Archive for Fred Zinnemann

The Domestic Trap

Posted in FILM with tags , , on December 30, 2011 by dcairns

Maybe these two shots explain why Fred Zinnemann kept traveling the world, making big films that occupied months and months of his time… to Europe (DAY OF THE JACKAL), Africa (THE NUN’ S STORY), Australia (THE SUNDOWNERS)…

In THE SUNDOWNERS, Robert Mitchum’s fear of being tied down to one place is embodied in this shoebox of a shot.

But, interestingly, the guardedly optimistic ending of TERESA features a similar composition. I guess in part that sense of enclosure is what makes it only guardedly optimistic…

Two Tales

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 22, 2011 by dcairns

My two favourite stories from Fred Zinnemann, An Autobiography.

To prepare for THE MEN, Brando spent a lot of time hanging out with the paraplegic vets, drinking at the Pump Room where the door had been widened for wheelchair access. Nobody there new he was an actor, he had his own wheelchair and he was learning to be one of the guys.

“Sympathetic people often turned up at the Pump Room, even religious cranks — California is full of them — and one day a lady came in, already three sheets to the wind. She spotted the veterans in their wheelchairs, climbed on a bar stool and began to tell them that they could surely get up and walk if they only had faith in God. The fellows wearily pointed to Brando, who thereupon gave one of the great performances of his career…”

You guessed it. Brando started small, with “a tiny spark of doubt” in his eyes, which was duly spotted by the lady and fanned into a hot cinder of hope. She harangued him, exhorting him to rise, and he seemed to get more and more impressed. The room fell silent. Waiters paused with full trays. Finally, he dared an attempt — with herculean effort, he stood, and took a faltering step. A gasp and a hush.

Then Brando laughed, danced a little jig, and ran from the bar. Moments later he returned with an armful of newspapers, shouting joyously, “Hurray, now I can make a living!”

“He did have a cruel sense of humor.”

What’s strange is to see this scene recreated in BEDTIME STORY, starring Brando himself.

Anecdote 2:

HIGH NOON — Zinnemann used striking symmetrical shots at various times in his career: the pageantry of A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS and THE NUN’S STORY exploit the formal, unnatural tension of human beings arranged into ordered rows like dominos. In HIGH NOON there’s the splendid low angle looking right along the railroad track at the vanishing point, the point from which crazed killer Frank Miller is coming, inevitably.

Floyd Crosby, ace cinematographer, and Zinnemann, were on the railway tracks at the train station location in Sonora (most of the film was shot on the back lot, with smog helpfully masking out modern LA in the longshots). The train appeared on the horizon line. Black smoke spouted from it — an excellent effect, thought Zinnemann. A train of death!

What he didn’t know was that this was the driver’s signal that the brakes had failed. The camera rolled, the two men crouched on the tracks, and eventually it dawned on them that the train wasn’t stopping. Slow motion. Scrambling off the tracks. Heavy 35mm camera. Tripod leg catches in track. Get off the line!

The train roared past, a train of death indeed, smashing the camera to scrap. The magazine survived and the shot’s in the film!

Nobody was hurt.

It occurs to me that there’s not much point having a black smoke signal for brake failure if you don’t tell the people crouching on the tracks beforehand that such a signal exists. I guess the engineer thought “Well, everybody knows that!”

Peck’s Bad Boy

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2011 by dcairns

I have to say that Fred Zinnemann’s BEHOLD A PALE HORSE deserves its comparatively low status among his work, but it’s still full of interest. Based on a novel by the director’s old Berlin coffee house buddy Emeric Pressburger, it’s set in more or less contemporary Spain and across the border in France, where a die-hard rebel (Gregory Peck) is carrying on the Civil War as a personal feud with Guardia Civil chief Anthony Quinn.

At two hours, the film feels sluggish, in part because J.P. Miller’s script features minor characters not essential to the action — either they were in the book, or have been added to give Quinn’s character more “depth”. The effect is to further diffuse a movie which seems uncertain who its main character is. We’re introduced to the story through the eyes of a young boy (Marietto, a typically excellent Zinnemann juvenile), pick up Peck, follow Quinn for a while, and then bond with Omar Sharif (!) as a priest who gets mixed up in the action due to the dying wish of Peck’s mother.

Another reason for the prevailing inertia (apart from maybe a certain lack of energy in Zinnemann’s handling at times) is the story structure, in which Peck conceives of a daring mission in Act 1 — his mother is dying, under armed guard, and he wants to circumvent the Spanish authorities, break into the hospital, and see her — which is then endlessly deferred by a series of almost Bunuelian plot digressions. Some of the intervening action is exciting or compelling in its own right, but at the back of our mind is the knowledge that a gripping adventure awaits that we’re just not getting to, and that has the effect of making what’s currently onscreen seem less exciting.

There’s also the problem of casting. The first section of story has Marietto visiting Peck, a friend of his late father’s, to ask him to avenge dad’s death by killing Quinn — in other words, it’s TRUE GRIT before the fact. And, as in TG, the kid is severely disappointed by what he finds, at first wondering if the old guy slumped in the dingy hovel is the father of the man he’s looking for. The problem, of course, and it’s a fatal one for a movie about a man approaching old age and opting for a dramatic death, is that Peck looks remarkably healthy for his age. A certain tightness of the shirt about the belly does not serve to evoke advancing decrepitude (and we also have our outside knowledge that G.P. would last almost another forty years).

And of course Peck is his usual staunch, stolid self, with nothing of the bandit and less of the Spaniard about him. Did any actor of reasonable ability ever evoke so many recasting fantasies? Imagine Robert Ryan as Ahab in MOBY DICK, James Stewart as Sam Bowden in CAPE FEAR (in which Peck is good). Even in ROMAN HOLIDAY, which seems to work like a dream, I could be persuaded that William Holden might have raised it to an even higher level (there’s never any doubt that Peck will behave nobly, whereas with Holden, doubt is in his DNA).

The Brêche de Roland, 8,000 feet up in the Pyrenees. Such is my naivety, I assumed this HAD to be a matte shot. It’s real!

Zinnemann’s hand is otherwise quite sure, with some striking sequences and performances. Quinn doesn’t overact, and while it’s hard to figure out how Sharif wound up in a French monastery, he’s very soulful and effective. The movie’s not too strong on explaining the political background — Zinnemann worried that he was glorifying a terrorist, but a sterner eye on the Franco regime’s abuses might have alleviated his concerns.

And Peck gets one terrific scene, a classic of poetic understatement, excerpted for your pleasure here. He’s finally off on his mission, one of certain death. He pauses, and there’s an erotic distraction. But it’s too late for that kind of thing.

The cameo role of the girl is performed by Elizabeth Wiener! — Clouzot’s LA PRISONNIERE, Rivette’s DUELLE. And I can forgive both Peck and Maurice Jarre their many sins, looking at something like this.

As in the delightful, allusive moment in THE SUNDOWNERS where Deborah Kerr stares wistfully at a glamorous woman on a train, contrasting with her own sun-bleached, wind-blown appearance, nothing is spoken but everything gets said.

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