Tuesday, December 24

The Directors: Fred Zinnemann

By most accounts he was regarded as a superior craftsman.  When you hear of some of his films, it is his attention to realism and detail that you will recall.  He could be fussy but he wanted it all to play out as he saw it.  He brought Oscar nominations (and a few wins) to 19 actors, five in one movie alone.  He would say that the three most important things about a film are the script, the script, the script.  He made some of the best films to come out of the 1950s and 60s.  I loved his work.

Fred Zinnemann was born in Vienna in 1907 to a Jewish doctor and his wife.  A childhood ambition was to become a musician but he wound up studying law at the University of Vienna.  While there he acquired an interest in film-making by taking up camerawork.  He would work as a cameraman in Germany for a number of directors, including Billy Wilder and Robert Siodmak.  All three would end up making their marks in Hollywood.

He emigrated to the U.S. in 1934 and in 1936 married his one and only wife, to whom he was still married when he passed away in 1997.  He started out at MGM where he directed a short subject called That Mothers Might Live (1938) and he won an Oscar for doing so.  In 1952 he won another Oscar for another short, Benjy. He stayed busy for eight years directing mainly shorts and then a couple of B movies.

In 1944 he got his first A assignment with The Seventh Cross about seven men who escape from a Nazi concentration camp.  He would do battle with its star, Spencer Tracy, and they would not work together again until 1958 when they were hired on as director and star of The Old Man and the Sea.  On that set the disagreements became so fierce that Zinnemann was replaced by John Sturges.

Four rather highly-regarded actors would make their debuts in a Zinnemann film... Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Julie Harris and Meryl Streep.  Clift did fabulous work for Zinnemann twice.  The first time, in 1948, was for The Search, about a post-WWII soldier in Berlin who tries to help a young Czech boy find his mother.  Along with Clift, the child actor, Ivan Jandl, was astonishing.

Zinnemann's next three films were not masterpieces but two of them are nonetheless highly-regarded.  In Act of Violence, also 1948, Robert Ryan turns in a vivid portrayal as a whacked-out former GI who stalks his former commanding officer, played by Van Heflin.  Zinnemann's passion for the soldier continued in 1950 with Brando's debut in The Men, about a man trying to adjust to civilian life without the use of his limbs. In 1951 he made Teresa, about an immature, returning G.I. who meets up with a childlike woman.  Pier Angeli and John Ericson couldn't really sell the film, which wasn't as bad as history has said it was.  It is one of the director's most forgotten films.

With Grace Kelly on the set of High Noon

During the next eight years Zinnemann would make one hit after another, several of which are considered American classics.  First up was one of those, 1952s High Noon, considered by many to be the first adult western.  Its plot is simple... a marshal about to leave town with his new bride becomes determined to stay a while longer to deal with four killers coming to town to rub him out.  Writer Carl Foreman called the film an investigation of the anatomy of fear and admitted at the time that it was an allegory about the hysteria engendered by McCarthyism which was blowing wild at the time.  Right-wingers took a dim view of it (John Wayne couldn't believe his conservative friend Gary Cooper would do such a piece of crap) but Cooper would go on to win his second Oscar for it and the film would give Grace Kelly her first substantive role.  There are many who thought it should have won the Oscar for best picture over the eventual winner, The Greatest Show on Earth

In 1989 High Noon was chosen for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.  It stands at #27 in the American Film Institute's 2007 list of all-time greatest films. 

Also in 1952 he brought Carson McCuller's The Member of the Wedding, a Broadway hit, to the screen with its main cast intact... Ethel Waters, Julie Harris and Brandon deWilde.  It was a sweet coming-of-age story about a precocious, 12-year old Georgia girl who is determined to leave her shabby life behind and go off with her newly-married brother. 

Hands down the best thing Zinnemann ever did was From Here to Eternity in 1953.  It was about soldiers and the women in some of their lives in Hawaii in the months leading up to the bombing at Pearl Harbor.  It was based on an extremely popular and risqué novel by James Jones.  Daniel Taradash's adapted screenplay rightly won an Oscar for giving us a solid story with characters that jumped off the screen.

All Oscar-nominated for From Here to Eternity

The film is renowned for one of the best casts to ever grace a movie screen.  Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed and Frank Sinatra were all nominated for Oscars (now there's an Oscar trivia question) with the latter two winning.  I think both Clift and Lancaster should have tied for best actor.  These two couldn't be more different in their approaches to acting but it all played out beautifully.  It is a disgrace that Deborah Kerr, cast against type as an adulterous wife, didn't win for best actress (and that Audrey Hepburn did for Roman Holiday).  It also defies the imagination to think Joan Crawford was originally to do the role while at the same time the studio was going for Eli Wallach for the role ultimately assumed by Sinatra.

The film would go on to nab an astonishing 13 Oscar nominations and would win eight of them, including best picture and one for Zinnemann's polished direction.  It would also go on to become one of the top 10 films of the decade.  It is a magnificent work.  One day it will be discussed here in greater detail.  Be warned.

I thought Zinnemann was an odd choice to assume the reins of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma in 1955 but that he did.  It would be the only musical he would direct.  The truth is it was a bit of a slam dunk no matter who directed because of its word of mouth and longtime Broadway run.  It was, however, a troubled production on any number of levels but mainly due to the disruptive presence of Gloria Grahame who did not like making the film and was not very quiet about it.

A Hatful of Rain was likely his least financially-successful film of this batch of good ones, but that does not mean it wasn't a completely worthy one to be included in this magnificent director's library.  Its dark subject matter was likely the reason why.  It concerned a young married New Yorker who is a heroin addict having serious withdrawal problems which he keeps from his wife.  His brother, who is in love with the wife, is the only one who knows of the heroin issue.  Don Murray, Eva Marie Saint and Tony Franciosa delivered searing performances.

Now The Nun's Story in 1959 is a film for which Audrey Hepburn should have won an Oscar.  It was a magnificent performance in a magnificent film.  She played a young Belgian nun who goes to serve in the Congo with an atheist doctor and begins to doubt the choices she has made.   It had eight Oscar nominations, including for Zinnemann, but came up empty-handed.

Working it out with Audrey Hepburn

In 1960 Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr would be reunited from 1957's Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison in two new films, the delightful comedy The Grass Is Greener and Fred Zinnemann's newest offering, The Sundowners.  Both actors acquired Australian accents (and pretty decent ones methinks) to play a nomadic family of sheep drovers with the wife wanting to settle down and the husband opposing it.  What drama there was mainly concerned the angst these characters had over their differing views.  The joy was in watching these two marvelous actors and the realistic look brought to the entire project by Zinnemann.

And then it happened.  After four years off, Zinnemann made Behold a Pale Horse in 1964 and it was a bomb.  There was little reason to think it would be anything other than another roaring success with a cast that included Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif.  It was a piece on a Spanish Civil War outlaw, living for many years in France, set on returning to Spain to see his ill mother and of a policeman who is out to capture him.  Could it have been due to miscasting of some sort?  After all, none of the three leads were Spanish.  Perhaps it was Spain's uproar over how its policeman (a real person) was portrayed.  Whatever, it was proof that one is only as good as his last film.   Despite his run of such good and great films, Zinnemann was suddenly dog meat.   

Redemption would come two years later with A Man for All Seasons, about statesman Sir Thomas More's confrontation with King Henry VIII over the latter's renouncing of the Catholic church.  Zinnemann brought an excitement to the screen that was manifested in a riveting story, a beautiful look and some of the best acting one is likely to see in an historical drama.  The film would win six of its eight Oscar nominations, rightly including one for Paul Scofield as More, best picture of the year and Zinnemann as director.  If you're into historical dramas and haven't seen this one, you need to handle that.

I didn't particularly care for The Day of the Jackal when I first saw it in 1973 but have come to appreciate the crime-thriller as one of the best.  Zinnemann's perceptive attention to detail came into full bloom in this tale of a planned assassination of DeGaulle and Paris has rarely been photographed more stunningly.

I always suspected the plot of Julia (1976) was padded, perhaps a bit Hollywoodized, but once said, I was taken in by the fine acting of Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robards and Maximilian Schell (and Streep's debut) and the beautiful photography and of course the biographical aspect.  It was the story of a friend of playwright Lillian Hellman's who asks her to smuggle some money into Nazi Germany.  Both Redgrave and Robards would win supporting Oscars. 

Julia would be the last Oscar nomination Zinnemann would receive... others were for The Search, High Noon, The Nun's Story and The Sundowners... and of course two wins for features and two for short subjects.

I've never seen a Sean Connery movie I didn't like at some level and 1982s Five Days One Summer was no exception.  But the tale of incestual love in the (beautifully photographed) Swiss Alps didn't do so well and it drew the curtain on Zinnemann's career.  He was an old man at this point and perhaps knew he'd never clang the bell as loudly as he once did.

I regard him as one of the deans of American film directors.  He engaged us with the best stories, the best actors, the best photography.  His films were a pleasure to behold.

Review of The Wolf of Wall St.

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