The second evening of the 18th Annual Noir City Film Festival was a double bill of films from Universal Pictures, ALL MY SONS (1948) and TAKE ONE FALSE STEP (1949).
These two films were among several brand-new prints struck especially for the festival by Universal Pictures. As was made clear to the audience, these prints are not restored, which would require a big financial investment, but they are newly made. That said, except for the occasional scratch, the prints were excellent.
ALL MY SONS was based on the 1947 Broadway play by Arthur Miller, which starred Ed Begley (Sr.), Arthur Kennedy, and Karl Malden. Although I read the play eons back for a high school English class, this was the first time I'd seen a production.
The movie does show its theatrical roots, at times feeling like a filmed play; the filmmakers did manage to successfully "open up" some of the scene settings. Beyond that, the acting by Edward G. Robinson and Burt Lancaster is so good that the "play on film" aspect really doesn't matter.
The story begins with the arrival of Ann Deever (Louisa Horton) as a house guest to Joe (Robinson) and Kate (Mady Christians) Keller. Ann, who has been absent from town for a few years, is the daughter of Joe's former business partner (Frank Conroy), who is in jail for approving the shipment of defective airplane parts when Joe was home sick. Failure of the bad parts had led to the deaths of nearly two dozen soldiers in crashes.
Ann had been engaged to the Kellers' son Larry; although it's been years since Larry was declared missing in action, his parents -- especially Kate -- refuse to believe he could be dead, even keeping his room intact. The Kellers are thus very unhappy to learn that Ann has been "unfaithful" to Larry and now plans to marry their other son, Chris (Lancaster).
As Chris and Ann struggle to find happiness despite his parents' expectations and the anger Ann's brother George (Howard Duff) feels toward the Kellers over their father's imprisonment, Chris begins to suspect that his father might have known about the shipment of the defective parts himself.
ALL MY SONS was an absorbing 94 minutes, with a group of fine actors in an interesting story. This was one of a superb string of '40s roles for Robinson, which also included DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1944), OUR VINES HAVE TENDER GRAPES (1945), THE STRANGER (1946), and KEY LARGO (1948), to name just a few. For someone who wasn't a traditional "leading man," Robinson certainly played an outstanding number of memorable parts throughout the decade.
Robinson's Joe Keller is a self-made man trying to hold on to everything he's got, whether it's his business or his missing son. He rationalizes endlessly until he's finally forced to face reality when Ann shares a letter from Larry. Robinson's final scene, when he finally admits to being a "defective person," is searing.
I've never been an especial fan of Lancaster, but he was in an impressive number of fine films himself, and over time I have come to appreciate him much more than in years past. He is outstanding in this as the son back from service who would like to move on with his life, including having his own wife and family.
We watch Chris's faith in his father crumble as he begins to accept the truth from Ann's father and brother, and Chris's ultimate confrontation with Joe is powerful. Beyond the big scenes, I also appreciated the small touches Lancaster brought to the part, such as putting on glasses to drive. Although the development of their relationship has taken place offstage, his solicitous behavior makes us believe that Chris loves Ann.
This was Louisa Horton's first film appearance. She was a busy actress in stage and New York television productions who appeared in just a small handful of films; her only other movie of the '40s or '50s was the film noir WALK EAST ON BEACON! (1952). Horton was married for a number of years to director George Roy Hill, with whom she had four children; I found a rather charming obituary for her which was published by the local paper in Saltaire, New York.
Horton was acceptable as Ann but I honestly found her on the bland and colorless side, a sort of less interesting Cathy O'Donnell type; some of that might be attributed to her serious character and the burdens she faces, but I never quite keyed in on why Lancaster's Chris was attracted to her in the first place.
In contrast, the vivacious neighbors played by Arlene Francis and Elisabeth Fraser jolt the screen to life when they appear. Harry Morgan turns up for a single scene as Fraser's husband, with Lloyd Gough having a more substantial role as Francis's doctor husband.
ALL MY SONS was directed by Irving Reis and filmed in black and white by Russell Metty.
ALL MY SONS is available on DVD in the Universal Vault Series. It also had a 1998 release on VHS.