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Review: Of Mice and Men

The visual style of the 1939 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is best described as “efficient”—nothing too fancy, but competently crafted nevertheless. With very few exceptions (most notably an extremely impactful rapid dolly out near the story’s climax), director Lewis Milestone avoids excessively maximalist flourishes; he merely observes the action, emphasizing the magnificently nuanced performances. Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney Jr. are perfectly cast: the former’s expressive eyes clearly convey the reluctant compassion beneath George Milton’s gruff, pessimistic exterior; the latter, meanwhile, portrays gentle giant Lennie Small’s paradoxical childlike innocence and inadvertently destructive temper with equal sensitivity and sympathy, anticipating his future roles as several of Universal’s tragic monsters (including Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man).

The film otherwise relies on blocking and composition to do much of the emotional heavy lifting. In one particularly poignant scene, for example, our protagonists meet with Crooks, an African American stable hand that is kept conspicuously isolated from his fellow ranch employees. Despite the obvious social gap between them, the characters briefly find common ground in their similarly dire economic circumstances; they are all disillusioned outsiders, ostracized from “polite society” (albeit to significantly different degrees) due to their seemingly inescapable poverty. This fleeting moment of kinship and class solidarity is abruptly shattered by the intrusion of The Boss, who "restores order" (i.e., enforces division) with a single crack of his whip: Crooks turns away from the camera, stooped and cowering, while George dejectedly gazes at the floor.

This relative artistic restraint elegantly complements the contradictory tone of the script (faithfully reproduced from the already sublime source material), which deftly juggles sentimentality and cynicism. Ultimately, Of Mice and Men is a masterclass in workmanlike precision—not terribly flashy or spectacular, but still profoundly moving.

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