Monday, February 16, 2009

Violent Saturday (1955): "Reality Disturbs the Peace"

Violent Saturday (1955) is, I suspect, one of those movies best seen in a theater, but you can see this visually dazzling movie occasionally on the Fox Movie Channel and, as of May, 2011, it is also on DVD via the relatively new label Twilight Time. Violent Saturday is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, drawn from the masters provided by 20th Century Fox. Twilight Time decided that the fluid direction of Richard Fleischer, whose compositions, story telling, and actors, along with the vividness of the color and clarity of the sound in this movie made it worthwhile to transfer it to DVD, despite some softness in the image. The initial run of this 91 minute DVD is reportedly limited to 3,000 units only and is presented in a 4 x 3 Letterbox (Aspect Ratio: 2.35.1) with a track that features an isolated score by Hugo Friedhofer.

I just finished reading director Richard Fleischer's endearing autobiography, "Just Tell Me When to Cry", before seeing this film, but he barely mentions it, except to say that it was the film's promising screenplay that began his longterm contract at 20th Century Fox (which was good and bad for Fleischer's career).
Director Richard Fleischer

The basic plot may make this a heist film, but on another level that burst of violence that occurs in this seemingly staid town rouses the people who live there from their everyday stupor. A manager at the local copper mine, Shelley Martin (Victor Mature) spends half his time keeping tabs on his dissolute boss, Boyd Fitzgerald (Richard Egan), whose father is concerned about the drift of his son and heir toward alcoholism. Boyd's wife Emily (Margaret Hayes) is fooling around with the local golf pro, played by one of the '50s favorite slimeballs, Brad Dexter.
Above: Brad Dexter and Margaret Hayes in Violent Saturday (1956).

At the local library, prim Elsie (Sylvia Sidney) is stealing from purses of the women who frequent her stacks. While she may be doing this to pay the bills, there is a strong suggestion that this compulsion could stem from frustration and just plain boredom, as much as monetary need. Antother citizen with a kink in his psyche appears to be the nerdy bank manager (Tommy Noonan). Whenever he can, he gazes on local working gal, Nurse Linda Sherman (Virginia Leith), a local beauty who doesn't seem to realize that Noonan is alive. The bespectacled bean counter's unspoken passion for the single Sherman is so pathetic, it leads him to a nocturnal vigil outside her window, where he watches the young woman undress, (shades seem to be at a premium in this burg). The crooks who arrive in town to knock off the local bank's payroll for the mine workers are not exempt from human foibles. Lee Marvin is the most primitive of the three, but his poor impulse control seems to be held in check by the presence of the openly contemptuous and bone-tired veteran of such heists, J. Carrol Naish. Ringleader Stephen McNally is deadly serious as the organizer of this venture, brooking no lip from either of the other men, even while he needs them for their particular skills.
Above: A tense Stephen McNally and J. Carrol Naish assess the chances of their success warily in Violent Saturday (1956).

I'm not normally a big fan of CinemaScope, but the Charles G. Clarke cinematography of Bisbee, Arizona's copper mining town milieu and the use of color throughout this movie is truly compelling, as are the various archetypes who populate what a visiting salesman calls "the three horse town" atmosphere, which is a mixture of Kraft-Ebbing meets The Human Comedy.
Above: Tommy Noonan, Richard Egan & Virginia Leith in background. Lee Marvin & J. Carrol Naish in foreground in Violent Saturday (1956).

I know that in its day, this movie was looked on as groundbreaking in its depiction of violence, though, sadly, most viewers would not be bothered by much of the stylish violence on screen. I don't mean to make this movie sound as though it glamorizes violence. It doesn't consciously glorify it, but depicts people living with their actions and consequences after being pushed too far by circumstances. The wrenching experiences of these characters were a bit disturbing for this viewer, even as one can't help but admire the vivid staging of the action sequences.

While it's easy to predict how this "well-planned, can't-go-wrong" heist movie is going to pan out, I love the actual use of banks, streets, railroads and other settings throughout the movie with the elongated point of view of the CinemaScopic screen underlining the psychological separation between all of the people. One other thing about the visual look of this movie: there is a scene when Mature and McNally are in the car together that is a direct homage or quote from Joseph Lewis' Gun Crazy (1950). If you've seen both films you'll see how influential that earlier movie must have been on filmmakers afterward.

Some highlights:

An Amish family, committed to non-violence and led by the coiled spring Ernest Borgnine, is compelled to re-think their values when encountering evil in the form of Lee Marvin and associates.

Veteran actress Sylvia Sidney pops up as a klepto-librarian with a mean streak and, of course, Stephen McNally is on hand, looking sinister yet vaguely respectable at the same time.  
Sylvia Sidney tussling with Lee Marvin in Violent Saturday (1956)

Victor Mature doesn't quite pull off his role as Mr. Nice-Guy Normal, but he tries ably. Btw, in actor Ernest Borgnine's Ernie: The Autobiography (Citadel, 2008), the then struggling character actor was puzzled by the fact that Victor Mature wouldn't do stunts that he thought were unnecessary, like throwing himself under a burning, rolling car. His attitude may have stemmed in part from a previous incident at Columbia Pictures, when he had been hurt falling off a motorcycle while trying to make a director happy by doing a stunt. Ernie the workhorse tried to understand Mature's attitude, since the leading man had not received any compensation for that stunt, though he and fellow struggling actor, Lee Marvin, both "thought he was being a little prissy about it."  The strongest scenes for Mature occur between him and his son (Billy Chapin), a boy who seems chronically disappointed by his father's lack of combat experience in World War II.

Despite his explanation to his son that the War Dept. had told him to stay in his job, Mature conveys a nagging self-doubt about his worth as masculine role for his son. His ability to react effectively on the Saturday when this movie's events occur seems to confirm his masculinity--though he has told his son  that "there are many different ways to fight a war." In the end Mature is faced with the desire to "be a hero to his son" but can only hope that his own boy understands someday about the choices that he made before he was born.

Richard Egan is an actor I've always had a weakness for, despite his tendency to mumble. Egan's character appears to be on hand to learn a few hard lessons in the pitfalls of social drinking and to demonstrate the pitfalls inherent in being a pampered heir. His complex marital life, with his sullen wife Margaret Hayes looking for comfort where she can find it appears to be the cause of his troubles--though a viewer might wonder if one is an excuse for the other.
Margaret Hayes & Richard Egan as a troubled married couple in Violent Saturday (1956).

One particular confrontation at night suggests some hope for the pair, though the long arm of the production code appears to make short work of that possibility, (it seems that the increasingly archaic Production Code allowed more violence than sexual indiscretions in this period).

Virginia Leith, who was an interesting actress (seen above), had a ladylike appearance and a breathy voice designed to send some distinctly conflicting messages. Egan's wife Margaret Hayes, as an almost interchangeable other female. One interesting aspect of the interactions of the people in this film, is that WWII, after a decade, is still such an presence in the everyday lives of the townspeople, whether they recognize it or not. Victor Mature has an interesting scene musing about the longterm after effects of the war on himself and his family. Fifties fixture Tommy Noonan (can you believe he was John Ireland's half-brother?), plays a nebbish who may be a bit too observant...

Also, in one scene when he crushes a kid's hand on the sidewalk you might "enjoy" seeing Lee Marvin proving--for the umpteenth time--that no one is bad the way he was bad. Marvin is also very funny in his usual sarcastic way. A nearly unrecognizable J. Carrol Naish is also on hand as an overly fastidious nogoodnik.  Someday, I'd love to read a film scholar's analysis of Hollywood's love-hate relationship with small towns. Having grown up in one, much of this is familiar, though it always amuses me to see what the filmmakers have decided: is the town a stopover on the road to heaven or hell?

1 comment :

Vienna said...

Great review, Moira. I always liked this movie with the varied characters all coming together. Good part for Richard Egan whom I wish had been a bigger star. And a nice change for Tommy Noonan.


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