Sunday, October 9, 2011

Looking at Zinnemann by Guest Blogger, Kingrat

This week I have asked my insightful friend Kingrat to share his thoughts on a director whose diverse career seems to warrant more appreciation than he normally receives--despite his remarkable fifty year career when he brought to each film a distinctive realism and an unfashionable concern with the spiritual yearnings underlying the turmoil of the 20th century.  King's crisply worded and discerning posts regularly appear on the Silver Screen Oasis and Turner Classic Movies Forum. Anyone who has enjoyed reading his astute comments there knows that his use of language, his keen sense of humor, and love of film shines through all his posts. Thanks, Kingrat! - Moira

Fred Zinnemann in his prime
When Moira kindly invited me to write an article for her blog, I immediately thought of a director she and I both hold in high regard: Fred Zinnemann. Specifically, I'd like to share some evolving thoughts about his approach to directing and his accomplishment.

My main area of interest in film is from the beginning of sound until the collapse of the studio system in the late 1960s. During the last three years I've become even more interested in the classic era, thanks to TCM and websites like the Silver Screen Oasis and the Turner Classic Movies forum where I can learn and exchange ideas with other film lovers. Attending the two TCM film festivals has also been a golden opportunity.

A starting point for thinking about Zinnemann: To a greater extent than most of his contemporaries, Zinnemann is international. He has filmed on location on four continents. Although he was able to escape the Nazis, both his parents died in a concentration camp. Is it surprising that several of his films concern World War II and its aftermath, or that moral choice comes to the foreground in most of his films?

For someone who's never seen a Fred Zinnemann film, I'd recommend Act of Violence (1948), The Nun's Story (1959), and The Sundowners (1961), perhaps in that order, saving the better-known High Noon (1952) and From Here to Eternity (1954) until later. Curiously, although Act of Violence, The Nun's Story and The Sundowners are all stylishly directed, each of the three is in a very different style. That doesn't bother  me, though it may be puzzling or disturbing to others. What's essential, I think, is that Zinnemann's vision—his authenticity, even—doesn't depend on a particular style. For him, style is an expressive tool, a means to an end, not a means in itself.

This is quite different from the multiplicity of styles of Robert Wise. To my mind, Wise carefully effaces himself, the better to craft his film in the given genre. Zinnemann isn't much interested in genre, and though he's not insistent, he's far from self-effacing.

Zinnemann first dealt with the problems of World War II and moral choice in The Seventh Cross (1944), the noirish study of a concentration camp escapee Wandering through a disquieting Germany. In retrospect, this fine film seems a preparation for Act of Violence, which plunges us into the world of a noir nightmare, of chiaroscuro, of strong perpendiculars and harsh diagonals.  Although as an American soldier, Van Heflin has been a prisoner of the Nazis, after the war he has found a secure middle-class life, married to Janet Leigh. However, a fellow prisoner (Robert Ryan) turns up who threatens to destroy Heflin's world. The situation proves different from how we first imagine it, and Heflin tries to escape his nemesis by plunging into a seedy underworld where he is befriended by a pathetic prostitute (Mary Astor, brilliant). Shot after shot from this film, photographed for Zinnemann by MGM stalwart Robert Surtees, who would also film the director's strikingly different Oklahoma! in 1955, could be framed and hung in a museum. For example, check out the scene in the stairwell where Heflin reveals the secrets of his past to his wife.
Van Heflin unburdens his soul to Janet Leigh in a setting divided by a plethora of sharp angles in the brilliantly done film noir, Act of Violence (1948)

Rarely has a director made two films in the same year which are as radically different in style as Act of Violence (1948) and The Search (1948) which was actually made in Europe before Act of Violence. Although I believe Act of Violence is the richer film, Zinnemann seems equally comfortable with neorealism of The Search (1947).
Ivan Jandl as the lost boy in postwar Germany in the neorealistic The Search (1948).

With its location shooting in the ruins of Germany and its concern with the problems of those dispossessed by the war, The Search approaches neorealism. Compare this shot with the noirish chiaroscuro of Act of Violence.

If Zinnemann's visual skill has been underrated—and, after all—the beach scene in From Here to Eternity is one of the most famous images in film—that's partly because he doesn't underline and italicize his best effects. Consider the first time Burt Lancaster sees Deborah Kerr. This isn't love at first sight; that's for Montgomery Clift and Donna Reed, and Zinnemann deliberately draws a contrast. It's a long shot with the military buildings in the background. On a left diagonal we see Deborah Kerr, who's been to see her officer husband. In the right corner Lancaster hears from the staff sergeant about her bad reputation. Kerr remains completely unaware of the men. She's too far away for Lancaster to get a good look. The distance between them, and between the reputation and the woman, is represented spatially in the shot. Look also at this remarkable shot in another scene of Lancaster where he is seen with the desk light and the picture of Kerr on her husband's desk.
Burt Lancaster conveys his awareness of Deborah Kerr's distant allure in From Here to Eternity (1953).

In symphonic music some conductors emphasize the individual details; others are more attuned to the “long line” of the piece. Almost every choice Zinnemann makes in The Nun's Story stresses the long line, just as the Reverend Mother thinks nothing of keeping Sister Luke out of the Congo for a year, where she could do good, because the extra year will benefit her spiritually. Each piece of the film is related to every other piece of the film.

The mutual attraction between Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch) and Sister Luke (Audrey Hepburn) is never voiced, yet couldn't be stronger. The Reverend Mother Emmanuel (Edith Evans) never says that she sees Sister Luke as a potential leader of the order, let alone that she feels Sister Luke is her spiritual daughter, yet that impression is strongly conveyed. Zinnemann doesn't tell us what to think about convent life, the Catholic Church, the existence of God, Sister Luke's vocation, or her ultimate decision to leave the convent. He presents all these matters as objectively as possible.

Zinnemann's choices of framing and cutting reflect the ethos he is trying to convey. For instance, consider the parting scene, photographed by cinematographer Franz Planer, when Sister Luke must leave the Congo, never to return. Dr. Fortunati is present outside the train.

Audrey Hepburn as Sister Luke leaving the Congo in The Nun's Story (1959).

Then we cut to Dr. Fortunati walking away. The obvious choice is to hold until he walks completely out of the frame. (Zinnemann will save this effect for the very end of the film, when Sister Luke walks back into the secular world). Instead, the cut comes when Fortunati has at least two more steps in the frame. Sister Luke looks at him, but doesn't keep her eyes on him until he is out of sight, remaining true to the discipline she has learned as a nun.

The final, eloquently silent scene in The Nun's Story (1959).

David Lean has spoken admiringly of Zinnemann's “narrative juggernaut.” This is true of both Act of Violence (under 90 minutes) and The Nun's Story (over 150 minutes, and not one of them wasted). However, The Sundowners has something of the relaxed pacing and leisurely pacing of a John Ford film, appropriate to this tale of a family which travels through Australia by caravan, making camp at sundown each day. Paddy Carmody (Robert Mitchum) loves this drifting existence, though his wife Ida (Deborah Kerr) dreams of a real home. The Peter Ustinov/Glynis Johns subplot, complete with comic bar fight, is straight out of Ford, with Glynis Johns giving perhaps the broadest performance in any Zinnemann film. As amusing as this is, the greatness of the film rests in the Mitchum/Kerr relationship, with their unsolvable conflict almost healed by their deep sexual connection. After each crisis, the couple re-establishes a balance. The scene the morning after Ida has slapped Paddy in front of his co-workers is particularly nice, with Mitchum catching Paddy's hesitancy in wondering how much things have changed and his relief that not much will. The heart of the film is the rather shocking moment when Ida tells her son not to make her choose between him and his father, because she'll choose his father.

One of the most memorable scenes in the film has no dialogue. In fact, Isobel Lennart, the original scriptwriter, was upset that Zinnemann cut so many pages of her dialogue. Kerr waits in the caravan, parked near a train station. Inside the train is a pretty woman with pretty clothes. With each passing moment Kerr becomes angrier and sadder at the contrast with her own life. Here's a clip:


Thinking about the influence of Ford on The Sundowners led me to consider Zinnemann's attitude toward institutions. What could be more remote from Zinnemann's sensibility than the glorification of the cavalry on the Western frontier as an institution in Ford's cavalry trilogy, unless it would be the outsider eager to be proven worthy of the in-group, as in Howard Hawks films like Only Angels Have Wings (1939)? Still more foreign, perhaps, is the anti-establishment sentiment as a badge of honor in the films of the late 1960s and early 1970s. From Here to Eternity is no recruiting poster for the military. This is an institution in which a sadist like Fatso (Ernest Borgnine) can operate or a timeserver like Captain Holmes (Deborah Kerr's on-screen husband, played by Philip Ober) can flourish. However, the characters who have our approval, Lancaster and Clift, are devoted to it, even though it separates each man from the woman he loves. All in all, the military as an institution seems neutral, which is exactly the approach Zinnemann brings to his portrayal of the Catholic Church in The Nun's Story.

I hope these hints and suggestions will encourage people to explore or rediscover Zinnemann's work. If you'd like to read some useful critical articles on this topic, try Robert Keser's excellent overview
at the Senses of Cinema website, or the book-length collection of articles found in The Films of Fred Zinnemann edited by Frank Nolletti (SUNY Press, 1999). And Moira, thanks for letting me hold forth about one of my passions.


whistlingypsy said...

King, your article provides fascinating background and insight into the life and work of director Fred Zinnemann. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I have only seen Act of Violence (1948) of the many wonderful films you mentioned. One of the wonderful members on TCM’s message boards recommended the film in response to my post on Mary Astor (in addition to Desert Fury). I agree the film and Mary Astor’s performance were both a revelation, but I didn’t look further into films directed by Fred Zinnemann; clearly an oversight I need to remedy. Thank you both Moira and Kingrat for sharing another of the reasons classic films never cease to be intriguing.

The Lady Eve said...

Kingrat - Your take on particular Fred Zinnemann films is both well-considered and stimulating. I spent some time thinking of those films of his I've seen and not seen (The Seventh Cross, The Search).

Not all that long ago I saw Act of Violence for the first time. It's one of those riveting and atmospheric tales that demands a second look. Fortunately it is about to air on TCM on Tuesday, October 11, and I've got my DVR set to record. You mentioned Mary Astor’s performance…she is an actress, an Oscar winner, who is perhaps underrated today but who delivered solid, high-quality performances throughout her long career (and co-starred with icons ranging from John Barrymore to James Dean).

I haven’t seen The Sundowners for years. The clip you included revealed many things, not the least of which is the great talent of Deborah Kerr (Oscar-nominated for her performance – the winner was Elizabeth Taylor for Butterfield 8, a lackluster potboiler). Kerr's chemistry with Mitchum is palpable - and that reminds that they were also an excellent duo in John Huston’s Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.

A thought-stirring look at the work of Fred Zinnemann, Kingrat. Do you have a blog?

KimWilson said...

Great article on a great director. I will never forget the closing scene of A Nun's Story--it is so powerful to me on so many levels. I really enjoyed reading your analysis.

Jack Favell said...

Kingrat, your post brings up a whole new set of thoughts for me about Zinnemann! You did a great job bringing his unusual, straightforward style to the fore.

While I disagree about Ford's glorifying the military (I believe his viewpoint is more ambivalent than you suggest), I do agree that Zinnemann takes a very thoughtful approach when dealing with those institutions which other filmmakers take for granted or view in only the most robust ways. He never relies on the typical view of those institutions which provide a backdrop for his films.

In Act of Violence, Heflin's character is a pillar of his town, but we are never led to think that the institutions represented are evil or bad in any way. Society is not corrupt, it is individual men who are. Even as Heflin drifts further into the dark, seamy side of town, it is the individuals who either help or hinder. Both Heflin and Ryan (not to mention the wonderful Mary Astor) have made choices that corrupted them from within. It is the land within, the landscape of the psyche that Zinnemann is more concerned with, I think.

In High Noon, Zinnemann shows us a town, which harbors all the small evil one could imagine. However, Zinnemann focuses on the individuals who make up that town, not the town itself or the society that makes up the rules of existence. Again, Zinnemann has a remarkably clear-eyed view of society and it's institutions for a man whose family was wiped out by the Nazis. His emphasis is not on the establishment or on society's ills, but on individual actions and feelings. The same can be said about The Search, From Here to Eternity, and The Nun's Story.

Thanks so much to both you and Moira, for taking time out to talk about the least obvious of all classic film directors. I very much enjoyed the discussion!

Caftan Woman said...

Interestingly, Zinnemann came up in conversation yesterday with my husband and I can't wait to share this insightful article with him.

The films you chose to highlight, Kingrat, all have the ability to touch us deeply both emotionally and intellectually. The accomplishment stands the test of time.

kingrat said...

Thanks, everyone! I'm glad I wrote about Zinnemann since that seems to have a struck a chord with you. ACT OF VIOLENCE was on TCM today. Glad to find so many Mary Astor fans, too. Many thanks to Moira for her assistance in finding some wonderful images and helping me refine some of the arguments. I truly appreciate the opportunity.

Thank you for asking if I have a blog. No, but it's time I stopped being such a techno-moron and learned how to put one up! In the meantime, I love to hang out at the SilverScreenOasis website and chat with people like Moira and JackFavell, who've pointed me to many fine films and offered insights into many films and filmmakers. Would love to see all of you there!


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