The Uncommon Mr. Ritt

The Uncommon Mr. Ritt

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Mar 2nd 2018

The 26-movie legacy of director Martin Ritt (1914-1990), born 104 years ago today, utilized virtuosic acting, writing and technical talent as varied as they come, but film buffs and scholars have always – with good reason – laser-focused on the undeniable threads running throughout, dubbing the former Group Theatre member an “actor’s director,” or the 1950s blacklist survivor who overcame that scourge to morph into “America’s premier social issues filmmaker,” a term bestowed on him by The Films of Martin Ritt: Fanfare for the Common Man author Gabriel Miller. Sally Field, a three-time Ritt star who won many accolades including a Best Actress Academy Award® for Ritt’s Norma Rae (1979), wrote of him as a regular guy in that book’s foreword: “Marty’s heart was always with the working class, and he had nothing good to say about management. He had faith in ‘the people.’ He always said to me, ‘If given the chance and the proper information, the people will always do the right thing.’” In his films, whether small and personal or acutely topical and global in their scope, the characters would contend with and perhaps even unwittingly or knowingly become subsumed in the wrong thing before emerging at the (hopefully) right end, more likely in scarred determination than outright triumph. Twilight Time has already championed the filmmaker with three releases from his body of work that have since sold out their limited-edition runs, The Sound and the Fury (1959), Hombre (1967) and Conrack (1974). But three hi-def Blu-ray gems remain to afford the pleasures of well-made storytelling and top-flight performances. 

The Long, Hot Summer (1958) blazingly channels the flavorful Southern prose of William Faulkner in a sultry barn-burner about a disruptive outsider (Paul Newman) who throws the tempest-tossed clan of and a backwater Mississippi town run by a moneyed local bigwig (Orson Welles) for a collective loop via a sexy romantic dalliance with a local beauty (Newman’s soon-to-be-wife Joanne Woodward) and sheer charismatic ambition. Love of a more mature and more transformative kind becomes the key to socioeconomic improvement in the blue-collar New England-set Stanley & Iris (1990), in which a widowed factory worker (Jane Fonda) strikes up a relationship with a struggling illiterate man (Robert DeNiro) and as a result, bring out each other’s potential for sell-fulfillment. That these are true filmmaking family affairs can partially be accredited to the fact that these marked the first and final collaborations (of eight) with screenwriters Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., an astonishing run, which also included The Sound and the Fury, Hud (1963), Hombre, Conrack, Norma Rae and Murphy Romance (1985), that proved that Ritt and the married writing team functioned on a finely-tuned wavelength. But the years of working on “golden-era” live television also afforded Ritt big-city cred and also fueled the electric current of the director’s teamwork with fellow blacklist survivor, screenwriter Walter Bernstein, on The Front (1976), set in 1953 Manhattan during the dark period of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s anti-Communist witch hunts. An improbably but amazingly aptly cast Woody Allen plays the opportunistic pal of a blacklisted TV writer (Michael Murphy) who agrees to be the “front” for his writing work, and finds himself in a moral dilemma that pits the promise of big-time rewards against the darkness of scurrilous behavior by government operatives. In Ritt’s formidable movie oeuvre, these three entertaining and surprising titles seem all of a piece with the man himself. As Miller writes in his concluding paragraph: “Of the generation that came to maturity in the thirties, Ritt remarked, ‘My generation was totally committed to humanism.’ In his films, that commitment translates as an affirmation of individual and collective redemption, equality of opportunity, and the promise of America as a sanctuary for diverse and disadvantaged seekers of a new world. The journey from despair to hope that characterizes Martin Ritt’s career as a filmmaker represents his refusal to let go of his ‘humanism’ and his enduring belief in the American ideal.” You can explore the enduring value of The Long, Hot Summer, Stanley & Iris and The Front (available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/26669/THE-FRONT-1976/) on TT disc, and look forward to another Ritt study of suburban American manners and mores, the provocative No Down Payment (1957), which will be covered here in the weeks ahead before it arrives in April.