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…