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One of the Best Movies of the 1950s
on March 13, 2002
I have seen Gregory Peck in quite a few films, and he is a fine actor. Some will disagree with me, but I believe he gave the strongest performance of his career in "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit."
The story, set in the middle of the 1950s (Eisenhower, tail fins, cowboys and indians, martinis before dinner), concerns Tom Rath (in his middle thirties, it appears) struggling to achieve a better life for his family, but at the same time trying to maintain some sense of integrity. The problem arises when he agrees to work as a PR man for a big communications company on Madison Avenue, and he realizes that deception and chicanery are integral to the advertising business. The movie is probably one of the most effective dramatizations of this dilemma you'll ever see. "It's easy for a man to be full of integrity when there's money in the bank and food on the table," he says to his wife at one point, "but when someone offers you a good-paying job doing something dishonest, then it's a different story." (I don't remember his exact words, but that's the jist of it.)
The film targets big business and exposes United Broadcasting Company (the fictional company Tom works for) as peopled with shallow, back-biting, simple-minded sloganeering creeps--like the two guys Tom Rath (Peck) works with. But at the same time it presents the business titan, the "captain of industry", in sympathetic terms. The parallel story in this film concerns Tom's boss, a communications tycoon in his early 60s. Outwardly he is a huge success, but his home life is a miserable failure, largely because he dedicated himself body and soul to building the business. As a result, he hardly knows his daughter, and when he tries to re-establish ties with her, she rejects him utterly. At this point, he realizes that he has nothing left worth living for. You can't help but feel sorry for him, as he was only doing what he thought was right all his life.
What really gives this film depth and makes it striking are the World War II flashback sequences, which burst through the tranquility of the 50s like vivid nightmares. The shadow of the war hangs in the background like a curse. Tom's boss lost a son in the war, and from this loss he has never really recovered. And there are dark secrets about Tom Rath, concerning WWII, that he never reveals to his wife until the end. One morning, on his commute to work, Tom sees a fur-lined jacket and suddenly flashes back to a horrible incident when he and another soldier were so cold they brutally stabbed two young German soldiers (they look like they're 15 years old) for their coats. Another time he sees a plane in the sky and remembers an airborne drop in heavy flak. When they hit they ground, there is so much confusion that he accidentally kills one of his NCOs with a grenade. He is temporarily deranged by this, so much so that he carries the body for miles and miles, refusing to believe all the medics when they say his buddy is dead.
He never talks about any of this. All of the inner turmoil and horror are kept bottled up beneath a calm and gentlemanly facade.
But Tom Rath is not a freak or a misfit. He has his faults and has committed his share of sins, but at the same time you sense that he is a very decent man always trying to do the right thing. In that sense, he seems like a real human being, not a two-dimensional action hero or a cartoon villain.
I hope this film comes out on DVD sometime soon. In addition to its great story and characterization, it is a very visually appealing film. The combat scenes are very realistically done, and the sense of 1950s America as a time/place of newly-found luxury and opulence is effectively captured by the camera.
If you liked "The Best Years of Our Lives" (also about WWII vets trying to adjust to civilian life) you will probably like this film.