All My Sons (1948) is Edward G. Robinson’s movie. The story may be Arthur Miller’s, the script may be Chester Erskine’s, but this film belongs to Robinson. He brings his character’s working class milieu and paternal desperation to such vivid life that I’d argue that this performance may even be equal to his work in Fritz Lang’s immortal Scarlett Street (1945).
All My Sons was directed by former cinematographer and playwright Irving Reis, who brings a visual flair akin to film noir to Miller’s tragedy. I have seen criticism of Reis’ directing in user reviews on Letterboxd that I can’t begin to see the logic behind. Many users express a wish that Elia Kazan had directed the film as he had on Broadway, but in 1948 I just can’t see Kazan as being as strategic as Reis is with bathing scenes in shadows or blocking for deep focus. Reis does an admirable job and I think he deserves the credit.
Then there are, of course, reviews by critics that are contemporary to the initial release of All My Sons. These reviews single out the work of the cast for praise with the exception of Burt Lancaster as Chris Keller. Due to Lancaster’s type-casting in the late forties as a tough guy, reviewers seemed to have been unable to disassociate the actor from his earlier roles. But Lancaster, who always sought to challenge and expand upon his range, proves to do quite well with Miller’s play. In many ways Chris Keller is exactly how Lancaster often described himself: quiet, sensitive and bookish.
In 2020 the films of the forties are probably best remembered as the golden age of Noir, however I would argue that the forties were also a golden age for drama. The “weepies” released during the war years and the films of masculinity in crisis that followed are some of the most influential and effective films of this kind ever made. That said, I hope All My Sons gets an upgrade from the current Universal Vault series release now available.