Friday, June 12

The Directors: Martin Ritt

Most of his films are thoughtful studies of relationships.  They were often seen in tandem with struggles of equality, usually featuring poor or ethnic characters.  He seemed to care about his characters like little girls care for their dolls.  He groomed them, watched out for them, wept for them, smiled at them, kept them locked in his brain.  His themes, while bold and decidedly liberal in nature, took a back seat to his beloved characters.

Good actors, particularly of that same liberal bent, wanted to work with Martin Ritt.  Once they did, many would work with him again... and again.  Paul Newman saddled up six times...  Sally Field three times.  (Interesting that Ritt didn't direct them when the two actors appeared together in Absence of Malice.)   He would draw performances out of 13 people which led to Oscar nominations and three would win (Field, Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas).

Manhattan-born, he began a love affair with the American south after attending college in North Carolina.  I had seen a few of his earliest films without paying attention to his connection to them.  But after I saw a couple of his southern-themed ones, I paid close attention to him forever more. 

He was the most liberal of movie directors, the one they called the neo-realist with a social conscience.  It is fitting that in college he would meet future director Elia Kazan, a fellow liberal, and one whose path he was to cross a number of times.  Both would wind up in that hotbed of liberal expression, the Group Theater, and once Kazan co-founded The Actors Studio, Ritt would become a treasured member there.  At both institutions he would act.

During the Depression Ritt went to work for FDR in his New Deal Works Project Administration as a playwright for its government-funded theater support program.  It was here that Ritt ran into throngs of people who were influenced by the radical left.  That included a brief flirtation with communism, although Ritt always claimed he was never a member, despite espousing some of their ideologies.

His various skills led him to accept directing assignments in television.  By the early 1950s the Red Scare had taken over the country with a lot of attention devoted to New York City and Hollywood.  Before long, Ritt was blacklisted and no longer employable in television.  Oddly, the film industry looked the other way and hired him to direct his first movie.

Edge of the City (1957) was pure Ritt.  Injected into the story of a union dock worker who is bullied by a corrupt boss was every thought or emotion Ritt ever had about government, the human condition, racism, poverty and every other oppressive condition he could think of.  Sidney Poitier and John Cassavetes helped make the film a valuable one.  I had a kick watching it a few nights ago.

The same year he made one of his most unusual pictures of all... a soap opera.  No Down Payment was a look at the shenanigans of four couples living in the same California subdivision.  It had booze-soaked backyard BBQs, shoddy business deals, lust for others' spouses and even a rape.  It starred Jeff Hunter, Sheree North, Tony Randall and a relatively unknown Joanne Woodward.  I remember seeing it at a drive-in, in my jammies with my parents who were red-faced and tongue-tied when I started asking too many questions about the rape. 

In 1958 Woodward brought her boyfriend, Paul Newman, along for the oh-so-suthin The Long, Hot Summer.  He was a suspected barn-burner who comes across a hot-tempered, lusty, unscrupulous family and she was the eldest daughter who fought the lust until she no longer could.  Yeah, you Ms. W and a lot of other folks, too.  Ritt said about Newman... he has a cool sexuality that is unique in the American cinema... an amused quality and a high promise of sex and danger.  Newman already knew what he had and was eager to allow Ritt to exploit it in five more films.

The director's next three were less-than-stellar although I quite liked the last of them, 5 Branded Women (1960), a story of women in war with Silvana Mangano, Jeanne Moreau and Vera Miles.  His biggest miss was 1958's Black Orchid, a mob story that didn't register despite the presence of Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn.  The Sound and the Fury (1959), about a formerly-aristocratic southern family, had too much sound and not enough fury and Yul Brynner with hair seemed out of place, as was Woodward.

It must have been like a family reunion when Newman, Woodward and Poitier joined the director for Paris Blues (1961).  It was a good film, a bit undervalued, I think, about expatriate musician-friends trying to make a go of it in The City of Light and two comely visitors who charm them.  Poitier's real-life girlfriend at the time, Diahann Carroll, completed the quartet.

The following year Newman was almost unrecognizable in a small role as an over-the-hill boxer in Adventures of a Young Man but very few saw it.  Director and actor got together again the next year for the best thing either of them ever did... and considering the duo we're speaking of, that's saying a lot.  Hud was a masterpiece of movie-making.  Ritt would receive his only Oscar nomination for it.  I reviewed Hud earlier so we won't renew the effort but if you missed it, you only need to click here.

Newman and Harvey from The Outrage

The Outrage (1964) was an unusual western... more or less one main set, talky, full of many of Ritt's pet themes which he must have delighted in... that didn't do well.  It was based on Akira Kurosawa's legendary Rashomon concerning three different versions of a crime involving a newly-married couple and a Mexican outlaw.  Despite some flaws, of course I liked it and it didn't hurt that it starred Newman with another of my favorite actors, Laurence Harvey.

I never much cared for 1965s cold-war thriller, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold... too dour, too bleak but with a great Richard Burton performance.  Maybe I should look at it again.  I do remember it being fairly popular. 

Newman went from Mexican to a white man living as an Indian in 1967s rather standard western, Hombre.  The Mafia was revisited in The Brotherhood (1968) and Ritt was at home with social injustice (and betrayal) in the mining story, The Molly Maguires (1970).  None, however, were the successes he was looking for.

Some of Ritt's most acclaimed work came in the 1970s and for films that he had trouble getting financed because the big studios were afraid they wouldn't make money.  (Writing that sentence makes my blood boil.  I'll do some deep breathing.)  The Great White Hope (1970) ruffled a few feathers but the story of racial injustice involving a loud-mouthed, black, champion boxer and his white girlfriend was a film that had the director's name wRITTen all over it.  Powerful performances from James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander resulted in Oscar nominations.

Cecily Tyson and Paul Winfield in Sounder

Sounder (1972), an elegant, elegiac story of a black sharecropper family during the Depression, was an even tougher sale but Ritt won out.  It was beautifully filmed and gorgeously acted by young Kevin Hooks while Cecily Tyson and Paul Winfield deservedly copped Oscar nominations.  Later than year came Pete and Tillie (1972), a no-great-shakes romantic-comedy, completely unworthy of the great director, although it did contain a delightful, Oscar-nominated performance from Geraldine Page.

I have long admired anything from or about the southern writer, Pat Conroy.  His early days as a teacher to young black children on Daufuskie Island in South Carolina provided a charming role for Jon Voight in 1974s Conrack and a lovely experience for me. 

Ritt got to have a little payback when he made 1976s The Front, starring Woody Allen and Zero Mostel, which concerned the blacklist.  It was surely one of his most personal films.  But he went slumming when he made 1978s Casey's Shadow, a horse training story with a mugging Walter Matthau.

In 1979 Ritt gave us Norma Rae, one of his most popular films.  A classic feel-good piece of cinema, it featured a whole new Sally Field (eschewing nun's habits and surfboards) as a real-life North Carolina textile worker who leads the fight to establish a union.  She claimed Ritt was gruff and irascible but she never bonded with any director like she did him.  He said that she was one of the best, perhaps the best, actress I've ever worked with.  Everyone liked her in this role, everyone, and she nabbed her first Oscar.

Norma Rae and her mama

Two years later they teamed up again for Back Roads costarring Tommy Lee Jones, about two drifters who team up for a trip through the south.  It could have been better.  Ritt and Field had one last go of it with 1985s Murphy's Romance, a most popular comedy costarring an Oscar-nominated James Garner.

Tucked in between the last two Field movies was 1983s Cross Creek, my favorite of all Ritt's films (23rd on my 50 Favorite Films list) and without question, Ritt's last good work.  The story of novelist Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her life in the Florida swamp country while she wrote The Yearling was as charming and delightful as a film can be.  Mary Steenburgen, Peter Coyote and Alfre Woodard were all quite magical.  A full report is here.

Ritt was not well in the last several years of his life but he cranked out a couple more.  Nuts (1987) was just that.  It was a deeply- flawed film overpowered by Barbra Streisand.  Stanley & Iris, with Jane Fonda and Robert DeNiro, was sincere but ultimately just didn't come together.  It was Ritt's swan song.

This is a rare posting in that I mentioned every one of the director's films.  In most postings, some films are usually skipped but then Ritt only made 26.

The best writing and therefore the best films come from character-driven stories and it is what Martin Ritt did best.  (The fact that he chose southern locations for so many of his films was a bonus for me.)  He was most fortunate to have worked on numerous films with the married screenwriting team of Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch.  He was proud of his work and claimed that not too many directors always got to do the work they wanted to do, but he felt he did.

He died of heart disease in Santa Monica in 1990 at age 76.  He was survived by his only wife and two children.

Next posting:
Good 60s Films


  1. how sad I didn't realize how many of my favorite movies Ritt directed....I'll certainly try to watch more of these classics....our loss he died so young (yes, 76 is young).

  2. Your comment captures the very reason I love writing this blog. To think that I could write something that encouraged others to seek out an artist's work is pretty heady stuff for me.