All Fall Down (1962) is an acute yet reticent portrayal of an American middle-class family on the brink of collapse. 16-year-old Clinton (Brandon De Wilde) has dropped out of school, and his estranged older brother, Berry-Berry (Warren Beatty) has moved to Florida and broken communication with their parents. With their eldest son gone, Ralph (Karl Malden) and Annabell (Angela Lansbury) have turned him into a saint, of sorts, imbuing him with a grace with such vehemence that their disillusionment is markedly clear. The family has been riding the brink for years, it seems, yet so much of the film concentrates on how the family masks this painful truth with smiles, holiday traditions, and affectionate nicknames from yesteryear, such as Ralph always referring to Berry-Berry as “that old rhinoceros.” However, the illusion of being a close-knit family is shattered when Berry-Berry suddenly returns home.
The script, written by William Inge (of Picnic fame) and based on James Leo Herlihy’s novel, is remarkable in how it effectively renders the story through a series of small moments, delicate and precise, that pinpoint the emotion but pull away before it fully develops. Such emphasis is placed on the characters who are so complex and contrary, and so far removed from discernable archetypes, that there is not just one storyline running throughout the film. The story isn’t about heroes or villains, but the shades of defeat that reside in everybody.
Director John Frankenheimer (who in the same year directed The Manchurian Candidate  and Birdman of Alcatraz ) undercooks every scene, so even at All Fall Down’s climax—when the family discovers that Berry-Berry has driven a young woman to suicide—it doesn’t quite feel like a climax, restraint is so evident. One could rightly argue that such a moment isn’t even the climax of the film, that perhaps it is a much smaller moment when Berry-Berry wakes up his brother Clinton to ask permission to date Echo (Eva Marie Saint), a 31-year-old woman staying with the family whom Clinton has an obvious crush on. Clinton suffers such an unspoken disparity, knowing well that he is fifteen years younger than the woman he loves, as well as that his brother has been jailed twice for battering women. The scene seems to beg for an ironic and melodramatic interpretation, yet actors Warren Beatty and Brandon De Wilde place so little emphasis on the woman and instead play up the brotherly bond—a theme that underscores the entire film, from the opening to the closing scene.
What it says about brothers is that the bond isn’t always reciprocated. Clinton is clearly compromised when his brother approaches him about Echo—not only has he no chance with such an older women, but Berry-Berry reminds him, “She wants me.” Berry-Berry’s gesture, as symbolic as it is, is an empty. Much like the parents’ adoration of Berry-Berry, Clinton, too, is holding on too tight to a relationship that has long dissipated.
Frankenheimer displays a great deal of subtlety with the staging. Be it how Ralph retrieves various bottles of liquor he’s hidden in the basement, or how Annabell frets over how Clinton sleeps with his feet exposed, the gestures of domestic life are presented authentically and without caricature. This must have been especially difficult with Angela Lansbury’s character—the overbearing mother—but she pulls it off without falling into parody. Especially moving is a short scene over the breakfast table where she confides in Ralph how unhappy she is now that Berry-Berry has fallen in love with another woman other than herself—the irony being, of course, that he hasn’t loved his mother for ages. Once again, the scene’s power comes not from any revelation, but from the character’s suppression of it: Annabell still cannot admit that her eldest son has moved on long ago.
Perhaps Annabell would have admitted as much to Ralph had Echo herself not come bursting into the kitchen, aglow and beaming—but then again, she might not have. Speculation isn’t so important as that Annabell wasn’t permitted the time or space for such revelations: the mother of the house rarely is. Following Echo is Berry-Berry, and as they sit down at the table, they reach over and kiss each other. Ralph, delivering one of the greatest lines in the film, says, “Kissing before breakfast. It must be love.” It’s a brand of homespun philosophy, yes, but it lacks any sense of golly-gee-ness usually associated with it. Typical of Inge’s script, the line completely understates its symbolic rebellion: kissing before breakfast is kissing before the mother’s meal, and it means putting another woman before his own mother.
All Fall Down is rife with such moments that so expressively capture the domestic sensibility, but also unpack all the emotional stock invested in it.
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