A Show Called Fred

I think — bear with me now — that Fred Zinnemann might be underrated. Oh, I know he won four Oscars, but that cuts no ice with the auteurists. It doesn’t really matter much to me, either, come to that. And I know HIGH NOON gets listed on all the AFI top 100s and all that, or I assume it does, because I haven’t looked. And I know FROM HERE TO ETERNITY is celebrated in the same circles. THE NUN’S STORY and OKLAHOMA! and DAY OF THE JACKAL have their rabid fans, but I’m not sure they’re really considered “director’s films,” which is ridiculous. And THE MEN was Brando’s first film, and there’s always A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS. But they’re not that impressed by that down the auteurist pubs I drink in.

I wonder if it’s because he was at MGM, or because he had “white elephant art” tendencies, or because Howard Hawks didn’t like HIGH NOON, but Zinnemann seems to get short shrift, and I don’t think it’s right. Hawks’ objections to HIGH NOON are interesting, by the way, solely for what they tell us about Hawks. Considered by themselves, they’re crazy.

Hawks, as you may know, objected to the way Gary Cooper spends the film trying to get help to fight the four men coming to kill him, then defeats them single-handedly. Why did he need to ask for help in the first place? “Man’s not a professional,” grumbled HH.

Well, I don’t give a damn whether he is or not. Professionalism is the prime virtue in Hawksian cinema, but not in Zinnemann’s, where it is evinced by the Nazis fought in THE SEVENTH CROSS and the assassin in DAY OF THE JACKAL. Cooper’s nobility is what counts in HIGH NOON, and it’s not the kind of movie where one man can be assumed to defeat four, just by being noble, so it’s understandable he should ask for help. Hawks made RIO BRAVO, he claimed, as an antidote to HIGH NOON, and I’m really glad he did — it’s the high water-mark of his late career. But the scene where Wayne refuses help from amateurs is pretty silly from a tactical viewpoint. He could’ve used them to create a distraction, at least.

Anyway, I’m going to be concentrating, as much as possible, on lesser-known Zinnemanns. It’s my contention that his reputation would be higher if some of his early films were held aloft more regularly, perhaps rather than some of his later films. And the techniques and themes which bind his varied body of work together need shouting about too.

To explore why I think Fred Zinnemann is very much worth bothering with is going to take a little time — maybe a week.

So here it is — Fred Zinnemann Week on Shadowplay.

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12 Responses to “A Show Called Fred”

  1. Fred Zinnemann Week? I approve. I’ve never agreed with Hawks’ objections either. I guess I tend to lump High Noon in the same category as The Ox-Bow Incident; it’s closer to a straightforward morality play than a gunslinger adventure story.

  2. I highly approve. I didn’t realize how often I wrote reviews of Zinnemann until, well, I noticed. Nothing planned, just continuously finding films that I liked enough to be inspired to prose. I have had to defend Julia to some people, though I really don’t know why; it’s a fantastic film. Zinnemann even makes potential hokum compelling with The Men (of course, it helps to have Brando, but still). I’ll be reading. Thanks for championing his cause, David.

  3. Julia has some problems — the actresses can’t pass for students, and the attempts to dramatize writing are not successful, but the rest is very strong. I’ll be revisiting The Men this week — on first viewing I found Everett Sloane and Jack Webb at least as interesting as Brando, but the music never let up. Just finally watched From Here to Eternity, which is solid, has some great scenes, but I think his best work is elsewhere, and less familiar.

    I’ll start in on that tomorrow.

  4. David, good luck. I’m a fellow champion of Zinnemann’s work and regard The Day of the Jackal as his richest film — as well as one of my top 10 films of all time. The Nun’s Story, High Noon, A Man for All Seasons and Act of Violence are all great movies too, and like Marilyn I will defend Julia to pretty much anyone.

    Awhile back I uploaded Zinnemann’s last movie, Five Days One Summer, onto YouTube: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EQaI3o41Xzo) Make sure you see it if you haven’t already; it’s a passionate, intense swan song.

    I also wrote about one of Zinnemann’s more flawed films, Behold A Pale Horse, a few months ago (http://iceboxmovies.blogspot.com/2011/06/behold-pale-horse-1964.html). It’s a problematic political epic that nevertheless benefits from some interesting performances by Gregory Peck and Omar Sharif.

  5. I may save Five Days for the Late Films Blogathon in December. I remember liking it but need to revisit. Thanks for the links.

    The most striking performance in Behold a Pal Horse, for me, was Anthony Quinn’s — Zinnemann somehow stops him overacting! Of course, Quinn wanted to play Peck’s role, which FZ vetoed on grounds of typecasting… I wish he’d allowed it.

  6. Five Days One Summer is notable for Lambert Wilson.

    But then all films in which he appears are notable for him.

    Zinneman, alas, does little for me. I await your efforts to change my mind.

  7. Zinnemann first deployed LW in Julia, liked what he saw, and remembered him for 5 Days, where he needed a multilingual actor who could convincingly lure a woman away from Sean Connery. I imagine it was a fairly short list.

  8. Lambert could convingly lure ME away from Sean Connery. And that’s really saying something.

    Needless to say he has a direct advantage in that I adore gorgeous Frenchmen who sing Sondheim.

  9. I can see how that would help.

    Add LW to a VERY long list of actors who got first or early movie breaks from Zinnemann.

  10. It took LW a while to catch on, though: two years after that, he was uncredited in the dreadful Louis de Funès vehicle Le Gendarme et les extra-terrestres; you can see him in this clip at around the 1:30 mark.

    Enjoying the series very much so far. I’ve mostly only seen the “big”
    Zinnemann films; I’ve often thought of him as an unusually skilled adapter of material, and I mean that as a compliment, in other words taking the best of the source material and successfully stamping it as his own. I’m not sure whether that’s true across his oeuvre, of course.

  11. The majority of Zinnemann films are adaptations. He doesn’t seem to have originated any projects from scratch himself, and often had stories sent to him that friends or producers thought he’d like. The Nun’s Story came via Gary Cooper, for instance!

    At this rate I might not get around to any of the big films… oh, I expect I will. But I find the forties and fifties stuff particularly appealing.

  12. [...] Shadowplay, Cairns is currently engaged in that perennial mug’s game among auteurist circles, sticking up for Fred Zinneman. Though he’s had the good sense so far to focus, after clearing his throat on The Seventh [...]

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