Sunday, April 29, 2007
Centennial Tributes: Fred Zinnemann
By Edward Copeland
If someone asks, "What is a Fred Zinnemann film like?" How would you respond? It's not that Zinnemann, who would turn 100 years old today, didn't make quite a few good and great films and at least one bona fide classic, but is there something you can point to as a Zinnemannesque film the way you might say Hitchcockian or Hawksian? Not really. This isn't to disparage Zinnemann at all. He simply was a solid, workman-like director who ended up making movies worth watching far more often than he made clunkers. He earned seven Oscar nominations as director between 1948 and 1977 and won twice. He also won an Oscar for producing A Man for All Seasons and for the documentary short Benjy in 1951. Some might call him colorless, but his body of work certainly deserves reflection today on the anniversary of his birth.
Zinnemann has directing credits stretching all the way back to 1929, but this is the earliest one I've been able to see and what a pleasant surprise it turned out to be. A simple B programmer about a blind detective (the great Edward Arnold), the mystery may be more complicated than necessary (and easy to guess what's going on in general, if not in specific), but it's a lot of fun. Arnold is great and Donna Reed gives a performance unlike any I've seen from her as a bitter, manipulative young woman at odds with her stepmother. There are some slightly racist scenes involving Arnold's butler that made me uncomfortable, but they are so few that I was able to look aside. Besides, that dog! Friday may well be the most talented dog in the history of film, being a true partner to his blind owner. In fact, in one scene where Friday ends up with the gun of a bad guy in his mouth, I was surprised the canine didn't actually know how to fire it.
Zinnemann scored his first Oscar nomination as director for this moving drama set in post-World War II Berlin where an Army private (Montgomery Clift) tries to help a lost Czech boy find his mother while she similarly searches refugee camps for him. It's a simple, stark tale, but quite compelling, painting a vivid portrait of the desolation of the German city after the war and the timeless tale of people separated by events trying to find their way back together again.
The Search brought Zinnemann his Oscar nomination for 1948, but this taut thriller may be the better film. The always-great Robert Ryan plays a wounded WWII veteran on a mission to kill his former CO (Van Heflin), whom he holds responsible for his misfortune. The film holds the details close to its vest for awhile, and to good effect. Eventually, the stench of vengeance and violence contaminates most of the characters in the film so you're really not certain who will be on the receiving end of the film's title. Unfortunately, the payoff wimps out slightly, but until then the film is riveting, led by Ryan, Heflin and able supporting work, including Mary Astor as a hooker with a heart of stone.
More than anything else, this melodramatic portrait of recovering war veterans remains best known for marking the feature film debut of Marlon Brando. Brando plays an embittered soldier paralyzed from his war injuries. Much of the dramatics do go over the top, but The Men also contains surprising frankness, given when it was made, in terms of sexuality and balancing an antiwar message with a supportive one for fighting men, something that really rings true today, both in terms of the Iraq mess our troops find themselves embroiled in as well as the recent revelations of the piss-poor medical treatment they've received when they've returned home.
In the 2003 documentary All the Presidents' Movies, it was amazing how many occupants of the Oval Office picked Zinnemann's Western classic as one of the films they watched in the White House screening room multiple times. (In fact, since Eisenhower, it's been the film requested most often by all presidents.) Regardless of your political persuasion, it's easy to see why this tale of one man standing alone against a cadre of villains while all his supposed allies turn tail and run would appeal to commanders-in-chief. Of all Zinnemann's movies, this one remains my favorite. Really, it's the perfect role for the stoic Gary Cooper and having its action play out in real time works better than just about any other attempt to imitate that pattern. (Come on 24 fans, you can't get anywhere in Los Angeles in an hour let alone have all the things that happen on the show in 60 minutes occur.) High Noon works as well even if you don't know or notice its allegorical background of the blacklist. It's a classic that should never be forsaken.
While The Member of the Wedding still entertains after all these years, its stage origins remain painfully apparent. Julie Harris is quite good in her Oscar-nominated turn as the tomboy Frankie Addams unhappy with her lot in life and dreaming of something more. (You almost believe that Harris, in her late 20s at the time, is a 12-year-old.) However, the performance that stands out for me is Ethel Waters, the sensible maid who becomes Frankie's confidant. She grounds the film in a realism that some of its more theatrical flairs threaten to unravel. Waters should have been the one up for an Oscar that year.
It's interesting to note that with all the people questioning whether it was too soon for films such as United 93 and World Trade Center to tackle the events of 9/11 that From Here to Eternity re-created the attack on Pearl Harbor a mere 12 years after it occurred, albeit as a glorified soap opera. (Actually, movies began referring to the attack on Pearl Harbor within months of December 1941, but I believe this is the first to actually depict the attack.) Thankfully though, Zinnemann was no Michael Bay and the film still has some teeth (and earned Zinnemann his first directing Oscar). Most importantly though, it has great performances from Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Ernest Borgnine and Frank Sinatra's Oscar-winning turn as the doomed Pvt. Maggio. How Donna Reed won her Oscar I'm not certain. (As Josh R is fond of pointing out, she plays what must be the most virginal prostitute ever put on film.) However, enough remains to make it stand the test of time.
Zinnemann ventured into musicals and he went BIG, i.e. in full-blooded Technicolor, Todd-AO glory transferring this landmark Rodgers and Hammerstein musical to the truly big screen. In a way, Oklahoma! really is a stage show that should be opened up since a stage is too limiting for this tale of early settlers. Zinnemann takes true advantage of this with some nice shots, particularly the opening which moves the camera through the stalks of a corn field before coming upon Gordon MacRae singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin.'" While the film is good enough, the importance of its stage version doesn't exactly transfer since Hollywood already had produced its own much better musical originals for the screen (such as Singin' in the Rain three years earlier). Despite that, there is much to admire in the songs and some of the performances, specifically Gloria Grahame's fun turn as Ado Annie. This is the performance that should have earned her an Oscar nomination and/or win, not her blink-or-you'll-miss-it work in The Bad and the Beautiful. Rod Steiger is good as the dark Jud, but his performance (and really the character himself) always has seemed somewhat out of place in what is essentially a musical comedy. Eddie Albert does what he can as Persian peddler Ali Hakim, but he's about as much a Persian as Mickey Rooney was Chinese in Breakfast at Tiffany's. (Well, Albert isn't offensive at least).
You can probably count on one hand the number of films about Catholic priests or nuns that still have them in their religious vocation by the time the film ends, and this bloated work isn't one of them. Audrey Hepburn does her best as the conflicted nun-in-training, but it's really Peter Finch who steals the show as a feisty doctor that Hepburn works with during some missionary work. It's not only an obscenely long film, it's also an eminently forgettable one.
Also too long, but immensely more fun was Zinnemann's next film, with Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr struggling to make ends meet in the outback as sheep drovers, with Kerr trying to be the sensible one and Mitchum's gambling spirit always getting the best of him (and their nest egg). She's tired of their wandering ways and wants to settle down, but his rambunctioness always gets in the way. There also are fine supporting performances by Peter Ustinov and Glynis Johns. Still, the cinematography by Jack Hildyard is stunning and there are some great set pieces, particularly a sheep-shearing competition. To say that its Oscar nomination for best picture was more than generous is no understatement.
Zinnemann truly created an odd one with this film that has Gregory Peck (?) playing an exiled Spanish revolutionary and Anthony Quinn as the Spanish official hoping to lure him back to the country to kill him with the news that his mother (Mildred Dunnock) is dying 20 years after the end of the Spanish civil war. Things get complicated further by a young boy named Paco (Marietto Angeleletti) who wants Peck to go back to kill Quinn to avenge his own father's death, but Peck also is torn by a possible traitor within his ranks. Despite the fact that Peck is even a less-convincing Spaniard than Eddie Albert was a Persian, the movie's overriding problem is that it's a world-class bore. It drags on and on to a truly anticlimactic ending. The most interesting thing about it is that it was based on a novel by Emeric Pressburger.
It had been a long time since I'd seen this best picture winner that earned Zinnemann his final two Oscars, one for directing and one for producing, and it plays even better than I remembered. While Robert Bolt's screenplay does show its stage origins, Zinnemann has turned this story of Sir Thomas More's stance on principle against the will of King Henry VIII into a sleek, compelling enterprise with the look and feel of an epic but a running time of a mere two hours. Central to the film's success of course is Paul Scofield's Oscar-winning turn as More, but Zinnemann does add a lot of nice touches as well, particularly in the great opening sequence showing the travel of a message from Cardinal Wolsey to More. There's also stunning cinematography by Ted Moore and a top-notch supporting cast that includes Wendy Hiller, Leo McKern, a young John Hurt and Robert Shaw in his Oscar-nominated turn as Henry VIII, which is a much smaller role than I recall. My 1966 Oscar preferences still lean to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but this film's win is not an embarrassment.
As Fred Zinnemann began his sixth decade as a filmmaker, he turned to yet another genre with this taut thriller starring the cool Edward Fox as a hired gun whose services are employed by embittered former members of the French Foreign Legion to assassinate French President Charles De Gaulle. The story moves on two tracks as Fox, code name The Jackal, pursues his plot and the French authorities, led by Col. Rolland (Michel Auclair) try to determine the killer's identity and to stop him before he is able to act. The film is a bit overlong, but Zinnemann does build quite a bit of suspense, even though we know De Gaulle won't be killed, and Fox is superb as the cold and calculating mercenary.
I saw Julia when it was originally released and I was in grade school, hardly the ideal audience. All I remembered really was that I was bored silly and the scene where a frustrated Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) tosses her typewriter out a window (I miss typewriters). So, in fairness, I decided I needed to take a new look, hoping that age would make me have a new view on the film the way I did a turnaround on Reds recently. Alas, 30 years later, I find Julia as boring as I did as an elementary school student. Its awards puzzle me more now than they did when I only had vague memories. Fonda at times is pretty bad. Jason Robards in his second consecutive Oscar-winning supporting turn is fine, but really doesn't have anything to do to deserve the prize. Maximilian Schell's presence is so fleeting that his nomination is a headscratcher. What shocked me the most was Vanessa Redgrave. While she is one of our finest actresses, there was more drama and suspense surrounding her nomination and her winning speech than she gets to create in the film itself. This was Zinnemann's final Oscar nomination as director (though he did direct one more film, which I haven't seen), but Julia is a bore. Pure and simple. Despite his less successful works, Zinnemann produced a lot of good and great movies in his time and I still salute him on his centennial.
Labels: A. Hepburn, blacklist, Borgnine, Brando, Clift, Cooper, Deborah Kerr, Gregory Peck, Hammerstein, Lancaster, Mary Astor, Mitchum, Robards, Robert Ryan, Rodgers, Sinatra, Van Hefiin, Vanessa Redgrave, W. Hiller
I agree with you on Julia, EC. I saw it in the movies when I was in grade school and was incredibly bored by it, then revisited it some 20 years later and could barely keep my eyes open. (Aside: I miss typewriters too, which is why I still have a Smith-Corona electric typewriter. I may never get to type on it again, as I ran out of cartridges eons ago, but I just love listening to it.)
Zinnemann has a rep of being workmanlike and vanilla, but only from people who forget how many iconic images he's given us in his films. Billy Wilder mentions him in several of the interviews that make up The Billy Wilder Interviews because they both came from Austria.
You're right on about the most of the films, although I do think that From Here to Eternity is a vastly overrated film that suffers from miscasting of the female roles. I think the remark I made about Reed which you alluded to was that there was no indication from her performance that the actress was indeed aware of the fact that the character she was playing was supposed to be a whore.
I also think you do a bit of a disservice to The Nun's Story - I actually think it's one of Hepburn's better performances. When films deal with priests and nuns forsaking their vows, it usually has something to do with the sexy stuff - the inability to negotiate the whole chastity deal. Nun's Story is intruiging, and rather unique, in its consideration of a woman who feels compelled to leave her vocation because of her struggles with the notion of obedience - blind acceptance of a passive, unquestioning role as mandated by the church. Hepburn's character decides she can no longer be a nun because she can't take a passive stance in relation to what's happening in the world - and the way the actress thoughtfully portrays the inner turmoil that leads her to that painful realization is truly heartbreaking.
In conclusion, nobody could have played that part of 'Alma Burke' in "From Here To Eternity" better than Donna Reed did, and that is why she earned her Academy Award for her very Super Charged Incredible Performance!
But it doesn't stop there, just as it shouldn't for any auteur. Zinnemann could be a deeply passionate filmmaker whenever called for, obviously so in From Here to Eternity--although I find that movie to be very, very overrated. I much prefer the lasting friendship between Lillian Hellman and her best friend in Julia; or the tortured love triangle amongst Sean Connery, Betsy Brantley and Lambert Wilson in his final film, Five Days One Summer, which I HIGHLY recommend if you haven't seen it yet, Edward.
Mostly I'm utterly fascinated by the end of his career. Few filmmakers go out on such an artistic renaissance, but Zinnemann's last four films (A Man for All Seasons; The Day of the Jackal; Julia; Five Days One Summer) are all masterpieces. I'd kill to have a consecutive track record that good.