Henry Graham lives the life of a playboy. When his lawyer tells him one day that his lifestyle has consumed all his funds, he needs an idea to avoid climbing down the social ladder. So he intends to marry a rich woman and - murder her.
During a high profile Mafia testimony case in California's Riverside County, a hired killer checks-in a hotel room near the courthouse while his next door depressed neighbor wants to commit suicide due to marital problems.
I can't commend this highly enough. I saw it on the local Public Television station here in Chicago when it was first broadcast in the early 1970s, and it made a tremendous impact on me. This play, and the very similar "Paradise Lost," are depression era dramas written by Clifford Odets and originally produced for the stage in the mid 1930s, when they were the cutting edge of contemporary theatre and dealt with contemporary issues. The new DVDs contain television productions done with top-notch casts in the early 1970s. I found them unforgettable, and am delighted to be able to savor them again after 30-plus years. They're just as good as I remember.
They tell their stories from a rather specific perspective, i.e., that of educated middle- or upper-middle class Jewish families living in New York, and falling on hard times during the depression. These people have pretensions of gentility and high culture, but quickly-encroaching poverty is grinding at that façade and leaving them without much more than primal survival instincts. The main themes they deal with, as I read it, are familial love (and how it sometimes mutates into betrayal or hate under pressure of poverty), what we owe to our fellow humans and vise versa, grace or the lack of it under extreme pressure, and the wisdom or folly of optimism for the future. I expect there are themes, subtleties, and symbolisms that I overlook, but they're extremely rich brews of ideas that can keep you pondering long after having seen them. What they are most emphatically NOT is light entertainment. Dark and somewhat depressing, they explore how severe economic pressures degrade the quality of life, and poison relationships with our families, friends, co-workers, neighbors, community and government. In this, they are not the least bit dated, and show that while individual issues may vary with time, human nature doesn't.
If I had to recommend only one of the two of Odets' plays on DVD, I would probably go for "Paradise Lost," which I think deals with a wider array of issues and characters. Personally I find them both indispensable, and Walter Matthau's sardonic performance as Moe Axelrod in "Awake and Sing" is really excellent. It's a perfect role for him.
The fact that there are no other comments here thus far suggests that people are passing these up. It's really great stuff. Don't miss it.
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