The world of Fiddler On The Roof is the town of Anatevka, a small town in Russia (although the film was shot mostly on location in Yugoslavia) that is divided into two separate, but unequal parts.
In one part live the Russians. They have paved stone streets, a church, white picket fences, money and a whole bunch of Cossacks. The other part of Anatevka is the ghetto. There the streets are dirt, filled with dung and mud. The people are poor, and the Cossacks only come to make trouble.
This is the world of Tevye (Topol), the dairyman. Tevye talks a lot – to his horse, to the sky, to God, to the trees, as well as to his friends and neighbours.
Director Norman Jewison chose wisely when he cast Israeli actor Topol to play Tevye. Topol’s star quality burns bright, balancing that razor-edge between romanticism and realism.
It’s believable when he dances in the hayloft of his barn; it’s obvious what he is doing when – pressed with a dilemma – he freezes his eyes, removes himself, in a kind of cinematic astral projection, and puzzles over the problem at a safe distance, though all the while he has never really moved an inch.
Even better performances come from Leonard Frey as Motel the oafishly clumsy but totally charming Tailor, and Rosalind Harris (who evoked comparisons with Barbra Streisand) as Tevye’s eldest daughter, Tzeitel.
A couple of performances (Molly Picon’s to name only the worst) go beyond kitsch and some scenes (such as the Jewish evacuation of Anatevka) more resemble Moses leading the Jews from Egypt than the scraggy, scrawny tides of Jewish emigres fleeing from the Russian pogroms at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.
The rousing score allows for Topol’s inspired performance of If I Were A Rich Man and Oswald Morris’ eye-catching photography won an Oscar.
Fiddler On The Roof provided United Artists with their second #1 film of the decade and over $80 million in the process.