Martin Scorsese presented Elia Kazan with a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1999 amid controversy over whether Kazan should be honored after he "named names" for the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. No one disputes his legendary body of work, including the films On the Waterfront (1954), East of Eden (1955) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), among others. And since Kazan's death in 2003, the debate has been moot. But in Scorsese's new film, Letter to Elia, he sheds light on why he thinks Kazan named names, and offers a personal insight about what Kazan revealed about himself in his films.
The Prytania Theatre's Classic Movie Series presents Kazan's Panic in the Streets (1950) and Scorsese's film as a double feature. Panic (pictured) was filmed in New Orleans and was one of the early major Hollywood movies shot outdoors. Kazan chose a noir style and used non-actor New Orleanians in many speaking parts. It follows a policeman and U.S. Public Health Service agent as they try to thwart an outbreak of a deadly plague after a dead body turns up and is infected with a mysterious bacteria. City officials aren't concerned with the death of an unidentified laborer, and dock workers don't talk with outsiders, especially when it might concern smuggling, but the two believe they have less than 48 hours to find the source and prevent an epidemic.
The issue of breaking trust is a prominent theme in many of Kazan's major works, especially On the Waterfront. Scorsese's hourlong Letter is a self-indulgent personal narrative, at times more about himself, but it offers an interesting psycho-history detailing Kazan's emigration from Turkey to the United States and his career path from actor to director. Scorsese sees elements of self-portrait in East of Eden, On the Waterfront and other works. The film contains great excerpts from Kazan's best works, and it illuminates choices Kazan made both on the set and on the record. Tickets $5.50. — Will Coviello
Panic in the Streets and Letter to Elia
Noon Sat.-Sun. and Wed., Sept 11-12 and 15
Prytania Theatre, 5339 Prytania St., 891-2787; www.theprytania.com