Christ in Concrete (1949): Simply a masterpiece

Christ in Concrete (1949)

The moving simplicity of the Pietro Di Donato novel, Christ in Concrete, has been brought to the screen with rare sincerity. It is two hours of genuine human drama, which makes no concession to convention.

– Variety (1949)

The camerawork by C. Pennington Richards is some of the best of the era, with the city streets, darkened hallways, and construction sites void of any softened corners guaranteed by Hollywood of the 1940s. With Dmytryk, Richards gave Christ in Concrete an astonishing look, which manages to straddle and suggest both film noir and Italian neo-realism. The deep focus crisp black-and-white photography evokes a handful of strong movies yet to be made, including On the Waterfront, Edge of the City, America, America, Sweet Smell of Success, Touch of Evil, and Pickup on South Street. Visually, Christ in Concrete looks like the most influential movie nobody ever saw… Christ in Concrete shares its rough-edged moral outrage with Visconti’s La Terra Trema but its gilded professionalism with Wilder’s Double Indemnity. It’s a knockout combination. Dmytryk found some kind of artistic voice in exile in England unlike any heard from him before or since.

– Matthew Kennedy, Bright Lights Film Journal (Nov 2003)

Based on the novel by Italo-American Pietro Di Donato, Christ in Concrete (aka Give Us This Day), a powerful leftist denunciation of capitalism from director Edward Dmytryk, had to be filmed in the UK, and was buried a few days after its US release by a reactionary backlash. Telling the story of Italian immigrant building workers and their families in Brooklyn during the Depression, the film is the closest an Anglo-American movie ever got to the aesthetic and socialist outlook of Italian neo-realism. Teeming tenements and residential streets are shot with a provocatively gritty realism and film noir atmospherics.

Christ in Concrete (1949)

The cast is superb with particularly powerful performances from the two leads, Sam Wanamaker and Lea Padovani, who embody the immigrant experience, which is so imbued with vitality and compassion that the film soars above any other similar work of the period. Enriched by a poetic script, the innovative cinematography of C.M. Pennington-Richards, outstanding art direction from Alex Vetchinsky, and a brilliantly evocative score by Benjamin Frankel, the movie is a revelation.

The opening scene in a deprived urban locale that follows a drunken man from the street and up the stairs of a dirty tenement building is a tour-de-force. An inspired mise-en-scene and a moving camera that follows the action from below Ozu-style, framed by the drama of the musical motifs, had me enthralled. This scene and the rest of the movie, except for panaromic shots of New York shown in the opening credits, were filmed in a studio lot in Denham, England!

Christ in Concrete (1949)

Film as art, Christ in Concrete is simply a masterpiece.

16 thoughts on “Christ in Concrete (1949): Simply a masterpiece”

  1. Hi! Tony,
    G’Day, or is it G’Night, and a very Happy Easter to you and your family…or a “happy springtime,” if you and family don’t celebrate the Easter holiday(s).

    Dcd 😉

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  2. Hi! again, Tony…
    …I must admit that I have never watched the 1949 film “Christ in Concrete” before…Is it available in the following formats dvds or vhs?

    (Because I sometimes purchase films on vhs, from ebay or amazon.com as a last resort…especially,when the film is Out of Print or will never be released on dvd.)
    The cinematography by C.M. Pennington-Richards, do look great!..especially, the 1st and 3rd photographs, but I have to admit that I’am not familiar with him and his work on film yet.
    (But, I’am quite sure that other true film noir “aficionados” have mentioned his (C.M. Pennington-Richards,) name in my presence.)
    —————————————————–
    “The Typo Princess” Strikes Again!
    Hi! Tony,
    G’Day, or is it G’Night, and a very Happy Easter, to you, and your family…or a “happy springtime,” if you, and your family don’t celebrate the Easter holiday(s).

    Take care!
    Dcd 😉

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  3. HAPPY EASTER to both you Tony, your wife and two wonderful children, and to you too our resident bearer of effervescence, “Dee Dee.”

    And what a timely post here with Edward Dmytryk’s CHRIST IN CONCRETE, a relatively obscure film that I have owned on DVD for years. It has since gone out of print. I am close to your summary judgement, but perhaps I have a few quibbles with it’s occasional “stiltedness.” But it most certainly is a ‘powerful denunciation of capitalism’ as you rightly proclaim, and your celebration of it’s strongest elements are dead-on. I enjoyed the quote from Variety and Matthew Kennedy, the latter of whom brought out some superlative films that followed in its technical prowess.

    I appreciate the infectious enthusiasm that you have informed on this film, and I plan to watch it again later this week, as I’m off from school.

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  4. Thank you Dcd and Sam. A peaceful Easter to you and your families.

    My family spent Easter with my 96yo father at his nursing home. I sat with him in the garden on a beautifully mild Autumn afternoon. It was bitter-sweet. He has slowed down a lot over past few months, and I missed my late mother. A 101yo still agile resident lady passed by, and Dad and I spoke about her age. He said when you reach 100 you should start life anew! Easter: redemption and renewal.

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  5. http://www.uvm.edu/~arosa/christconcrete.html

    Fred L. Gardaphe, in his introduction to Christ in Concrete, comments that DiDonato “…points to the failure of American Catholicism as a force that controls and subdues the immigrants’ reactions to the injustices of the capitalist system that exploits as it maims and kills the Italian immigrant” (xvi). Religion, rather than inciting the immigrants to object to injustice, instead encourages them to forbear and accept fate while waiting patiently for their rewards in the next world.

    The southern brand of Italian Catholicism is transplanted here as is indicated with the interview with the cripple. This brand is an alloy of the elements of paganism as well. Note the quote:

    This seemingly incongruous act is, however, actually typical of the southern Italian brand of Catholicism. Mangione and Morreale describe this Catholicism as “…based on awe, fear, and reverence for the supernatural, ‘a fusion of Christian and pre-Christian elements of animism, polytheism, and sorcery along with the sacraments prescribed by the Church’” (
    This is indicative of the mixture made by the indigenous cultural mix of catholicism and paganism.

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  6. Here is a brief bio of director Edward Dmytryk and why ity had to be filmed in the UK. This is on wikpedia:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Dmytryk

    Work, Hollywood Ten, HUAC
    His best known films from the pre-McCarthy period of his career were film noirs Crossfire, for which he received a Best Director Oscar nomination, and Murder, My Sweet, the latter an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell My Lovely.

    Summoned to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), he refused to cooperate and was sent to jail. After spending several months behind bars, Dmytryk made the decision to testify again, and give the names of his fellow members in the American Communist Party as the HUAC had demanded. On April 25, 1951, Dmytryk appeared before HUAC for the second time, answering all questions. He spoke of his own Party past, a very brief membership in 1945, including the naming of twenty-six former members of left-wing groups. He explained how John Howard Lawson, Adrian Scott, Albert Maltz and others had pressured him to include communist propaganda in his films. His testimony damaged several court cases that others of the so-called “Hollywood 10” had filed.

    For a time, Dmytryk moved to England, and Stanley Kramer hired him to direct a trio of low-budget films before handing Dmytryk The Caine Mutiny. He made films for major studios Columbia, 20th Century Fox, MGM and Paramount Pictures, including, among others, Raintree County, The Left Hand of God, The Young Lions, a remake of the Marlene Dietrich classic The Blue Angel, and The Carpetbaggers.

    These films were made with expensive stars of the calibre of Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Gene Tierney, Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando, but apart from the memorable Western Warlock (1959), which he also produced, his work had lost much of the emotional urgency and psychological thrust represented by his early film noir Crossfire.

    After his film career tapered off in the 1970s, he entered academia and taught at the University of Texas at Austin, and at the University of Southern California. He wrote several books on the art of filmmaking (such as “On Film Editing”) and lectured at various colleges and theaters, such as the Orson Welles Cinema. Dmytryk died in 1999, aged 90.

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  7. Thanks Edward for the bio on Dmytryk and the link to the essay on Di Donato’s novel.

    The movie which is decidedly secular, ends just after the death of Geremio, with Annunziatio receiving insurance compensation. The screenplay is essentially agnostic, with the Church and religious belief absent. By the same token, the film is also not political propaganda, with the story focused on personal webs of affiliation and not organised action. The suffering of the depression and inequality are elemental and integral to the story, but melodrama not polemics carries the narrative. Indeed Dmytryk’s imagery is more subtle than the novel’s.

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  8. Tony: I am stunned to hear this news, but in retrospect it is a film that seems to have the full support of the critical establishment, lending credence to your own high praise in your exceptional review. CHRIST IN CONCRETE deserves full exposure and a re-release on DVD. The now OOP DVD, which I am lucky to have, is an expensive collector’s item.

    Mr. Yablonsky’s contributions here are as always most enlightening.

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  9. Tony, no less an authority than the esteemed scholarly critic Jonathan Rosenbaum of the CHICAGO READER had this to say in his capsule of CHRIST IN CONCRETE:

    Christ in Concrete
    Capsule by Jonathan Rosenbaum
    From the Chicago Reader

    In some respects this is Edward Dmytryk’s best film, but sadly it’s also his least known. After he was blacklisted in Hollywood, and before he recanted and named names for the HUAC, Dmytryk went to England to direct this powerful 1949 story of an Italian bricklayer and his immigrant family struggling in New York during the Depression. Budgetary restrictions account for some awkwardness, yet this is a moving and durable work. Screenwriter Ben Barzman (another victim of the blacklist) adapted a novel by Pietro di Donato; coproducer Rod E. Geiger was the enterprising American who also brought Rossellini’s Open City to the U.S. With Sam Wanamaker, Lea Padovani (Orson Welles’s original choice for Desdemona in his Othello), Kathleen Ryan, and Charles Goldner. Also known as Give Us This Day and Salt to the Devil.

    Well, you did say yourself Tony that this was Dmytryk’s best film after you saw it! Looks like great minds think alike.

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  10. It might fascinate all of you here to know that there is an eloquent academic critical essay, extremely persuasive and very intellectually sound, comparing “Christ in Concrete” to John Badham’s 1977 blockbuster “Saturday Night Fever” especially as it relates to certain themes of systemic oppression and
    religious (Church) control as a part of that systemic oppression, which leads to one of it’s main character’s climactic acts of self-destruction. Entitled “Urban-Hyphens in ‘Saturday Night Fever’ by M. Caput, it is available on the Internet through J-Stor.

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