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Global NeorealismThe Transnational History of a Film Style$

Saverio Giovacchini and Robert Sklar

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9781617031229

Published to University Press of Mississippi: March 2014

DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781617031229.001.0001

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“The Exalted Spirit of the Actual”

“The Exalted Spirit of the Actual”

James Agee, Critic and Filmmaker, and the U.S. Response to Neorealism

(p.71) “The Exalted Spirit of the Actual”
Global Neorealism

Robert Sklar

University Press of Mississippi

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores the postwar film work of James Agee, Helen Levitt, and Sidney Meyers, which can be seen as a possible response to Italian neorealism outside of mainstream American cinema. Agee, who wrote the first prominent critiques of neorealist films in the United States, was involved in two independent nonfiction film projects, The Quiet One and In the Street, both of which were released in 1948. His participation in these two productions came about through his friendship with the photographer Helen Levitt, and Janice Loeb, a painter of private means who, according to some accounts, financed the making of both works. Loeb produced The Quiet One and brought on Meyers as director.

Keywords:   Italian cinema, American cinema, Helen Levitt, Sidney Meyers, postwar films

Credit the U.S. film industry with early and powerful recognition of post–World War II Italian cinema. The Hollywood Motion Picture Academy in 1947 awarded its first-ever special Oscar for a non-English-language film to Sciuscià (Shoeshine, 1946), stating that “the high quality of this Italian-made motion picture, brought to eloquent life in a country scarred by war, is proof to the world that the creative spirit can triumph over adversity.” Two years later the Academy’s board gave another Oscar to Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948), “the most outstanding foreign language film released in the United States during 1949” (a prelude to the establishment in 1956 of an annual foreign-language film award). More remarkably, Academy members— most of whom were capable of reading only the films’ English-language subtitles—gave Oscar nominations to the screenplays of these two films as well as to Rossellini’s Paisà. Bicycle Thieves also became a cause célèbre in the struggle over Hollywood censorship, with several major theater circuits releasing an uncut version in defiance of the movie industry’s production code.1

In the 1950s, as Italian cinema of the immediate postwar years came to be regarded as a distinct historical movement, U.S. film culture adopted the name that Europeans applied to those Italian films: neorealism. It was becoming clear that neorealism’s legacy to world cinema had outlived its brief Italian reign. As a mode of film production and perhaps as a model for representing contemporary social life, neorealism inspired filmmakers in Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere, offering a template for filmmaking practices that could succeed apart from or in opposition to U.S. global market dominance and Hollywood’s industrial style. Even in the United States, filmmakers working outside the dominant commercial paradigms—most notably the black independent film movement of the 1970s, with works such as Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1976)—took heart from neorealism’s example. Filmmakers as (p.72) disparate as Stan Brakhage and Robert Frank have acknowledged neorealism among their influences.2

More recently, commentators have begun retrospectively to assert that neorealism made an immediate impact on postwar mainstream U.S. moviemaking as well. In his “official” history of the Oscars, for example, Robert Osborne writes, “The gritty, realistic look of [Shoeshine], coming at it did on the heels of Rossellini’s Open City and other post-war European pictures, was to have a major effect on altering the glossy, glamorized look of Hollywood movies in the next decade.” Scholars search the film noir canon for resemblances to the harsh, barren cityscapes of neorealist films. Perhaps most frequently cited as the apotheosis of neorealism’s impact on postwar Hollywood cinema is the multiple Academy Award–winning 1954 film On the Waterfront. Director Elia Kazan “was heavily influenced by Italian Neorealism,” states the Encyclopedia Britannica, one of many similar accounts, “and became an advocate of location shooting because of its greater realism.”3

These expansive claims for neorealism’s importance to postwar Hollywood rank among the mysteries of historiographic fashion. No doubt systematic research may yet produce intriguing and perhaps significant nodes of specific affinities and practical interactions. For the present, however, most such assertions remain unexamined, undocumented, and generally improbable. Kazan seems to have made only one published remark concerning neorealism, referring to his casting of a nonactor in the lead role for his 1964 film, America America. In commenting on On the Waterfront, he emphasized Marlon Brando’s performance and Budd Schulberg’s screenplay—not surprisingly, for a director whose aesthetics were formed by live theater work. More broadly, location work in postwar Hollywood has been regarded as a sure sign of neorealism’s influence and as a guarantor of heightened “realism.” Both are contestable propositions.4

As for grit versus gloss, one could argue that with greater utilization of color and the advent of widescreen technologies, glamour thrived as never before in the postwar era. On the subject of realism, critic Manny Farber lamented in 1952 that postwar Hollywood movies had become “mannerist” and no longer offered an “intelligible, structured image of reality.” This is rather too large a debate to take on adequately here, but it indicates how much the questions of neorealism’s place in critical thinking about cinema in the United States and in the aesthetic practices of U.S. filmmakers in the immediate postwar years remain in the realm of breezy generalization and common cliché.5

The historian’s task at this point involves pursuing the historical traces and laying the groundwork for analysis with evidence. The questions “What is neorealism?” and, more broadly, “What is realism?” take on relevance in this (p.73) context as part of the discursive framework of a past historical era. As André Bazin cautioned in his essay on Bicycle Thieves, “‘Realism’ can only occupy in art a dialectical position—it is more a reaction than a truth.” In searching for a dialectical response to neorealism in the postwar United States, this preliminary inquiry discovers it first outside the precincts of Hollywood, in the practices of film criticism and independent nonfiction filmmaking. The figure who inaugurates the critical discourse and serves as a link between aesthetic theory and production is James Agee, a journalist, poet, novelist, and film critic.6

Agee wrote the first prominent critiques of neorealist films in the United States with his reviews in The Nation magazine of Roma, città aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945) in 1946 and Sciuscià (Shoeshine, 1946) in 1947. But his endeavors concerning film reach considerably beyond his role as a reviewer. Before and during his years as a critic—which encompassed 1942–48 for The Nation as well as 1941–48 for Time magazine, which printed his reviews anonymously— he published several screen treatments in literary periodicals. His career trajectory from the 1930s through the 1950s—he died of a heart attack in 1955, at age forty-five—suggests that an appraisal of neorealism’s reception in the United States requires exploring its archaeological and genealogical foundations in the formations of practices and personnel in place before films such as Open City and Shoeshine appeared in U.S. theaters.7

During the 1930s, Agee’s friendship with photographer Walker Evans, with whom he collaborated on the classic nonfiction work of reportage and reflection on southern sharecroppers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), carried him beyond New York journalistic and literary circles into the milieu of visual media, of photography and cinema. Although Agee seems never to have been more than a sentimental leftist, many of his colleagues in that world were veterans of the communist-initiated documentary film movement stemming from the Workers Film and Photo league and its successor organizations, which evolved during the 1930s out of ideological schisms and personal rivalries. Some of Agee’s links to this community have been obscured by a propensity of U.S. communists of that era to utilize pseudonyms. “Robert Stebbins” and “Eugene Hill,” the on-screen credited codirectors of People of the Cumberland, a 1937 Frontier Films documentary about the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, were in fact, respectively, Sidney Meyers and Jay Leyda, the latter one of Agee’s friends and a potential filmmaking collaborator.8

At some point around the end of World War II, Agee became involved in two independent nonfiction film projects, The Quiet One and In the Street, both of which were released in 1948. Agee’s participation in these two productions came about through his friendship with the photographer Helen Levitt, (p.74) who once had been Evans’s assistant, and Janice Loeb, a painter of private means who, according to some accounts, financed the making of both works. Loeb produced The Quiet One and brought on Meyers as director; she and Levitt served as cinematographers on parts of the film, with Agee enlisted to write the voice-over commentary and dialogue. Around the same time, Levitt invited Agee (and later Loeb) to help her add a filmmaking component to her project of taking still photographs of New York street scenes, primarily of children; Agee spent a day shooting 16mm footage for the resulting short film, In the Street. In the same year that these two films gave him his first screen credits—as a writer on one, as a cocinematographer on the other—Agee quit his film reviewing jobs and began to explore the possibilities of becoming a screenwriter on Hollywood fiction films.

Before looking more closely at these two films, we need to consider Agee’s critiques of Open City and Shoeshine, written around the same time that he was contributing to The Quiet One and In the Street, with an eye to how one pair of films may have inflected the making or the perception of the other. Agee at this time was widely regarded as the preeminent U.S. film critic. His status in literary circles gave respectability to his reviewing for The Nation if not to the film medium itself, which many intellectuals of the era continued to deplore. His influence even expanded posthumously, with the 1958 publication of his collected film reviews and essays, Agee on Film (which appeared in the same year that he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel, A Death in the Family, also published posthumously).9

He began his March 23, 1946, Nation column with an unusual teaser, remarking that he had just seen a motion picture, Open City, “so much worth talking about that I am still unable to review it,” and adding, “I can say only that I am at once extremely respectful and rather suspicious of it.” He devoted his next column, on April 13, to the film, writing one of his rare lengthy commentaries on a single work. After some plot summary, he launched into his suspicions, which centered on the film’s representation of an affinity between a priest and an underground leader united in the anti-Nazi struggle. “I cannot help doubting that the basic and ultimate practicing motives of institutional Christianity and leftism can be adequately represented by the most magnanimous individuals of each kind,” he wrote, and in that sense, the film is selling spectators “something of a bill of goods.”10

Beyond that suspicion, he had little other than praise for the film. What he valued most was its “immediacy.” This freshness and vitality, “the exalted spirit of the actual experience,” he contrasted with “the WPA-mural sentimentality and utter inability to know, love, or honor people to which American leftists (p.75) are liable.” He noted the production circumstances: a miniscule budget, no sets or studio lighting, sound including dialogue added later, professionals behind the camera but mainly amateurs in front. The performances, especially that of Anna Magnani, “somewhere near perfectly define the poetic-realistic root of attitude from which the grand trunk of movies at their best would have to grow.” Inevitably, the film offered him a stick with which to beat Hollywood: “The result is worthless to those who think very highly of so-called production valyahs.…Others may find this one of the most heartening pictures in years, as well as one of the best.”11

In his 1946 retrospective, Agee restated many of his views about Open City and named it the best film of the year. Discussing also a film released in the United States as The Raider (originally Western Approaches, a 1944 British Crown Film Unit Technicolor film that had nonprofessionals re-creating scenes of merchant seamen at war), Agee elaborated on the aesthetic values he drew from these films. It was not their use of nonactors, or their documentary aspects, or because they were “realistic” (his quotes); “it is, rather, that they show a livelier aesthetic and moral respect for reality—which ‘realism’ can as readily smother as liberate.” In sum, “The films that I most eagerly look forward to will not be documentaries but works of pure fiction, played against, and into, and in collaboration with unrehearsed and uninvented reality.”12

Agee’s response to Shoeshine repeated his approach to Open City: A brief notice in the September 13, 1947, issue of The Nation—“The Italian-made Shoeshine is about as beautiful, moving, and heartening a film as you are ever likely to see. I will review it when I am capable of getting any more than that into coherent language and feasible space”—was followed by an October 11 review devoted solely to the film. This time, however, instead of opening with plot summary, as he did with Open City, Agee spent a lengthy first paragraph musing in disjointed fashion on the current status of what he called “the humanistic attitude.” What followed were several more long paragraphs of high if often rambling praise, coupled with qualifications and reservations. The review leaves the impression of a critic so deeply moved by a work that he is unable to find, even after nearly a month of reflection, the coherent language that had eluded him on first viewing.13

Agee saw Shoeshine as simultaneously “one of the few fully alive, fully rational films ever made” and “not a great or for that matter a wholly well-realized work of art.” As he elaborates on the film’s achievements and vacillates on its status in the field of art, the retrospective reader—looking back on the review in a biographical context—cannot but wonder how strongly in Agee’s mind was the context of his own work on the commentary and dialogue for The Quiet One, another film concerned with troubled youth. Describing Shoeshine (p.76) as a “true tragedy,” he writes of its boy protagonists, “The heroes would not have been destroyed unless they had been caught into an imposed predicament; but they are destroyed not by the predicament but by their inability under absolutely difficult circumstances to preserve faith and reason toward themselves and toward each other, and by their best traits and noblest needs as well as by their worst traits and ignoblest needs.” Perhaps also thinking about the youths who perform fictional scenes in The Quiet One, he marvels that Shoeshine director Vittorio De Sica “had to put his amateurs through as many as thirty-nine takes for one scene.” The film’s “illusion of spontaneity,” Agee writes, “is one of the pure miracles of fifty years of movies.”14

Agee had reviewed Shoeshine anonymously in the September 8, 1947, issue of Time with all the crisp coherence that his Nation treatment lacked. He tells the plot, he calls the film a “masterpiece,” there are no caveats, and he makes a similar point, even more succinctly, about why the boys are “true tragic heroes.” The review opens, “Shoeshine…may strengthen a suspicion that the best movies in the world are being made, just now, in Italy.”15

If Agee may have been thinking of The Quiet One when writing about Shoeshine, a reviewer of the U.S. film made the comparison explicit. Calling The Quiet One “a genuine masterpiece in the way of a documentary drama,” Bosley Crowther of the New York Times went on to link the film with “those stark film dramas which we have had from Italy since the war.” He pointed to its nonprofessional actors and location shooting. But as a critic who often regarded moral issues as paramount, he gave greater emphasis to the connection in ethical terms, relating the two films on the grounds of “a clear and candid eye,” “compassion but utter clarity,” and “an honest conclusion.” The Quiet One, he wrote, “might be reckoned the ‘Shoe Shine’ of American urban life, with the fade-out less fatal and tragic because of our more fortunate state.”16

In a 1950 issue of Hollywood Quarterly, a liberal scholarly/critical journal published by University of California Press, a Los Angeles–based Brazilian writer, Vinicius de Moraes, also matched the two films in a detailed treatment of The Quiet One. In his view, the U.S. film comes out ahead. “More beautiful than Shoeshine, to which it is related in some respects, it is also a more excruciating social document,” de Moraes wrote. “The young delinquents of Vittorio De Sica’s picture do not suffer like the children of The Quiet One from the impossibility of seeing their own faces in the mirror. For De Sica’s children loneliness will come later, but at present their poverty is cheered by freedom to pursue vicious adventures through the sunlit streets of Rome.” De Moraes goes on to describe in detail the isolation and “infinite loneliness” of The Quiet (p.77) One’s protagonist, which he clearly regards as a condition more dire than the “freedom to pursue vicious adventures” enjoyed by Shoeshine’s youths.17

Some obvious further contrasts exist. Loeb’s financing and producing of The Quiet One have been described as at least in part motivated by her desire to support and publicize the Wiltwyck School, a private residential treatment center for boys in Upstate New York. As she, Levitt, and Meyers developed the story and screenplay—and Agee wrote his commentary and dialogue based on the completed image track—all those involved no doubt understood that a central goal of the film was to valorize the work of the school’s counselors and psychologists in an artistic framework that could be positive and uplifting for spectators without appearing too obviously promotional or unduly optimistic about easy cures. Though Agee’s commentary emphasizes—and Crowther’s review echoes—that the story does not have a “happy ending,” the trajectory of The Quiet One ineluctably if cautiously leads to the future healing of its protagonist’s mental troubles. The Quiet One is not a “true tragedy,” in the sense that Agee regarded Shoeshine. The Quiet One’s main character, the fictional ten-year-old Donald Peters, portrayed by nonactor Donald Thompson, is not, as Agee found De Sica’s Italian youths, a true tragic hero. In de Moraes’s terms, Donald lacks the freedom to pursue vicious adventures; his adventures, vicious or not, are imposed by his predicament. He is a waif amid forces.

Donald’s predicament, one might say, is that he is black. How race is acknowledged is a curious aspect of the contemporary commentary on the film. Crowther’s New York Times review refers to “sleazy Harlem apartments” and to Thompson as a “Harlem youngster,” presumably sufficient clues for any reader. Crowther stresses the point of universality: “The race of the boy is a circumstance. For this is essentially the story of any child who has hungered for love, and, in the misery of that hunger, has rebelled in some unsocial way.” The Brazilian de Moraes locates this color blindness, as it were, or apparent color indifference more clearly than does Crowther in the filmmakers’ intentions. “For the makers of the film,” de Moraes writes, “the [racial] problem did not exist at all. The fact that they chose a Negro boy as the hero of their film, however sly as strategy, is incidental to the finished work. The little boy might equally well have been white, yellow, red, or even blue.”18

But it is de Moraes’s goal to see the film differently. “The message of The Quiet One [transcends] the intent of its producers without their being conscious of the fact,” he continues. “The film attacks the racial problem with the most powerful and precise of weapons—poetry. Instead of exposing the problem it disguises it with the outer appearance of the misery in which it hides.” A further viewpoint on the film was briefly stated in a 1950 article, (p.78)

“The Exalted Spirit of the Actual”James Agee, Critic and Filmmaker, and the U.S. Response to Neorealism

Donald Thompson as Donald Peters in The Quiet One (Sidney Meyers, 1948).

“The Problem of Negro Character and Dramatic Incident,” by William Couch Jr., in the African American journal Phylon, published at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). The Quiet One, Couch writes, “is a sensitive exploration of a Negro child’s response to an unfriendly society, and succeeds without either preconceptions or preachment.”19

Half a century and more later, a spectator’s response to the racial aspect of The Quiet One may differ from that which prevailed in the early postwar years. The film’s cinematic strength appears to lie in its central sequences depicting Donald’s family relations and social milieu in Harlem prior to his entering Wiltwyck rather than in the framing scenes representing the crises and resolutions of his treatment at the school. A worn photograph of an intact family—father, mother, grandmother, and Donald at the beach—signifies for Donald his shattering loss, as his father has abandoned the family, while his mother has had a baby with another man and relegated Donald to the care of his grandmother. This crone regards the boy as a “little good for nothing” and a “no account.” Agee’s voice-over commentary describes Donald’s life as characterized by “misunderstanding, rage and pain and fear and hatred,” as his grandmother beats him and he cries. The Harlem street scenes that depict Donald’s meandering loneliness and his estrangement from loving care are distinguishing elements of the film’s cinematography.

A question for the present-day spectator is how much it is possible to endorse de Moraes’s view that beyond the filmmakers’ aims and perhaps even their awareness, the film can be read as an impassioned cry for social justice. He describes Donald’s Harlem world as an “urban cancer” and asserts that “it is not merely love that the unhappy child needs, but justice, equality of treatment, respect, and dignity, in order to live in the community of men without distinction of color or creed.” One can come away from the film with this conviction, but does the film itself support this view? Or is it more likely that (p.79) the “unfriendly society” that the Phylon writer describes is a fact of life for the filmmakers, a circumstance of broken families, angry grandmothers, and a bleak environment that the film does not seek to interrogate or ameliorate except to extract Donald from it for psychiatric adjustment on an individual basis, far from home. Perhaps it is telling that there is an unexplained gap—a lacking transition—in the film between Donald’s final acts of delinquency on the street and his arrival at the school. “So Donald came to Wiltwyck,” Agee’s commentary passively notes the change of scene, eliding whatever intermediary factors—cops, courts, or philanthropic cash—have mandated or enabled his residence there.20

The Quiet One, like Shoeshine before it, gained unusual recognition from the U.S. motion picture establishment. It was nominated for an Oscar in the documentary feature category in 1948 and then scored another nomination the following year for its story and screenplay, credited to Levitt, Loeb, and Meyers, where it competed against fiction features; one of the other four nominees was Rossellini’s Paisà. Agee’s name was not included in the nomination.

In a 2002 interview, Helen Levitt, then nearly ninety years old, recalled the making of the sixteen-minute short film In the Street. She had been taking still photographs in a New York neighborhood, she said, and began to think about making a film there. Agee encouraged her, she recounted, “so I borrowed a 16-millimeter camera from a friend, and Jim and I went up to Spanish Harlem.…[H]e shot a lot in the street.” However, Agee was only available for one day, and Levitt got Loeb to help her complete the film. “A lot of what Jim shot that first day is in the film,” Levitt said. “He was an all-around genius—he was able to shoot marvelous stuff, even though he’d never shot anything in his life.”21

This is a considerably simpler but also more plausible account than Manny Farber’s version, in a 1952 Nation review, which speaks doubly in its first sentence of Levitt, Loeb, and Agee shooting the film with a “concealed” and “sneak” camera. Farber goes into considerable detail about how the camera operators pulled off “acting like a spy or a private eye,” so it is difficult to believe that he was making up the story, that someone had not provided him with the account of the production procedure that he conveys. Still, unless and until one encounters corroborating evidence, it reads like an urban myth—as does, for that matter, Farber’s interpretation of the film. “Every Hollywood Hitchcock-type director should study this picture if he wants to see really stealthy, queer-looking, odd-acting, foreboding people,” he writes. It was made “in one of the toughest slum areas extant: an uptown neighborhood (p.80) where the adults look like badly repaired Humpty Dumpties who have lived a thousand years in some subway rest room and where the kids have a wild gypsy charm and evidently spend most of their day savagely spoofing the dress and manners of their elders.”22

Amateur anthropology and a clever wit: It seems, as with The Quiet One, that the passage of decades prompts different and in this case less hyperbolic readings. Looking at the film now, it is almost impossible to credit that the vitality and movement in its mise-en-scène could have been captured by a “concealed,” “spy” camera device such as Farber describes. The children are not only “savagely spoofing the dress and manners of their elders” but also wearing many different kinds of costumes as well as masks: The visual evidence overwhelmingly suggests that Levitt and Agee picked Halloween Eve as the day to make their movie, which would explain the children’s pranks and playacting as well as much of the “stealthy, queer-looking, odd-acting, foreboding” behavior that the filmmakers recorded.

A Halloween hypothesis also fits in with what appears to be a social theory underlying the film, as expressed in a written prologue. “The streets of the poor quarters of great cities are, above all, a theatre and a battleground,” it states. “There, unaware and unnoticed, every human being is a poet, a masker, a warrior, a dancer: and in his innocent activity he projects, against the turmoil of the street, an image of human existence. The attempt in this short film is to capture this image.” The tropes of this statement suggest a way of life that is both performative and combative, combining mask and menace, as when costumed children swing containers filled with a powdery substance on a long string, hitting other kids and making several boys cry. Although there appears to be no specific reference linking In the Street to neorealism, as was the case with The Quiet One and with Shoeshine, that duality of tone, the melding of playfulness and threat in daily life among the poor, seems even more compatible in spirit with the ambiance of postwar Italian cinema.23

After ending his work as a critic, Agee went on to write screenplays for Hollywood productions. He received a coscreenplay credit—as well as an Academy Award nomination—with director John Huston for The African Queen (1951) and was listed as sole screenwriter on The Night of the Hunter (1955), although director Charles Laughton completely rewrote the script before production. On these and several other projects, Agee adapted the fiction of other writers, largely set in the past, and his scripts do not appear to lend themselves to linkages with neorealism.24 Generally speaking, parallel with Agee’s change of career and emphasis, discourse on issues of realism in the cinema and on Italian neorealism more specifically waned in the United States (p.81) during the 1950s—the former as postwar hopes for a new social cinema were quashed, the latter as Italian filmmaking took on a broader, more variegated nonideological coloration.25

The year 1960, however, brought an unexpected revival of concern regarding questions of film realism with the publication of one of the era’s major efforts to define and characterize the medium of cinema, Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. (Perhaps less widely noted but of more lasting significance was the English-language translation of André Bazin’s essay, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” appearing that same year in Film Quarterly magazine.)26 After a volume of Bazin’s essays came out as What Is Cinema? in 1967, a brief season ensued of comparison between the two authors’ theories of realism, but it was soon eclipsed by the rise of structuralist and poststructuralist theories in which notions of realism, except as objects of critique, played little or no part. Kracauer’s reputation fell into eclipse, while Bazin, as a writer of brief suggestive essays rather than grand theoretical tomes, paradoxically gained in stature.27

Kracauer’s theses had already been battered by a brutal critique from Pauline Kael, appearing originally in 1962 in the British film quarterly Sight and Sound and collected in her I Lost It at the Movies in 1965. Among her more conciliatory concessions is the thought that “What it comes down to in Kracauer is that film is Lumière’s ‘nature caught in the act’—or neo-realism: the look of so many good movies during the period he was gestating this book becomes his definition of cinema itself.” Kracauer’s discussions of The Quiet One and In the Street—suggestive and useful as they are—indicate the author’s ambiguous and contradictory notions of realism that so vexed his critics.28

His comments on In the Street, for example, center on questions of reportage and “imaginative readings” in the documentary form. He appears to admire the film both for its “reporting job” and its “unconcealed compassion” for its subjects. However, these qualities are treated as theoretical binaries, with an on the one hand/one the other hand approach that ultimately leads him to conclude that the film’s “lack of structure” weakens its “emotional intensity.” His praise of The Quiet One has a similar bifurcated, paradoxical character. Under the heading “stark reality,” he suggests that the film’s “real life” scenes take on the appearance of dream images. “Women are standing, all but motionless, in house doors, and nondescript characters are seen loitering about,” he writes. “Along with the dingy façades, they might as well be products of our imagination, as kindled by the narrative.…Perhaps films look most like dreams when they overwhelm us with the crude and unnegotiated presence of natural objects—as if the camera had just now extricated them from the womb of physical existence and as if the umbilical cord between image and (p.82) actuality had not yet been severed.” He links these impressions to “shots comprising ‘reality of another dimension,’ and passages that render special modes of reality.”29

“Reality,” Kael commented, “like God and History, tends to direct people to wherever they want to go.”30

Reality or some other principle directed several of Agee’s filmmaking collaborators, like Agee himself, toward Hollywood in the years after The Quiet One and In the Street were released. After directing several educational documentaries in the early 1950s, Meyers received a screen credit as film editor on a 1957 MGM feature, Edge of the City, directed by Martin Ritt. Levitt worked in several capacities on independent productions developed by Joseph Strick, a businessman turned filmmaker, and Ben Maddow, a Hollywood screenwriter who, like Meyers, had worked under a pseudonym on People of the Cumberland.31 These four figures came together as collaborators on a 1960 hybrid feature film, The Savage Eye, that melded aspects of The Quiet One and In the Street, combining the motifs of loneliness and lack of love from the former with a visual exploration of ambiguous urban revels touched by violence from the latter. The novelty of the work, from the viewpoint of those earlier films, was its different setting—not New York but Los Angeles.32

Strick launched and privately financed the project, supervising several cinematographers, Levitt among them, who shot actuality footage of Los Angeles scenes over several years in the late 1950s. Maddow became involved to craft a story that required adding and interweaving acted scenes. Meyers’s skills as an editor melded the material together. The three men shared billing as codirectors, and Levitt was one of three people credited with principal cinematography. One further link to The Quiet One was the soundtrack voice of actor Gary Merrill, who had voiced Agee’s commentary on the earlier film; Merrill is the dominant audio presence in The Savage Eye, with a character heard but not seen and listed as The Poet.

The film’s title invites the spectator to consider multiple meanings of savage and how a “savage eye” might see—in a naive, unpolished, or rudimentary way or with a fierce, angry, or cruel gaze. Whatever the status of perception, its object is the physical setting and culture of Los Angeles. A woman perhaps in her thirties, Judith (portrayed by actress Barbara Baxley), arrives at Los Angeles airport following a divorce in another city. Alone, she confronts an inhospitable urban environment; in this way she is not unlike an adult version of Donald in the earlier film. She visits a pet cemetery. She drinks in bars. She meets a plainly unsatisfactory man. They attend a burlesque show, (p.83) a professional wrestling match, the roller derby—settings in which the filmmakers persistently portray grotesque-appearing spectators lusting after the display of sex or violence—and a party filled with what appear to be desperately unhappy people pretending to be having fun. Judith and the man sleep together—for her, to be sure, abjectly. Amid her growing despair, she attends a Christian revival meeting where a faith healer lays hands on and verbally soothes a succession of distressed supplicants—the only sequence in the film that has synchronized sound and that appears to have been set up and lighted for the camera.33

Punctuating these scenes at various moments are shots of car crash victims, dead or injured, being tended by police. Perhaps these scenes offer foretastes of what constitutes delinquent acting out for a lonely divorcée in a modern automobile civilization, for Judith at wit’s end climbs into a convertible and crashes it on a Los Angeles freeway, ending up seriously injured in a hospital. As with Donald, she thus receives a form of institutional care (medical rather than psychiatric) and the hope of a brighter future (which seems to be partly signaled by shots of a gathering of flamboyantly cross-dressing men, no less grotesque appearing than the people photographed earlier at wrestling matches but treated in a rather more lighthearted way).

The raw animus of this merciless vision can be exhilarating. The problem of The Savage Eye lies with its voice-over soundtrack. Judith’s aloneness at the airport is broken by a male voice (The Poet) that begins a colloquy with her that extends throughout the film. Its source, it seems, is her consciousness. “I’m your angel, your double, your conscience, your dreamer, your god, your ghost,” it introduces itself to her; regrettably, such rhetorical excess is its mode. The best that might be said of this voice is that it parodies a Beat Generation poet: “Out of a handful of dust, garbage, and alcohol, God created man.”

Amid international praise—including a prize at the Venice Film Festival— The Savage Eye was harshly criticized by Jonas Mekas in his Village Voice column in terms that comment on the trajectory of realist U.S. filmmaking. Of the filmmakers, Mekas wrote, “Thirty years ago they were socially minded men who wanted to improve the world. By now they have given that idea up. Now they look at the world with cynicism and disgust. Like most of the generation of the 30’s, they have understood the changing of man only as an outward manifestation.”34

An appropriate assessment of The Savage Eye’s relationship to The Quiet One and In the Street might compare it to the transformation of Italian cinema from postwar neorealism to the late 1950s–early 1960s films of Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni, such as La dolce vita (1960) or L’avventura (1960). (p.84) Agee had called for films that “would not be documentaries but works of pure fiction, played against, and into, and in collaboration with unrehearsed and uninvented reality.” Perhaps the answer to his quest was to be found in films for which the postwar definitions of realism and reality no longer applied.


Thanks to Saverio Giovacchini, Adrienne Harris, and Vojislava Filipcevic for comments and suggestions on earlier drafts and to Jonathan Retartha for research assistance.


(1) . The Oscar citations for Shoeshine and Bicycle Thieves are quoted in Robert Osborne, 70 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards (1989; New York: Abbeville, 1999), 97, 115. A detailed account of the censorship struggles over Bicycle Thieves appears in Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons, The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship, and the Production Code from the 1920s to the 1960s (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990), 141–61. The offending scenes involved little Bruno peeing against a wall and a brothel.

(2) . For neorealism and black independent cinema, see, among many writings, Paula J. Massood, “An Aesthetic Appropriate to Conditions: Killer of Sheep, (Neo)Realism, and the Documentary Impulse,” Wide Angle 21.4 (October 1999): 20–41; Chris Norton, “Black Independent Cinema and the Influence of Neo-Realism,” Images 5, http://www.imagesjournal.com/issue05/features/black.htm (accessed January 25, 2011). Robert Frank’s interest in neorealism is noted in Blaine Allen, “The Making (and Unmaking) of Pull My Daisy,” Film History 2.3 (September–October 1988): 189. Stan Brakhage discusses neorealism’s example in an oral interview included on the DVD compilation By Brakhage: An Anthology (Criterion Collection, 2003).

(3) . Osborne, 70 Years, 96; “All about Oscar,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/oscar/article-9397588 (accessed January 25, 2011).

(4) . Elia Kazan, A Life (New York: Knopf, 1988), 627–29.

(5) . Manny Farber, “Movies Aren’t Movies Any More,” Commentary, 1952, reprinted as “The Gimp,” in Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies (New York, Praeger, 1971), 71–72.

(6) . André Bazin, “Bicycle Thieves,” Esprit, November 1949, reprinted in What Is Cinema?, trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), 2:48.

(7) . Agee’s biography is most fully recounted in Laurence Bergreen, James Agee: A Life (New York: Dutton, 1984).

(8) . On People of the Cumberland and Frontier Films, see William Alexander, Film on the Left: American Documentary Film from 1931 to 1942 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).

(9) . Ivan Obolensky published Agee on Film: Reviews and Comments in 1958, and Beacon Press issued a paperback edition in 1964. It contains all of Agee’s Nation reviews, a selection of his writings for Time, and several other film essays. It is currently in print in an expanded (p.85) volume, James Agee, James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism, ed. Michael Sragow (New York: Library of America, 2005).

(10) . Agee, James Agee, 223, 225–26.

(11) . Ibid., 226, 228–29.

(12) . Ibid., 275. In his second commentary on Open City, Agee acknowledged having read an essay by James T. Farrell that made “clearer to me” that the film was “among other things Communist propaganda.” See James T. Farrell, “The Problem of Public Sensibility,” New International 12.6 (August 1946): 183–88.

(13) . Agee, James Agee, 317, 321.

(14) . Ibid., 322–23.

(15) . Ibid., 515–16.

(16) . Bosley Crowther, review of The Quiet One, New York Times, February 14, 1949.

(17) . Vinicius de Moraes, “The Making of a Document: ‘The Quiet One,’” Hollywood Quarterly 4.4 (Summer 1950): 378.

(18) . Crowther, review; de Moraes, “Making,” 375. De Moraes’s view is somewhat supported by the filmmakers themselves. In a 1977 interview, Levitt emphasized that their interest was in “the problems of delinquent kids” and “ideas about treating them.” Because the Wiltwyck School was at that time “in a very sensitive stage of community relations about the Negro problem,” however, “we picked a story common to whites and Negroes.” See Bari Lynn Gillard and Victoria Levitt, “The Quiet One: A Conversation with Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb, and Bill Levitt,” Film Culture 63 (1977): 128.

(19) . De Moraes, “Making,” 376; William Couch Jr., “The Problem of Negro Character and Dramatic Incident,” Phylon 11.2 (1950): 133.

(20) . De Moraes, “Making,” 375. A recent essay that touches briefly on similar questions is Michelle Wallace, “Race, Gender, and Psychoanalysis in Forties Film: Lost Boundaries, Home of the Brave, and The Quiet One,” in Black American Cinema, ed. Manthia Diawara (New York: Routledge, 1993), 257–71.

(21) . Michael Coles, “A Conversation with Helen Levitt,” DoubleTake 28 (Spring 2002): 46. Earlier secondary accounts credit Agee with greater involvement in shooting the film. Jan-Christopher Horak states that Agee spent two days filming; see “Helen Levitt: Seeing with One’s Own Eyes,” in Jan-Christopher Horak, Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997), 142.

(22) . Manny Farber, “In the Street,” The Nation, 1952, reprinted in Negative Space, 45–46. Farber presumably was aware that Levitt used a right-angle viewfinder in her still photographic work and incorrectly assumed that a similar device was utilized for the film.

(23) . Recent scholarly commentary on the film shifts emphasis away from realism toward the carnivalesque (Horak, Making Images Move, 146, 148) or surrealism (Juan A. Suárez, “Inner City Surrealism: James Agee, Janice Loeb, and Helen Levitt’s In the Street,” in Pop Modernism: Noise and the Reinvention of the Everyday [Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2007], 237–71, 309–14).

(p.86) (24) . A companion volume to Agee on Film: Reviews and Comments was published as Agee on Film: Five Film Scripts in 1960; the two books appeared simultaneously in paperbound editions in 1964.

(25) . The postwar debates were carried on longer and more avidly in Britain, where a movement toward a social realist cinema took form in the late 1950s.

(26) . André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” Film Quarterly 13.4 (Summer 1960): 4–9; translation by Hugh Gray.

(27) . Bazin, What Is Cinema?

(28) . Pauline Kael, “Is There a Cure for Film Criticism? or, Some Unhappy Thoughts on Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality,” Sight and Sound 31 (Spring 1962): 56–64, reprinted in I Lost It at the Movies (Boston: Atlantic–Little Brown, 1965), 273.

(29) . Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), 203, 164.

(30) . Kael, I Lost It, 288.

(31) . As “David Wolff,” Maddow was listed on People of the Cumberland as assisting in writing the film’s voice-over commentary; years later, he claimed that he had written it all but that the filmmakers gave the credit to popular southern novelist Erskine Caldwell for the publicity value of his name.

(32) . Saverio Giovacchini assesses the relationship of New York filmmakers to Hollywood in “‘Hollywood Is a State of Mind’: New York Film Culture and the Lure of Los Angeles from 1930 to the Present,” in New York and Los Angeles: Politics, Society, and Culture, a Comparative View, ed. David Halle (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 423–47. He discusses The Quiet One and The Savage Eye (436–38).

(33) . A more detailed account of the film appears in Benjamin T. Jackson, “The Savage Eye,” Film Quarterly 13.4 (Summer 1960): 53–57.

(34) . Jonas Mekas, “On The Savage Eye,” Village Voice, June 23, 1960, reprinted in Jonas Mekas, Movie Journal: The Rise of the New American Cinema, 1959–1971 (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 16–17.