Jerry Tallmer Defends Calling Film ‘Stalinist’


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.

July 29, 1959, Vol. IV, No. 40

A Stalinist Movie?

By Jerry Tallmer

Only the sick, the ignorant, the irresponsible, or the vicious would these days lightly fling the label of “Stalinist” at any human being or his works, not least his works of art, or endeavors to that end. I do not feel I am so sick, etc., as not to have known exactly what I was doing when I brought that scare-word to bear against the film “He Who Must Die” – once I had finally got to see it – in the movie captions in The Voice. And of course there are those of you who can guess that I rather thought and hoped I might be stirring something up by slipping a tiny time-bomb into the 6-point type of our movie listings. The letters [printed elsewhere in the issue] are a representative sample. I have seen the film again now, and there is but one change in my reaction to it.

Where at first it was its Stalinism that sent me seething from the theatre, I now find the whole movie jus plain totally banal and boring, even though I am willing to give it cards and spades in several isolated out-of-context instances of characterization and situation, especially those involving – as one of my antagonists is acute enough to point out – the white-haired patriarch-boss of the Greek village in which the film is set, or the leathery and hedonistic commandant of the Turkish occupation forces. Apart from his basic inapplicability as a Pilate-Herod symbol – everybody without exception “stands for” something in this movie, both something of the past and of the present, and the Turks stand for the Nazi Germans of recent “real life” as well as for the first-century Romans; but Pilate was not a Nazi German repressing the Partisans – apart from that central mismatching of his entire function in “He Who Must Die,” the wily Turk is the film’s one complicated and halfway interesting personality, an old soldier and old politician who, almost as if from outside the movie, passes a detached Moslem’s judgment on the black-white stick-figure deeds and misdeeds of all its other frenzied participants.

And who are these, to a man? They are the good guys and the bad guys, their side and our side, cowboys and Indians. And what makes them good guys or bad guys, how do you tell the difference? Let me list the ways.

1. The good guys are Poor. This is the one absolute criterion: nobody can be bad who’d poor and nobody can be good who isn’t poor, or who doesn’t want to be poor…

2. The good guys are Handsome (of, if old, gladsome and direct), the good girls are Beautiful. If they are trollops, they are blonde and bounteous and about 20 feet taller than all the other tiny black-shrouded females who inhabit the picture…

When the good guys do certain things, it’s all right and even full of love and happiness, but when the bad guys do precisely the same things it’s all wrong and fraught with morbidity and cruelty. When the bad guys (the rich) steal from the good guys (the poor), evil shows in their every aspect and gesture; but when it’s the good guys who do the stealing, beautitude floods the screen, and the soundtrack, like golden honey…

[He Who Must Die was directed by Jules Dassin, and it was based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis.]

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]