Elia Kazan was a prominent American filmmaker whose career spanned over several decades. He directed many important films that explored complex social issues and featured powerful performances from actors.
These are just a few of the many great films directed by Elia Kazan, who was known for his powerful storytelling, nuanced characterizations, and ability to get the best performances out of his actors.
Best Elia Kazan Movies
His films continue to be relevant and influential today, and they are must-see works for anyone interested in the history of American cinema.
1. On the Waterfront (1954)
“On the Waterfront” is a classic American drama film directed by Elia Kazan and released in 1954.
The film stars Marlon Brando, who gives a powerful performance as Terry Malloy, a former boxer turned longshoreman who becomes involved in a struggle against corrupt union bosses.
The film explores themes of loyalty, betrayal, and redemption as Terry confronts the violence and corruption that surrounds him and ultimately takes a stand against it.
The film is widely regarded as one of the greatest films in American cinema, and it won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for Kazan, and Best Actor for Brando.
The famous “I coulda been a contender” scene is one of the most iconic moments in movie history, and the film’s exploration of moral ambiguity and complex characters has had a lasting influence on the crime and drama genres.
“On the Waterfront” is a powerful and emotionally charged film that remains relevant and influential today.
Its examination of social and political corruption, as well as its focus on the struggle of individual conscience against powerful institutions, continues to resonate with audiences around the world.
2. A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
“A Streetcar Named Desire” is a classic American drama film directed by Elia Kazan and released in 1951.
The film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tennessee Williams and stars Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois, a delusional and fragile woman who seeks refuge with her sister and her husband, Stanley Kowalski (Marlon Brando), in New Orleans.
The film explores themes of desire, power, and madness as Blanche and Stanley clash over control of their shared living space and the fate of Blanche’s future.
The film is notable for its powerful performances, particularly Leigh’s unforgettable portrayal of Blanche, which won her an Academy Award for Best Actress.
Marlon Brando’s performance as Stanley is also widely regarded as one of his greatest and most iconic roles. The film won four Academy Awards in total, including Best Supporting Actor for Karl Malden as Mitch, a potential love interest for Blanche.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” is a powerful and influential film that explores complex themes of desire, power, and madness with a sensitivity and nuance that continues to resonate with audiences today.
It is widely regarded as a classic of American cinema and a landmark achievement in the careers of both Kazan and the film’s talented cast.
3. Viva Zapata! (1952)
“Viva Zapata!” is a biographical drama film directed by Elia Kazan and released in 1952. The film stars Marlon Brando as Emiliano Zapata, the famous Mexican revolutionary who led a peasant uprising against the government of Porfirio Díaz in the early 20th century.
The film follows Zapata’s rise to power and his struggles to maintain his ideals and principles in the face of political corruption and opposition.
The film is notable for its powerful performances, particularly Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Zapata, which won him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
The film also features a talented supporting cast, including Anthony Quinn as Zapata’s brother Eufemio, and Jean Peters as the love interest of Zapata.
“Viva Zapata!” is a compelling and politically charged film that explores themes of power, corruption, and social justice with a sensitivity and nuance that is characteristic of Kazan’s work.
The film remains relevant today as a powerful reminder of the importance of standing up for one’s beliefs and fighting for social justice, and it continues to be widely regarded as one of Kazan’s most accomplished films.
4. Man on a Tightrope (1953)
“Man on a Tightrope” is a drama film directed by Elia Kazan and released in 1953. The film stars Fredric March as Karel Cernik, the owner of a small circus in Czechoslovakia who finds himself caught up in political turmoil when the Communist government takes control of the country.
Cernik and his performers are forced to decide whether to remain in their home country and risk their lives and freedom, or to escape to the West and abandon everything they know.
The film explores themes of courage, patriotism, and the power of collective action, as Cernik and his performers must work together to overcome the challenges of their situation.
The film features a talented ensemble cast, including Terry Moore as Tereza, a young performer who becomes Cernik’s love interest, and Gloria Grahame as Zama, a tough-talking American trapeze artist.
“Man on a Tightrope” is a powerful and politically charged film that explores the struggles of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
The film’s exploration of themes of courage, patriotism, and the importance of collective action continue to resonate with audiences today, and it remains an important and influential work in the careers of both Kazan and the film’s talented cast.
5. East of Eden (1955)
“East of Eden” is a drama film directed by Elia Kazan and released in 1955.
The film is based on the novel of the same name by John Steinbeck, and stars James Dean in his first major film role as Cal Trask, a troubled young man who is struggling to come to terms with his identity and his relationship with his estranged father.
The film explores themes of family, identity, and the search for meaning in life.
The performances in the film are exceptional, particularly that of James Dean, whose portrayal of Cal Trask earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
The film also features strong performances from Julie Harris, Raymond Massey, and Jo Van Fleet, who won an Academy Award for her role as Cal’s mother.
“East of Eden” is a powerful and emotionally charged film that explores the complexities of family relationships and the struggle for self-discovery.
The film’s exploration of themes of identity, family, and the search for meaning continues to resonate with audiences today, and it remains an important and influential work in the careers of both Kazan and James Dean.
6. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is a drama film directed by Elia Kazan and released in 1945.
The film is based on the novel of the same name by Betty Smith, and tells the story of Francie Nolan, a young girl growing up in Brooklyn in the early 1900s, and her family’s struggles to make ends meet.
The film explores themes of poverty, family, and the resilience of the human spirit.
The performances in the film are exceptional, particularly that of Peggy Ann Garner as Francie Nolan, and Dorothy McGuire and James Dunn as her parents.
The film also features a memorable performance by Joan Blondell as Aunt Sissy, a colorful and vivacious character who provides much of the film’s humor.
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is a poignant and emotionally powerful film that explores the hardships of life in early 20th century Brooklyn, and the determination of one young girl to overcome them.
The film’s exploration of themes of poverty, family, and resilience continue to resonate with audiences today, and it remains an important and influential work in the career of Elia Kazan.
7. Boomerang! (1947)
“Boomerang!” is a crime drama film directed by Elia Kazan and released in 1947.
The film is based on a true story and explores the events surrounding the murder of a priest in a small Connecticut town.
The film follows the investigation of the murder, and the political pressures faced by the police chief and the district attorney to solve the case quickly.
The film’s plot twists and turns as the investigation uncovers new evidence, and the true culprits are eventually revealed.
The film’s exploration of themes of corruption, justice, and the power of the media to shape public opinion was ahead of its time, and it remains a compelling and thought-provoking work today.
The performances in the film are exceptional, particularly those of Dana Andrews as the police chief and Lee J. Cobb as the district attorney.
“Boomerang!” is a gripping and suspenseful film that explores the complex issues surrounding crime and justice, and the ways in which politics and the media can impact the outcome of a criminal investigation.
The film remains an important and influential work in the career of Elia Kazan, and is a must-see for fans of crime dramas and political thrillers.
8. The Sea of Grass (1947)
“The Sea of Grass” is a western drama film directed by Elia Kazan and released in 1947. The film stars Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn and is set in the American West in the late 19th century.
The film follows the story of a cattle rancher, played by Tracy, and his wife, played by Hepburn, as they struggle to build a life together on the harsh and unforgiving prairies of New Mexico.
Their relationship is strained by Tracy’s obsession with his ranch and his refusal to let anyone or anything stand in his way.
The film’s sweeping landscapes and stunning cinematography capture the beauty and harshness of the American West, and the performances by Tracy and Hepburn are exceptional.
The film also features a memorable performance by Melvyn Douglas as a friend of the couple, who provides a counterpoint to Tracy’s obsessive character.
“The Sea of Grass” is a powerful and emotionally resonant film that explores themes of love, sacrifice, and the struggle to survive in a harsh and unforgiving environment.
The film remains an important and influential work in the career of Elia Kazan, and is a must-see for fans of westerns and dramas alike.
9. Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
“Gentleman’s Agreement” is a 1947 American drama film directed by Elia Kazan and starring Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, and John Garfield.
The film is based on Laura Z. Hobson’s novel of the same name explores the issue of anti-Semitism in America.
The story follows Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck), a journalist who is assigned to write an article on anti-Semitism.
In order to gain firsthand experience, he pretends to be Jewish and experiences the discrimination and prejudice that Jewish people face in his daily life.
He encounters resistance from some people, while others are supportive. Through his experiences, he gains a deeper understanding of the issue and the importance of speaking out against bigotry.
The film was a critical and commercial success, winning three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress for Celeste Holm.
It was notable for its frank and honest portrayal of anti-Semitism, which was a controversial topic at the time.
The film’s title refers to an unwritten agreement among the privileged class not to discriminate against each other, and the film suggests that this agreement should be extended to all people, regardless of their religion or background.
10. The Last Tycoon (1976)
“The Last Tycoon” is a 1976 American drama film directed by Elia Kazan and starring Robert De Niro, Tony Curtis, and Robert Mitchum.
The film is based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel of the same name, which was published posthumously in 1941.
The story is set in 1930s Hollywood and follows the life of Monroe Stahr (Robert De Niro), a film producer who is struggling to maintain his power and influence in the industry. Stahr is mourning the loss of his wife and is haunted by her memory.
He becomes involved with a young woman named Kathleen Moore (Ingrid Boulting), who bears a striking resemblance to his late wife. Stahr also faces conflicts with his business partners and struggles to keep his studio afloat.
The film explores themes of power, corruption, and the price of success. It also delves into the personal lives of the characters and the sacrifices they make for their careers.
The Last Tycoon was well-received by critics, who praised the film’s performances and its portrayal of Hollywood during the Great Depression. However, the film was not a commercial success and failed to recoup its production costs.
Elia Kazan had previously directed Robert De Niro in “The Godfather Part II” (1974), for which De Niro won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. “The Last Tycoon” was Kazan’s last film as a director.
11. Pinky (1949)
“Pinky” is a 1949 American drama film directed by Elia Kazan and starring Jeanne Crain, Ethel Barrymore, and Ethel Waters.
The film is based on a novel by Cid Ricketts Sumner and tells the story of a young African American woman named Patricia “Pinky” Johnson (Jeanne Crain), who returns to her Southern hometown after studying nursing in the North.
Pinky’s grandmother (Ethel Waters) is a respected member of the African American community and is pleased to see Pinky return.
However, Pinky’s fair complexion allows her to pass as white, and she decides to do so in order to get a job as a nurse in a white hospital.
Pinky becomes involved with a young white doctor (William Lundigan) and faces a number of challenges and moral dilemmas as she tries to navigate her new identity and reconcile it with her roots.
The film explores issues of race, identity, and discrimination, and was considered controversial at the time of its release due to its portrayal of interracial relationships.
The film was also notable for featuring a largely African American cast and for showcasing the talents of Ethel Waters, a pioneering African American performer.
12. Panic in the Streets (1950)
“Panic in the Streets” is a 1950 film noir directed by Elia Kazan and starring Richard Widmark, Paul Douglas, and Barbara Bel Geddes.
The film is set in New Orleans and follows the efforts of a public health doctor and a police captain to track down a group of criminals who have brought a deadly plague to the city.
The film opens with the murder of an illegal immigrant by a group of criminals. The victim is discovered to be carrying a rare and deadly disease, and the doctor and police captain must race against time to find the criminals and prevent the disease from spreading.
The film is notable for its realistic portrayal of the spread of disease and its impact on public health.
“Panic in the Streets” was well-received by critics and was praised for its suspenseful plot, strong performances, and realistic depiction of the outbreak of a deadly disease.
Richard Widmark’s performance as the police captain was particularly praised and earned him a nomination for a Golden Globe Award.
The film also won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.The film’s success helped to establish Elia Kazan as a prominent director in Hollywood and paved the way for his subsequent films, including “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951) and “On the Waterfront” (1954).
13. Baby Doll (1956)
“Baby Doll” is a 1956 American black comedy-drama film directed by Elia Kazan and starring Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, and Eli Wallach.
The film is based on two one-act plays by Tennessee Williams, “27 Wagons Full of Cotton” and “The Long Stay Cut Short,” and is set in the Mississippi Delta.
The story follows Archie Lee Meighan (Karl Malden), a middle-aged cotton gin owner who is married to a young and childlike woman named Baby Doll (Carroll Baker).
The couple’s marriage is troubled, and they sleep in separate rooms. Archie is desperate to consummate his marriage, but Baby Doll is determined to remain a virgin until her 20th birthday.
Archie’s rival, Silva Vacarro (Eli Wallach), is determined to put Archie out of business and uses Baby Doll as a pawn in his scheme. The film is notable for its frank depiction of sexuality and its portrayal of Southern Gothic themes.
“Baby Doll” was controversial at the time of its release and was criticized for its sexual content and portrayal of the South.
The film was banned in several U.S. cities and was denounced by the Catholic Legion of Decency. However, the film was also praised by critics for its performances and its subversive approach to traditional Southern Gothic tropes.
14. A Face in the Crowd (1957)
“A Face in the Crowd” is a 1957 American drama film directed by Elia Kazan and starring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, and Walter Matthau.
The film tells the story of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a charismatic and popular radio and television personality who rises to fame as a result of his down-home charm and folksy appeal.
Rhodes’ popularity leads him to become involved in politics, and he becomes a powerful and influential figure in the media and in Washington, D.C. However, his rise to fame and power is accompanied by a dark side, as he becomes increasingly egotistical, manipulative, and morally corrupt.
The film is notable for its commentary on the power of media and the dangers of celebrity worship, as well as its portrayal of the rise and fall of a demagogue.
The film was controversial at the time of its release, as it was seen as a criticism of popular media and the political climate of the era.
Andy Griffith’s performance as Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes was widely praised and is considered one of his most memorable roles. The film also features strong performances by Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau.
15. Wild River (1960)
“Wild River” is a 1960 American drama film directed by Elia Kazan and starring Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, and Jo Van Fleet.
The film is set in the 1930s and follows Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift), a Tennessee Valley Authority agent who is sent to rural Tennessee to convince an elderly woman, Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet), to sell her property and allow the construction of a dam.
However, Ella refuses to leave her home, and Chuck is torn between his duty to the TVA and his sympathy for Ella’s plight.
Complicating matters further, Chuck becomes romantically involved with Ella’s granddaughter, Carol (Lee Remick), and must navigate the complexities of their relationship while trying to convince Ella to sell her land.
The film is notable for its exploration of themes of progress, tradition, and change, and its portrayal of the impact of government policies on rural communities.
The film was also significant for its use of on-location shooting and its depiction of the natural beauty of the Tennessee Valley.
Montgomery Clift’s performance as Chuck Glover was widely praised, as was Jo Van Fleet’s portrayal of the stubborn and fiercely independent Ella Garth.
The film was not a commercial success at the time of its release, but has since become a cult classic and is regarded as one of Kazan’s most under-appreciated works.
16. Splendor in the Grass (1961)
“Splendor in the Grass” is a 1961 American drama film directed by Elia Kazan and starring Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty.
The film is set in the 1920s and tells the story of two high school sweethearts, Deanie (Natalie Wood) and Bud (Warren Beatty), whose relationship is torn apart by social and cultural pressures.
Deanie comes from a wealthy and respectable family, and her mother is determined that she marry a suitable young man from their social circle.
Bud, on the other hand, comes from a less privileged background and is less concerned with social status.
Their relationship is put to the test when Deanie’s mother objects to their relationship, and Bud begins to succumb to the pressures of conforming to the expectations of his family and peers.
The film explores themes of sexual repression, adolescent identity, and the conflict between individual desire and societal norms.
It was also notable for its frank portrayal of sexuality and its sensitive treatment of mental illness.
Natalie Wood’s performance as Deanie was widely praised and earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
The film also featured strong performances from Warren Beatty, Pat Hingle, and Barbara Loden.
17. America America (1963)
“America America” is a 1963 epic drama film directed by Elia Kazan and starring Stathis Giallelis, Frank Wolff, and Harry Davis.
The film is based on Kazan’s own family history and tells the story of a young man named Stavros Topouzoglou (Stathis Giallelis) who leaves his home in Anatolia in search of a better life in America.
Stavros faces many challenges and obstacles on his journey, including poverty, discrimination, and violence. He is forced to endure long and treacherous journeys, and must also deal with the treachery and deceit of those around him.
However, his determination and resilience help him to overcome these challenges and eventually realize his dream of a better life in America.
The film is notable for its epic scope, as well as its themes of immigration, perseverance, and the pursuit of the American Dream.
It was also significant for its frank portrayal of the struggles and hardships faced by immigrants in the early 20th century.
Stathis Giallelis’ performance as Stavros was widely praised, as was the film’s direction, cinematography, and screenplay.
“America America” was a critical and commercial success at the time of its release and received numerous awards and nominations, including four Academy Award nominations. It is now regarded as one of Kazan’s most acclaimed works.
18. The Arrangement (1969)
“The Arrangement” is a 1969 drama film directed by Elia Kazan and starring Kirk Douglas, Faye Dunaway, and Deborah Kerr.
The film is based on Kazan’s own novel of the same name and explores the theme of the American Dream and its impact on personal relationships.
Kirk Douglas plays Eddie Anderson, a successful advertising executive who appears to have everything, including a beautiful wife (Deborah Kerr) and a mistress (Faye Dunaway).
However, Eddie is deeply unhappy and begins to suffer from a mental breakdown as he struggles with the pressures of his career and personal life.
The film uses flashbacks and dream sequences to explore Eddie’s past and his relationships with his family, his father in particular, and his cultural heritage.
The film explores themes of guilt, identity, and the price of success.
While “The Arrangement” received mixed reviews upon its release, it is now considered a significant work in Kazan’s filmography, as it delves into themes and ideas that were personal to the director. Kirk Douglas’ performance was widely praised, and the film also features strong performances from Faye Dunaway and Deborah Kerr.
It is now regarded as a thought-provoking and powerful exploration of the human psyche and the search for fulfillment.
19. The Visitors (1972)
“The Visitors” is a 1972 drama film directed by Elia Kazan and starring Patrick McVey, Patricia Joyce, and James Woods. The film is based on a novel by French writer Jean-Louis Curtis and explores the theme of aging and mortality.
The film follows Bill Schmidt (Patrick McVey), a retired academic who lives in a small New England town with his wife, Martha (Patricia Joyce).
One day, they receive a visit from a young couple, Nick (James Woods) and Toni (Chico Martinez), who are traveling across the country.
The arrival of the visitors disrupts Bill and Martha’s routine and forces them to confront their own mortality and the choices they have made in their lives.
The film explores themes of regret, the passing of time, and the search for meaning in life. It is also notable for its frank and sensitive portrayal of aging, illness, and death.
While “The Visitors” received mixed reviews upon its release, it is now regarded as a significant work in Kazan’s filmography, as it tackles themes and ideas that were personal to the director.
The film features strong performances from the cast, particularly from Patrick McVey, who gives a powerful and nuanced portrayal of Bill.
“The Visitors” is now considered a thought-provoking and poignant exploration of the human experience of aging and mortality.
3 Characteristics of Elia Kazan Films
Elia Kazan’s films are characterized by several defining features, including:
Realism: Kazan was known for his commitment to realism in his films, both in terms of the stories he told and the way he depicted them on screen.
He often sought to explore contemporary social and political issues in his films and was interested in presenting complex and nuanced portrayals of human behavior and relationships.
Strong performances: Kazan was known for his ability to elicit powerful performances from his actors, and many of his films featured standout performances from some of the greatest actors of their time.
He worked closely with his actors, encouraging them to draw on their own experiences and emotions to create authentic and compelling characters.
Personal themes: Many of Kazan’s films explore themes and ideas that were personal to the director, such as his own experiences as an immigrant and his struggles with identity and belonging.
He was known for his willingness to tackle controversial and challenging subjects in his films, and his work often explored the complexities of the human experience in all its forms.
3 Reasons Why You Should Watch Elia Kazan Films
There are many reasons why someone might want to watch Elia Kazan films, but here are three of the most compelling:
They tackle important and thought-provoking themes: Kazan’s films often explore complex and challenging themes related to human behavior, society, and politics.
His films offer nuanced and compelling portrayals of characters and situations, challenging viewers to think deeply about the world around them and the choices we make as individuals and as a society.
They feature outstanding performances: Many of Kazan’s films are renowned for their exceptional acting, with many of the greatest actors of their time giving standout performances in his films.
Kazan was known for his ability to elicit powerful and authentic performances from his actors, which make his films a pleasure to watch and a
They are visually stunning: Kazan was a skilled director who had a keen eye for visual storytelling.
His films are notable for their striking visuals and use of lighting and framing to create mood and atmosphere.
Kazan was also known for his ability to capture authentic and vivid portrayals of the settings and communities in which his stories were set, making his films a treat for the eyes and the mind.
Best Elia Kazan Films – Wrapping Up
Elia Kazan was a highly regarded and influential director in Hollywood, with a filmography that includes many critically acclaimed and award-winning films. Some of his most celebrated works include:
“On the Waterfront” (1954): Starring Marlon Brando, this film is considered a masterpiece of American cinema and won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Kazan.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951): Based on the Tennessee Williams play, this film features outstanding performances from its cast, including Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh, and is widely regarded as a classic of American cinema.
“East of Eden” (1955): Based on the John Steinbeck novel, this film features a breakout performance from James Dean and is known for its vivid portrayal of life in small-town America.
“Gentleman’s Agreement” (1947): A powerful and thought-provoking drama about anti-Semitism in America, this film won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Kazan.
“Splendor in the Grass” (1961): A poignant and sensitive exploration of young love and the pressures of conformity, this film features outstanding performances from its leads, Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty.
While these are some of Kazan’s most celebrated works, his filmography is full of other great films, each with their own unique style, themes, and characters. His contributions to American cinema have left a lasting legacy and continue to inspire and influence filmmakers today.
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