Film has had a strong focus on the lives of the working class since the silent pictures and work of Charlie Chaplin. Through fictional stories and hard hitting documentaries cinema has taken a look at the struggles to feed, clothe, and house a family in America and while, the images are not always pretty or uplifting, they are always infused with truth.
The Grapes of Wrath (1940, dir. John Ford)
Starring Henry Fonda, John Carradine, Jane Darwell, Russell Simpson
Adapted from the incredibly popular John Steinbeck novel, John Ford was forced to take the film in a less bleak, but still as honest as he could it make it direction. Tom Joad (Fonda) has just been released from prison and returns to his family’s homestead in Oklahoma to find them victims of the Dust Bowl. The Joads pack up and head towards California where they believe their fortunes will change. Ford removed or was forced to remove Steinbeck’s more socialist themes which is a shame. The film still tries to look at the hardships of the the Okies and the utter lack of hope in their struggle to stay above drowning. John Carradine has always been my favorite as Jim Casy, the wandering preacher.
On the Waterfront (1954, dir. Elia Kazan)
Starring Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, Rod Steiger, Lee J. Cobb
“I coulda been a contender”, the oft repeated line came from this film by Hollywood legend Kazan. Terry Malloy (Brando) is a dock worker in Brooklyn whose boxing career ended when his brother, Charley (Steiger), a lawyer for the mob-controlled docks makes Terry take a dive in a fight. Now Terry is a broken man who hopes to find love with Edie (Saint), however Terry was part of an effort to kill her brother who was going to testify against the mob. It’s a tale grounded in tragedy from the start and the performance that really set Brando on fire. It should also be noted that Steiger is excellent in this picture as well and has always been a criminally underrated actor.
Salesman (1969, dir. Maysles Brothers)
Cinema vérité is a style of documentary filmmaking where the director simply lets the camera roll, they may interview the subject, but the majority of the work is just life unfolding as it happens. The Maysles employed this as they followed a group of Bible salesmen in the late 1960s. The film is chock full of amazing and real moments that if we experienced them in our own lives would be dismissed as mundane. However, captured in this frame they vibrate with life and insight. Paul Brennan, the middle aged Irish focus of the documentary, is a thousands times more interesting than most characters a screenwriter can churn out. We see him fighting to make his quotas, trying to sell an product that from our exterior view seems to be an extravagance.
Harlan County, USA (1976, dir. Barbara Kopple)
Another cinema vérité documentary, this one chronicles the battle between striking miners of the Duke Power Company and the brutal strikebreakers brought in to stop them. I was surprised with how riveted I was by this film. The anger on both sides is palpable through out the entire picture. The focus on the strikers side falls a lot on the miners wives, these are strong capable women whose upbringing in the harsh hills of Kentucky have shaped them into formidable fighters. Kopple catches some truly terrifying moments on film, including a nighttime drive-by shooting on the strikers. Though the film takes place in a small town in the hills, throughout we are given information about the work of the unions and how one of the strikers’ best hopes is found murdered with his family in their home.
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992, dir. David Mamet)
Starring Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, Alec Baldwin, Alan Arkin, Jonathan Pryce
Mamet adapts and directs his own stage play about four real estate salesmen feeling the pressure of quotas and the demands of the management. Shelley Levene (Lemmon) is the focus as the oldest salesman and the one being looked at to get the axed if he can’t perform. Baldwin makes a one scene performance that has gone on to be one of his most defining roles. Leads to new properties have come in, leads that are guaranteed to sell, but before the salesmen are allowed access to them they must dump lower end properties. A couple salesmen take it upon themselves to steal the leads from the manager’s office and this where things begin to fall apart for them all.
Chop Shop (2007, dir. Ramin Bahrani)
Starring Alejandro Polanco, Isamar Gonzales
Set in Queens, New York, the film follows Alejandro (all actors play characters using their real first names), a twelve year old orphan who has set up in the Iron Triangle, a neighborhood full of auto body shops and scrap metal merchants. He spends his days scavenging and hording his money to support he and his older sister. The film is shot in a very loose documentary style with lots of improvisation on the part of its young actors. Because of this openness the picture comes across a feeling more like a slice of life documentary than a work of fiction. Alejandro goes through a complex and meaningful character arc that leaves him in a very different place from where he began and works to highlight the plight of the people who live in poverty their entire lives.