Two Tales

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!”

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9 Responses to “Two Tales”

  1. Two great stories.

    As I recall Hitchcock took very special care of the black smoke coming out of the train bringing Joseph Cotton to town in Shadow of a Doubt — the better to cue the audience that Old Nick himself was arriving.

  2. Yes, he had an eye for that kind of effect. Similarly with the truck in The Birds: arriving at the farmhouse, it stirs no dust, but leaving, after the discovery of the dead farmer, it leaves a great cloud in its wake. It’s a FRIGHTENED TRUCK.

  3. Has anyone edited together a collection of chugging, hissing train shots? The black smoke belching monsters from Shadow of a Doubt and Beyond the Forest and elsewhere, maybe a montage of locomotive wheel montages, perhaps finally plunging into a Freudian tunnel in North by Northwest?

  4. it should be paired with the Freudian tunnel in The Lady Eve. I don’t think the sleek diesel in NxNW could be said to chug (which makes it more obviously Freudian, of course) Also, lots of train shots are available in silents and early sound, enough I would think for an hour-long montage.

  5. There’s a really great chugging, hissing train in Hugo that’s a partial hommage to the one in Renoir’s La Bete Humaine

  6. Am VERY excited about Hugo!

    Train montage should be edited to the sound of “I’m a boy, I’m a boy, I’m a boy…”

  7. Christopher Says:

    nah..don’t tell ’em about the black smoke..;o) muahahahahaa!

  8. mndean- Perhaps we should keep the Great Tran Montagery in black and white.

  9. Uh, Train. But the Great TRAN Montage might also be interesting.

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