Archive for Fred Zinnemann Week

The Small Back Rooms

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

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.

In memory of Col. Gaddafi

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , on October 20, 2011 by dcairns

This is Fred Zinnemann Week reporting on recent events in Libya. The fun kicks in around 02.10.

Prizes offered for the best lyrics written to “Pore Gaddafi’s Dead.”

Tales of the Riverbank

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2011 by dcairns

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.