Boldly serious yet never laborious or particularly lugubrious in tone, Gentleman’s Agreement plays like Borat in chrysalis form, a barely veiled furious and hard-bitten narrative exposé on anti-Semitism that makes the trials of forming such an exposé the very meat of its story. It’s telling, however, that the film is less concerned with the beats of the newsroom and investigative journalism than it is in performance, as widowed journalist Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) decides to present himself as a Jew for six months in the hopes of fashioning a fresh take on the issue of anti-Semitism.
This deep thematic concern with performance in relation to anti-Semitism, of course, ties Gentleman’s Agreement to The Great Dictator, but Kazan, even at his best, had a hard time translating his fury into bitter guffaws. So, the film is a sort of melodrama, in which Green’s social experiment aligns and intertwines with his romancing of his editor’s niece, Kathy (Dorothy McGuire), and settling into home life with his mother (Ann Revere) and son, Tom (a very young Dean Stockwell). Much like Sacha Baron Cohen’s delirious and fearless comedy, Green’s experiment uncovers a more subtle, disguised, and easily excusable brand of anti-Semitism being practiced in the upper and middle classes of New York City, and the repercussions of bigotry begin to not only take their toll on his personal life, but key into an angrier, arguably obsessive sense of humanism.
Even Kathy, with her don’t-upset-the-applecart mentality, is eventually revealed as a co-conspirator in vile sectarianism, and Tom feels the blowback of his father’s work at school, as he also tangentially pretends to be Jewish. Green’s righteousness, however, is at least partially unfounded, a fact brought up by his best friend, Dave (John Garfield), a Jewish soldier. Moss Hart’s mildly preachy yet invigorating script smartly distinguishes the disparity between facing anti-Semitism as a Jew and sympathizing or empathizing with Jews in the face of such discrimination. The indignation and fury of social justice is, for many, such a potent cocktail that they disregard or entirely dismiss the personal; in essence, their identity is swallowed by an ideal.
In a near-prophetic artistic gesture, Kazan presages and diagnoses the cult of social-issue martyrdom in the cinema as wholly well meaning but ostensibly shallow and unwise; the Potsdam Agreement and Hirohito’s surrender were, as major world events, barely settling into the social mindset and history at the time of the film’s release. Arguably Kazan’s first major work, Gentleman’s Agreement resonates with outrage and anguish, but its overarching thematic stronghold is far more fascinated in the importance and dangers of masquerade, the dividing yet highly permeable lines between façade and identity.
And yet, Kazan smartly evokes and defends the power of narrative to summon truths thought largely intangible, as Green’s article is ultimately widely regarded as watershed writing, a coincidental prognostication of the film’s tremendously positive reception. The director, who emigrated to America from Istanbul and was brought up in the Greek Orthodox faith, clearly offers Green as his proxy, making Gentleman’s Agreement something like a fictional but sincere articulation of its making, but the tone of anger that rumbles beneath this whip-smart drama unmistakably comes from someone who knows all too well what it’s like to not be welcomed into the club.
Fox tends to take the Blu-ray transfers of its past hits nearly as serious as its recent ones and there’s no reason to think Gentleman’s Agreement is an exception to that rule. The physical details and textures of the actors’ faces, the wardrobe, and the swanky NYC environs all exhibit a noticeably advanced clarity over the DVD releases of the film. The source print is impeccably clean, and the black levels are nice and inky, and the gray tones are potently differentiated. There’s also very little evidence of digital manipulation. The audio is nearly as good, with clear and crisply dialogue presented out front, and Alfred Newman’s fantastic score sounds full in the mix from beginning to end.
This is one of those commentaries that ends up sounding patchy, with Richard Schickel rotating in and out with cast members June Havoc and Celeste Holm. That being said, there’s a good amount of information in what’s said, about the production, Kazan’s direction, and the film’s unlikely popularity; it’s the same commentary that was featured on the DVD release. AMC’s featurette on the background of the film is just as interesting, though just a bit repetitive. Old preview reels and a trailer are also included.
Elia Kazan’s furious look at barely dormant post-war anti-Semitism and the lengths of performance gets a classy Blu-ray release from Fox with interesting extras and a top-shelf A/V transfer.