a year and living in Connecticut with his wife and three children. Tom is existing in a state of odd detachment from life, his kids hardly listen to him, he's averse to taking risks and his wife Betsy (Jennifer Jones, who also started opposite Peck in the notorious 1946 western Duel in the Sun) has grown disappointed in him and repeatedly brings up how the now decade past war has changed her husband.

Like many veterans who have been through the trauma of battle Tom finds his war-time experiences difficult to talk about, infact he's kept them so bottled up that his wife hardly knows what happened to him during the four years he was away. We however do get to see what happened to him through a series of prolonged flashbacks. In 1945 Tom was an Army captain in Italy as part of the allied occupation force, when his unit receives orders that they will be shipped to the pacific in six weeks time he becomes convinced that he will die in battle. Around this same time his army buddy Sgt. Caesar Gardella (Keenen Wynn) introduces Tom to Maria Montagne (Marisa Pavan) the cousin of his Italian girlfriend Gina. Despite his being married Tom and Maria have an affair at the end of which Maria revels to him that she is pragneit with his child. Tom has little time to react to this as he is transfered to the Pacific theater where he accidentaly kills a man under his command with a grenade, an event that severely traumatizes him. Deforest Kelly, best known as Dr. McCoy on the original Star Trek plays the army medic who informs Peck of the solders death, acutely using the line "this mans dead, captain."

Feeling that his wife's criticisms of his apparent malaise could be accurate, Tom decides to take a risk and leaves his old job at a charitable foundation for a position in the new field of public relations at the fictitious broadcast network GBC. At GBC his new coworkers come to see Tom as threat when he quickly becomes the new confidant of Network President Ralph Hopkins (Fredric March), who finds that Mr. Rath reminds him of his much beloved only son who died "in the war". Infect Mr. Hopkins has his own set of personal problems that provide counterpoint to Tom Raths story. Recently diagnosed with a weak heart Ralph Hopkins is attempting to make amends with his long estranged wife (Ann Harding), and 18 year old daughter (Gigi Perreau) who has been fooling around with unreputable older men only interested in her money. He is also trying to give something back to society by spearheading a national mental health campaign (his wife may or may not have mental problems, its seemingly implied but difficult to tell from her behavior) for which Tom is serving as his point man.

There is also a subplot involving a legal dispute between Tom and Edward Schultz (Joseph Sweeny) long time butler to his recently passed grandmother, over the rights to the deceased estate. It turns out that Mr. Schultz never liked the late Mrs. Rath and had been infact quietly padding his accounts with her money for years. It is in this story line that Lee J. Cobb gets the best part in the picture as Judge Bernstein an empathetic country magistrate constantly guzzling bi-carbonate.

The tone of the picture is that of a house of cards, everything so precariously balanced in the characters lives that you feel the whole thing could come crashing down at any moment. The world of the picture is very well developed and realized growing out in all sorts of directions, giving us a piece of period life and a combination of characters that is wonderfully varied. The multiple story elements of the film all start to coalesce together toward the end when Tom is contacted by Maria (through old Army buddy Caeser who did in fact marry her cousin) and learns for certain of the existence of his 10 year old son. The resulting message on the importance of both marital honesty and forgiveness is a lesson that should not be lost on the viewer. A very good film The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit is defiantly a man worth meeting.


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