“Maybe you learn more from the work than the man,” says Martin Scorsese near the end of docu “A Letter to Elia.” Abiding by this notion, Scorsese and co-helmer Kent Jones’ sure-footed tribute to Elia Kazan keeps the illustrious helmer’s films front and center, even when Scorsese digresses revealingly to note how they affected him personally. Adding the title of best onscreen film-studies lecturer to his already wide-ranging body of success, Scorsese here fashions a solid, respectful primer, flawed only by brevity and key omissions, that’s destined to deliver at fests and rep houses before hitting ancillary.
Pic debuts in Venice where it complements program-mate “Wanda” (1970) by Kazan’s wife, Barbara Loden, and is skedded to show at the New York Film Fest alongside Kazan’s most personal film, the rarely seen “America, America” (1963). Next stop for “Letter” will be airings on PBS this October, but ultimately the pic is destined to be a kick-ass DVD extra for some lucky distributor, supplementing, say, a premium edition of either Kazan’s “On the Waterfront” (1954), “East of Eden” (1955), or “America, America,” the three pics examined and excerpted most here.
Before enumerating the many things the film does well, it’s worth noting what’s not there. It would seem rights problems and clearance costs have reared their ugly heads to conspire against the inclusion of excerpts from Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951), which arguably rivals “Waterfront” in renown today. Although the docu samples a fair bit from 1945’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” the first film Kazan helmed, and even shows a delightful montage of Kazan’s bit-part thesping turns prior to that, barely a mention is made of such important titles as “Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947), “Baby Doll” (1956) or “The Last Tycoon” (1976). There’s just enough from “Splendor in the Grass” (1961) to make one suspect the filmmakers calculated exactly how much they could get away with under the terms of Fair Use.
Having said all that, what the film does cover, it covers very well. Scorsese and Jones, with an ace assist from editor Rachel Reichman, weave, layer and juxtapose clips from the films they do have access to, along with archival footage of Kazan himself being interviewed, and straight-to-camera exposition from Scorsese, reading a teleprompter script with uncharacteristic slowness. Playing down the whole hoo-haw about method acting that always gets trotted out in discussions of Kazan, the script emphasizes his use of realism, locations and the subtlety of perfs in Kazan’s best work. Film geeks might have been pleased with more study of Kazan’s filmmaking technique, but they’ll be pleased attention is paid to lesser-known, underrated works like “A Face in the Crowd” (1957) and “Wild River” (1960).
First and foremost, the pic plays like an illustrated essay brimming with ideas, rather than a straight biodoc. Apart from noting Kazan’s immigrant background, “Letter” barely touches on his personal life. Laudably, it doesn’t shy from covering the ugliness surrounding Kazan’s naming of names to the House Un-American Activities Committee, which blighted the careers of nine people — the eight named, and Kazan’s own, given his increasing vilification by colleagues thereafter.
Technically, credits are pro. The transfer of 35mm material to the digital format seen was beautifully executed, with full respect given, for instance, to the Technicolor palette and CinemaScope ratio of”East of Eden.”