Monday, February 07, 2011

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) ***½

Some books and movies gain immortality by morphing into a cultural concept that eclipses the original work. “Catch-22” is way better known as a figure of speech than as a book or movie. “Deliverance” is a terrific film, but all most people know about it is dueling banjos and “squeal like a pig.” It’s the same way with “The Man In the Gray Flannel Suit.” The book and movie have been superseded by this cultural concept of a 1950’s company man in a non-descript suit, desperately trying to climb the corporate ladder. It’s a shame that what has been lost is actually a fairly riveting story of a man finding himself and figuring out what is important in life.

Gregory Peck stars as Tom Rath, a WWII vet with a small house in Connecticut, a desk job in Manhattan, and a lot to think about. As he rides the train to work each day in his titular, gray suit, he has plenty of time to ruminate on the war, and all he did and saw there. We gradually come to realize that Tom’s life since the war has been something of a shadow life, always under the specter of the amoral, life-and-death reality he knew in Europe and the Pacific. His wife, Betsy, regrets the change in him, and she transfers her dissatisfaction to their house. She says the place is depressing and represents giving up, but of course she is really talking about Tom. He finally takes a higher-paying job at a large, media company in an effort to appease her. There, he meets Ralph Hopkins, the president of the company, and he sees that Hopkins’s success has come at the price of a loveless marriage and a spoiled, ungrateful child. Meanwhile, Tom becomes involved in a legal dispute over his grandmother’s estate, and a ghost from the war comes back to haunt him. His and Betsy’s quiet, little life becomes anything but boring.

This sounds like it could be some claustrophobic melodrama along the lines of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe,” but it isn’t like that at all. Tom and Betsy are so decent that it is easy to root for them, and while the plot makes you worry, it never gets too dark. The film is long for its era, 2 ½ hours, but this gives us time to really think about these characters and what they are struggling with, which is the existential question of what kind of person to be, what kind of life to live. Gregory Peck is not the most expressive actor, but in a movie this long there is time for him to develop his character slowly, and the performance actually ends up being quite satisfying. The film is helped along by some other intriguing characters, including Ralph Hopkins (Fredric March) and Judge Bernstein (Lee J. Cobb).

For me, the point of the movie is not that all those men in gray suits are mindless drones. It is that while they may look alike, they are all human beings, with stories of their own, and their own struggles over what is important in life. Tom ultimately decides that being with his family is more important than advancing his corporate career. He decides to be a “9 to 5 man,” partly because he sees how Mr. Hopkins’s devotion to his work ruined his family life. Hopkins expresses admiration for Tom’s choice, but he also makes a valid argument that without men like himself, who are driven to build great enterprises, there would be nowhere for the “9 to 5 men” to work. It is this kind of embrace of complexity that saves “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” from being a melodramatic morality play. It’s a shame that this complexity has been lost in the popular memory of the movie.

“The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” is not quite a must-see classic. The film can be melodramatic at times, and Gregory Peck’s stoic acting takes a while to get used to. The movie’s slow pace and 2.5 hour length mean that it isn’t a movie to see when you are distracted. It does have moments of brilliance, however, and it’s well worth checking out. It's also worth noting, for fans of the show "Mad Men," that stoic, complicated Tom Rath is the prototype for the Don Draper character.

3.5 stars out of 5

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