The Small Back Rooms

Zinnemann may be a realist, but he is also, like nearly all American filmmakers, an expressionist — that is, he uses music and composition and movement to inspire emotion, rather than simply recording emotions produced by his actors.

Here are three striking, felicitous rooms in F.Z.’s work — there are many more.

In A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, production designer John Box lived up to his name by placing Orson Welles as Cardinal Wolsey in a tiny office, where his bulk easily dominates the space. Apart from Welles’ desk and chair, there’s no furniture, so visitors have to stand. As a final masterpiece, the room is painted the same shade of red as Wolsey’s robes and burst capillaries, so that he seems to extend from behind his desk, across the walls and ceiling, embracing the nervous guest. It’s like being invited to an audience inside Orson Welles.

In OKLAHOMA!, all that Todd-AO space outside falls off into impenetrable lung shadow within Jud Fry’s smokehouse, where Rod Steiger lurks with his pornography and his killer ViewMaster®. This is probably the most palpably malodorous environment in any major American film, certainly in a musical. While the design and photography play a part, I think most of it’s down to Rod. His lumpen, perspiring form, exuding a sickening over-eager bonhomie, larded over with sullen pride and nursing an inner core of curdled semen, makes this a horrifically uncomfortable space. Zinnemann felt, on reflection, that he’d over-indulged Steiger, allowing him to create a dimensional, tortured figure out of what should have been a cartoon bad guy, thus badly overbalancing the movie, “and when he died the jubilation of the community was not echoed by relief in the audience.” Such is the brooding, stinky power of Steiger’s Jud, that even before he appears, the community’s vocal dislike of him strikes a bum note.

Finally, another large man in a small room. For an hour of screen time, we hear about the horrors of Ernest Borgnine’s stockade in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. It’s a place you don’t want to get sent. And yet we’ve never seen it, merely heard whispered descriptions — apart from these, all we have to base our anxiety on is Borgnine’s deplorable piano playing.

Well, we finally get there, in the company of Sinatra, whose much-mocked physical weediness is for the first time a huge asset. The room is very small and narrow, opposite in shape to Borgnine, who looks like he might burst the walls by inhaling too deeply. Sinatra is pitifully vulnerable, and as Borgnine raises his billy club, a small, uncomfortable movement of the prisoner’s eyes powerfully conveys the sheer vulnerability of human bone and muscle.

This is not the end of Fred Zinnemann Week! It’s just the end of the week. The case needs to be made for F.Z.’s later works, and I hope to make it, but we seem to have run out of time here. Expect the odd F.Z. post this coming week, live from Hollywood, and thereafter for the rest of the year, maybe one a week. I do want to write about THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING and A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS which are favourites, and I’ve already started pieces on BEHOLD A PALE HORSE and DAY OF THE JACKAL. As today’s post indicates, we may drop the chronological approach somewhat, but I do hope to touch on all the films…

The author prepares to mete out corrective discipline to Zinnemann doubters.

6 Responses to “The Small Back Rooms”

  1. Oklahoma! was shot in two versions you know. TODD-AO and regular Cinemascope. They would do a take with one process followed by a take with the other. The DVD currently available is a transfer of the TODD-AO version — which is superior to the Cinemascope one.

  2. The dvd available in America, you mean — the one here is a horrible 4:3 pan-and-scan, one of several pretty bad Zinnemann discs. There’s a 4:3 Nun’s Story and a wobbly, artefacty High Noon with some fades-to-black that look like they were added for TV screenings…

    Yes, the two versions was an expensive compromise designed to deal with the shortage of Todd-AO cinemas. Zinnemann himself bemoaned the fact that so few people could see the film as intended, something that the US DVD does at least something to put right.

  3. Randy Cook Says:

    The TODD-AO sure deserves a blu ray release. The DVD I got had both versions, as I recall. The TODD-AO version didn’t look as good, somehow, which was odd: I would have expected that the 30 fps would have had the same “presence” as the laserdisc (mastered from TODD-AO elements) had. Somehow it didn’t. One hopes the two TODD_AO films (this and AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS) will get a blu ray release. That’d show ’em. The difference with wide screen at 30 fps is amazing (they ran a TODD-AO presentation AROUND THE WORLD in LA 35 0r 40 years ago and it was beautiful). That’s all. I’m tired of typing “TODD-AO”.

  4. Mike Todd fell out with his partners at Cinerama, which used three projectors to make one joined-up image, so he said “I’ll show ’em! I’m going to make everything come out of one hole!” So he did with TODD-AO. And that’s the last time *I’m* going to type “TODD-AO”.

  5. Great piece. I notice something new every time I see one of Zinnemann’s films, but his economy of space had never occurred to me until now.

    Steiger really does own that shot in Oklahoma! — in fact, he basically owns the whole movie. I remember seeing that movie and feeling that the ending (like the ending of the play) was an anticlimax, since Jud’s death is not as satisfying to the audience as it is to the rest of the characters. Right after seeing the movie I had gone onto IMDB and suggested that Zinnemann’s heart wasn’t in the movie’s ending. Then I read his autobiography and sure enough, he confirms it! I don’t necessarily blame him for the film’s ending, though; Oklahoma always had a dopey dramatic structure to begin with.

    Really been enjoying this series. Looking forward to your pieces on Zinnemann’s later films. I think 1966-1982 was the most liberating phase of his career, as all 4 of his final films are masterpieces in my book.

  6. I just discovered this blog… consider me subscribed!

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