Of Mice and Men ★★★★

Never had positive feelings for Steinbeck despite my politics not being wholly dissimilar; he's such a blunt-force didact even when lyrical, but the novella Of Mice and Men appealed to my adolescent sense of injustice, yet I never expected the Hollywood film version (distributed by UA for Hal Roach) would be this clear, artful and effective, indeed such a great deal stronger than the more broadly celebrated John Ford film of The Grapes of Wrath, which never succeeds for me as anything but a polemic. First of all, while Lewis Milestone isn't revered the way Ford is, his camera is remarkably agile, and the breathtaking shots he and workhorse cinematographer Norbert Brodine create are difficult to count: stunning compositions that demonstrate (despite their aesthetic beauty) an awareness of both the ugliness that permanently taunts these migrant workers' lives and of how the relationships among the characters, especially the leading smartass George and his disabled hanger-on Lennie, manifests in the spatial distance between them. A particularly stunning visual moment comes when one of the key characters makes a painful decision at the climax, and the camera tracks backward to make each proceeding step lonelier and emptier for him. Such ingenious touches are prevalent throughout. Burgess Meredith (unrecognizable for those of us who know and love him for his TV work and Rocky) is almost inconceivably perfect as George, and in his case as well as that of nearly everyone else in the cast, the effect is of feeling as if we know and live with these people, their innumerable tragedies obvious but never overwhelming their personalities. Milestone's film is poetic, real, even surprisingly modern (the stylish opening titles set the tone quite well), and manages to render a sentimental, even pedantic social parable into something felt and moving; instead of feeling as if it wallows in the inevitable dread and hopelessness of its story, and in its social message, it comes to feel like a dramatic portrait of the poor in America that neither condescends to them nor hedges in its brutality.