By Ray Young
Christ in Concrete
(Give Us This Day)
Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Screenplay by Ben Barzman,
based upon the novel by Pietro di Donato.
Produced by Nat R. Bronsten, Rod E. Geiger, and Mr. Dmytryk.
Music by Benjamin Frankel. Cinematography by C.M. Pennington-Richards.
With Sam Wanamaker, Lea Padovani, Kathleen Ryan,
Charles Goldner, William Sylvester.
116 minutes, black and white, released in 1949.
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Although packaged under the title Christ in Concrete
, this is actually Edward Dmytryk’s 1949 film, Give Us This Day
, which was based on Pietro di Donato’s novel, Christ in Concrete
, first published in 1939. A cursory glance at the Internet Movie Database reveals that, other than for respectful bios, only a few films have used “Christ” in their titles, and for obvious reasons. It can quickly offend the religious right and alienate factions of the left. Even “Give Us This Day” seems chancy.
Set in 1920’s New York City, but shot in England (Dmytryk, writer Ben Barzman
, star Sam Wanamaker, and others with Communist ties were skirting the HUAC fiasco in America), the film reorganizes various parts of di Donato’s pungent allegory of labor as a surrogate religion. From a family of Italian bricklayers who came to America with hope for prosperity, di Donato watched their dreams erode through the years, in overcrowded tenements and flighty stints of employment. Ethnic identity found itself whittled down to the immediate neighborhood, and with it their once-consuming ties to Roman Catholicism diminished. Some came to believe in one’s job as a higher power. Employment, they found, could “giveth,” while unemployment could “taketh away.”
Dmytryk’s attraction to the material may have had less to do with di Donato’s Italian-American sympathies than with the novel’s gritty stance on proletariat survival. Either way, it’s a fascinating experiment. Audacious, too, considering the booming economy facing its post-war audience, who were willing to sacrifice a few principles for the sake of possessions after the Great Depression.
Dmytryk for years toiled like one of di Donato’s journeymen, mostly on the B lots of Hollywood. Advancing at RKO in the mid-1940’s, he made his mark with Murder My Sweet
(1945), Till the End of Time
(1946), and Crossfire
(1947), all of which became key constituents of film noir. After Give Us This Day
and two other films in England, Dmytryk returned to America, cut a deal with the Feds, and bargained his soul to the system. Tackling high-minded concepts for middling intellects, Dmytryk morphed into Stanley Kramer Lite with such tripe as The Left Hand of God
(1955), Raintree County
(1956), and The Young Lions
(1958). It was a great misfortune that he bungled the kitschy potential of Walk on the Wild Side
(1962), and made boredom of The Carpetbaggers
(1964). By the time of Mirage
(1965), it looked as if he were directing for television.
An aesthetic departure for Dmytryk, Give Us This Day
found him working with Barzman, whose earlier screenplays included Joseph Losey’s The Boy with the Green Hair
, that odd chestnut of individuality. Poetic license was taken with some of di Donato’s intentions (his allusion of Christ has been mildly distorted), and gone is the novel’s valiant (albeit cynical) elucidation of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
In depicting the meager rewards of honest hard work for characters lacking business savvy and “connections,” the script retains the author’s perspective on Italian solidarity. When the hero, played by Sam Wanamaker (an excellent performance), veers from the collective — either his buddies at work, or an adulterous fling with an Irish girl — ruination sets in. (No blue-collar Fountainhead
, this.) Whether by the hand of Barzman or Dmytryk, the film’s denouement — the only way to advance in capitalist society is to be (literally) consumed by your job — is committed with hammer and nail. But their understanding of the character and his crucifixion differs sharply from di Donato’s, a major deviation where selflessness has been replaced by victimization.
Extended from a short story he submitted to Esquire
, Christ in Concrete
was di Donato’s first novel. It was also an unexpected success, and its humble writer was blindsided by the elevated reaction it invited. (“America’s first proletariat novel,” raved Barzman.) As if competing with himself, di Donato’s subsequent novels appear to be less enthused, and failed to generate attention. Christ in Concrete
eventually faded from the public eye, though purportedly it became something of a staple in Italian households.
Although it won some awards in Europe, Give Us This Day
barely played in America at all, and was quickly forgotten. Surely a professional faux pas on my part, I was unaware of the film, until investigating what was new at All Day Entertainment
, David Kalat’s eclectic DVD company.
In the past few years, Kalat has disinterred a number of obscure pictures (his company specializes in those which have “slipped through the cracks”), but the presentation afforded to Give Us This Day
surpasses anything he’s done before. In fact, this has to be one of the finest DVD releases of the year. Utilizing both sides of the disc, there’s an excellent copy of the film (from original 35mm nitrates); an audio commentary between Kalat and Richard di Donato (the author’s son), Norma Barzman (widow of Ben, and author of The Red and the Blacklist
), and Fred Gardaphe (director of Italian-American studies at SUNY at Stonybrook); a 1965 “spoken word opera” curio performed by Eli Wallach; home movies of Pietro di Donato; a DVD-ROM history of the film (learn of its ties to Rossellini and Visconti and Italian neo-realism); and, astonishingly enough, more.
The only thing that seems to be missing is a copy of the novel!
Buy the novel: