Tales of the Riverbank

Fred Zinnemann Week was never planned as a chronological rundown, but it’s rather oddly turning out that way. It also feels like it could overspill its banks into next week, when Shadowplay will be coming live from Hollywood but I’ll be too busy to write about my experiences until I get back…

This week’s The Forgotten, over at the Daily Notebook, deals with TERESA, one of several Zinnemann films to deal with post-war malaise. ACT OF VIOLENCE frames the issue in exciting, feverish noir terms, while THE SEARCH, THE MEN and TERESA form an informal trilogy of realism emotional dramas using unfamiliar actors and non-professionals on location to create a pseudo-documentary feeling. Despite my love of the fantastic and exaggerated, I find these films powerful and highly filmic.

Here’s a moment from THE SEARCH, which deals with displaced children, and in particular one, Ivan Jandl.

Rivers (and fishing) are important in Zinnemann (so are mountains), and here the moving water, earlier associated with death, comes to feel like a representation of the continuity of human life. I’m touched by Clift’s quiet, sensitive performance, but also by what he actually says, and normally attempts to comfort in the face of death fall flat for me. Truffaut’s character has that line to the priest in THE GREEN ROOM, that if he can’t provide immediate resurrection of the departed one, he’s no use whatsoever. It’s kind of true. And with religious stuff, I always just think, “Nope. That can’t be right.” What Clift says here does offer some limited comfort — because it’s clearly TRUE, and it also acknowledges the bleakness of irreparable loss.

Zinnemann’s choice to shoot from the back makes the river a character and also saves him having to ask a small child to act something few adults could pull off. As Joseph H Lewis said of a comparable moment in SO LONG THE NIGHT, “How the hell do you film that?” The best choice is to withdraw and let the audience imagine it.

THE SEARCH led indirectly to THE MEN, F.Z.’s first collaboration with producer Stanley Kramer. It’s also Brando’s first film — his persona must have been a shock to audiences at the time, he’s aggressively proletarian and sullen. What stops this one being as good as THE SEARCH is, to a small degree, Teresa Wright, whose acting style is somewhat too sugary to pair with Brando’s, and to a much greater extent, Dimitri Tiomkin’s score. Zinnemann was shooting TERESA in Italy when the film was post-produced, and by the time he heard the hectoring, banal, shouty music it was too late to change anything. Tiomkin’s decision to score the death of a Latino soldier with Spanish guitar seems particularly offensive.

On the plus side, Everett Sloane gives a restrained perf — he manages to stop his eyebrows squirming all over his head for the most part, and his natural gifts for acerbic wit and uningratiating bluntness shine. Of all the actors, Jack Webb does the best job of blending in with the real disabled veterans who populate the smaller roles — Webb’s version of not-acting comes closer to actual not acting than Brando’s by a country mile.

And so to TERESA, which Zinnemann felt had some structural defects and some issues with the balance of the performances — these problems, if they even are problems, seem to add to the film’s convincing evocation of real-life emotional mess.

5 Responses to “Tales of the Riverbank”

  1. Branod was really a POW to the solar plexis in The Men. Nothing “noble” about him at all.

  2. All too much for audiences at the time, who had no understanding of paraplegia and would maybe have accepted some popular, glamorous and ingratiating star embodying it, but this bitter, angry guy apparently threw them.

  3. “Tiomkin’s decision to score the death of a Latino soldier with Spanish guitar seems particularly offensive”. Offensive perhaps. Idiotic for sure.

  4. Arthur Jurado, the most talented of the non-pros in the film, is listed as alive by the IMDb, but co-star Richard Erdman reckons he killed himself a year after shooting. I’d love to know.

    I also wondered vaguely if he was the brother of Katy Jurado, who’s in High Noon, but I guess it’s very likely a coincidence.

    The fact that the Spanish guitar suddenly comes in when his character dies, having played no part in the score, is what makes it so absurd.

    But I just watched The Sundowners, and Tiomkin’s score is very good there. Zinnemann didn’t hold a grudge.

  5. Would it be valid to suggest that The Search is to Zinnemann what The Pianist was to Polanski? Whenever The Search is talked about today, nobody ever mentions the fact that Zinnemann’s own parents were killed in the Holocaust. This might just be because Zinnemann himself isn’t much talked about today and not a lot of people know that his parents died that way. Or maybe because The Search is one of the more “optimistic” films about the Holocaust and seems like it was directed more by a man’s tears, not by his anger. People, for example, like to say that Sunset Boulevard was directed by Billy Wilder at a time when he was angry at the world for letting his own parents fall to the Third Reich. But that’s because it’s a darker, murkier piece, and thus the psychological connections are easier to pinpoint. Zinnemann, however, went through much the same torments as Wilder, and because of that it might be possible to make a case for The Search as yet another painful personal work.

    That being said, in terms of Zinnemann’s early work, I think I prefer Act of Violence to The Search, because as Zinnemann admits in his own book, he had a lot more creative control on AOV. And that film deals with Nazi issues, too, even if it deals with POV camp guilt rather than concentration camp guilt. AOV is also perfectly constructed, which I can’t say as much for The Search. Thing is, as much as I like The Search, there are long scenes in that movie between the childcare workers that feel studio-written, with zero passion in their dialogue (and The Men suffers from this even more). To me, The Search is at its best during those scenes between Clift and Jandl, since they mark one of the first attempts in Hollywood to unite a Gentile and a Jew in actual serious discussions about the Holocaust; it’s a vast improvement over the silence which Kazan and Zanuck were guilty of when they made the otherwise-excellent Gentlemen’s Agreement.

    Actually, while The Search carries some of Zinnemann’s pain over losing his parents to the Holocaust, I sense that pain even more in a later work like Julia, which is probably the superior film.

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