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Tag Archives: Fred Zinnemann

The Men (July 20, 1950)

The Men
The Men (1950)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Stanley Kramer Productions / United Artists

The reason most people these days will watch The Men is to see Marlon Brando in his first film role. In fact, this is probably the only place to see Marlon Brando before he became “BRANDO,” since the next film he made was A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), which cemented his status as an icon.

So it’s certainly worth seeing for fans of Brando, but it’s also a pretty solid movie about the aftermath of war, and about people coming to terms with disability.

Brando stars as a corporal named Ken who was wounded in World War II and lost the use of his legs. The Men takes place in a VA hospital where the gruff Dr. Brock (Everett Sloane) treats a group of combat veterans who will never walk again. Dr. Brock has the demeanor of a drill instructor, and works to disabuse the men in his care of the notion that there is a miracle cure around the corner. The sooner they accept their paraplegia, the sooner they can work toward healing their bodies and their minds.

Brando

In the hospital, Brando is just one man among many, and the cast includes actors like Jack Webb, but also actual veterans who lost the use of their legs in the war, like Arthur Jurado, a bodybuilder with a very impressive physique.

The director of The Men, Fred Zinnemann, is best known for making High Noon (1952), but he directed a lot of good movies, and this is one of them. I thought his last two films — The Search (1948) (which introduced another ’50s acting icon, Montgomery Clift, to film audiences) and Act of Violence (1948) — were both minor masterpieces.

The Men has a lot more in common with the European postwar drama The Search than it does with the noir potboiler Act of Violence. Like The Search, The Men could have easily been turned into a sentimental, overwrought mess in another director’s hands, but Zinnemann was an unsentimental and restrained director who trusted his actors.

It’s a dated film in plenty of ways, but it’s still a pretty well-made and moving story about the effects of catastrophic disability, as well as the disconnect between combat veterans and the well-meaning people back home who thank them for their service but can’t relate to what they’ve been through. It’s also a great showcase for Marlon Brando. As this film shows, he arrived onscreen with his persona fully formed.

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Act of Violence (Dec. 21, 1948)

Act of Violence
Act of Violence (1948)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence opens with a shot of New York City at night. The Chrysler Building is silhouetted against a dark gray sky. Bronislau Kaper’s musical score is ominous and intense. Robert Ryan crosses the street toward the camera. He’s wearing a hat and a trench coat, and his stride is determined despite his limp.

The sound of his limping walk is distinctive. Step, drag, step, drag, step, drag, step, drag. It’s a sound that will haunt the film.

He walks upstairs to a shabby rented room and pulls a semiautomatic pistol from a dresser drawer. He slaps a magazine into the pistol, checks the barrel and the ejection port, and then the title of the film appears onscreen in block letters.

Act of Violence title

Now that’s the way to start a movie. Zinnemann, his cinematographer Robert Surtees, and his editor Conrad A. Nervig build more suspense and engagement in the first minute of Act of Violence than most movies are able to muster in their entire first reel.

It helps that the film drops us right into the action. Most movies in the 1940s began with screen after screen of opening credits; a time-honored cinematic tradition. Act of Violence and Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night are the only films from 1948 I’ve seen that eschewed that hoary convention, and both films immediately arrest the viewer.

After the opening, Ryan’s ominous character Joe Parkson takes a Greyhound bus to California, where the viewer meets the other star of the film; Van Heflin. Heflin plays Frank Enley, a World War II veteran, housing contractor, and family man with a beautiful young wife named Edith (Janet Leigh) and an adorable baby boy. (Janet Leigh was just 21 when this film was made. Heflin and Ryan were both in their late 30s.)

We know right from the beginning that Joe Parkson wants to kill Frank Enley, but we don’t know why. For awhile, all we know is that Enley was Parkson’s CO in the war, and that Parkson has a vendetta against him.

Van Heflin and Robert Ryan

M-G-M didn’t produce very many noirs, but when they did, they were glossy affairs with high productions values and great actors, like The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), Undercurrent (1946), Lady in the Lake (1947), and High Wall (1947).

Act of Violence is a stylish thriller that looks and feels ahead of its time. The cinematography is meticulously constructed and dripping with noir atmosphere, but it never feels studio-bound and uses real-world locations beautifully. The sound effects in the film sometimes do a better job of creating suspense than any musical score could.

All the actors in Act of Violence are really good. Van Heflin was a sad-eyed Everyman, and Robert Ryan had a physically intimidating presence, but enough charisma to make even his most villainous characters magnetic. Apparently Gregory Peck and Humphrey Bogart were originally slated to star in Act of Violence, but I can’t picture anyone but Heflin and Ryan as these characters.

Janet Leigh has a pretty thankless role, but she has enough star power to make it interesting. Phyllis Thaxter doesn’t have much to do as Joe’s girl Ann, but she’s fine. Mary Astor is wonderful in an unglamorous role as a barfly obsessed with “kicks” who Frank meets on a business trip to Los Angeles, and the always-creepy Berry Kroeger is great in a small part.

I thought Zinnemann’s previous film, The Search (1948) was a minor masterpiece, and I feel the same way about Act of Violence. Zinnemann’s best work may have been ahead of him, but Act of Violence is an exceedingly well-made, visually inventive thriller with enough moral ambiguity to keep it interesting. I think our cultural views have evolved since World War II in ways that make the central conceit of the film even more ambiguous than it probably seemed when the film was first released.

I don’t want to go into more detail for fear of spoilers, but for me there’s a great deal of meaning packed into Enley’s statement to his wife, “A lot of things happened in the war that you wouldn’t understand. Why should you? I don’t understand them myself.”

The Search (March 23, 1948)

The Search
The Search (1948)
Directed by Fred Zinnemann
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Fred Zinnemann’s The Search premiered in New York City on March 23, 1948, and went into wide release on March 26.

It wasn’t the first film the slim, haunted-looking heartthrob Montgomery Clift starred in, but since the release of Howard Hawks’s Red River, filmed in 1946, was delayed due to legal troubles until August 1948, The Search was the first film many moviegoers saw him in.

Clift doesn’t appear until more than 35 minutes into the picture. The first section of the film follows a group of emaciated, frightened children liberated from concentrations camps and then processed through U.N.R.R.A. (The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration).

U.N.R.R.A. is in place to help the children, but after years of living in a state of fear, they’re unable to trust adults wearing uniforms. These scenes involve a mixture of languages with no subtitles. The important details are conveyed with voiceover narration in the style of a documentary.

Ivan Jandl

When the children are being transported in ambulances to a new location, one of the ambulances has a broken exhaust pipe. Gas leaks in, and the terrified children break through the glass in the rear doors and escape. Two of the kids, Karel (Ivan Jandl) and his French friend, successfully evade the U.N.R.R.A. soldiers but then are separated when the French boy crosses a river.

Before the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, Karel’s family — his parents and his sister — led the happy life of intellectuals, reading and playing music together. But now little Karel carries a tattoo on his left arm from Auschwitz while his mother (Jarmila Novotna) wanders desolate German highways, searching for her son. She lost her husband and daughter during the war, and she desperately clings to the belief that her son is still alive.

Montgomery Clift

Much of the exterior footage in The Search was filmed in the American zone of West Berlin, and it has elements of the German “Trümmerfilm” (“rubble film”), a style of filmmaking that began with Wolfgang Staudte’s 1946 film Die Mörder sind unter uns (The Murderers Are Among Us) and that used the desolated, bombed-out post-war landscape of Germany as a backdrop.

The emotional core of The Search is the relationship that develops between the nine-year-old Karel and American G.I. Ralph Stevenson (Clift). Slowly but patiently Stevenson gains Karel’s trust and helps him come out of his emotionally shellshocked state. Ironically, he tries to help Karel accept the fact that his mother is dead when she is in fact alive.

The Search is a beautifully made, emotional drama that’s fairly restrained. It would have been easy for director Zinnemann to be manipulative, but he trusts his actors. The character of Karel could have been a real disaster if an adorable Hollywood moppet had played him, but Ivan Jandl was really Czech, and he brings as much authenticity to his role as Clift does to his. Clift’s character also could have been a stereotype, but he’s completely believable as a typical young American.

The Search was nominated for four Academy Awards — best director for Fred Zinnemann, best actor for Montgomery Clift, and best story and best screenplay, both for Richard Schweizer and David Wechsler. Ivan Jandl was given a special award for outstanding juvenile performance.

The Clock (May 25, 1945)

TheClockThe Clock is the first film Judy Garland made in which she did not sing. She had specifically requested to star in a dramatic role, since the strenuous shooting schedules of lavish musicals were beginning to fray her nerves. Producer Arthur Freed approached her with the script for The Clock (also known as Under the Clock), which was based on an unpublished short story by Paul and Pauline Gallico. Originally Fred Zinnemann was set to direct, but Garland felt they had no chemistry, and she was disappointed by early footage. Zinnemann was removed from the project, and she requested that Vincente Minnelli be brought in to direct.

The Clock is the second film that Minnelli directed that starred Garland. The first was Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), which is one of the great American musicals, a big, Technicolor production with memorable songs and fine performances. It’s worth seeing, even if you’re not crazy about musicals. Minnelli and Garland were involved romantically during the filming of Meet Me in St. Louis, and they were married on June 15, 1945, shortly after The Clock was released.

The Clock seems like a deliberate attempt to make a film as different from Meet Me in St. Louis as Minnelli was capable of making. Filmed in crisp, luminous black and white, The Clock is an intimate story of two people. Cpl. Joe Allen (Robert Walker) is on leave in New York City for the weekend. While trying to find his way around Pennsylvania Station, he meets Alice Mayberry (Garland), a Manhattan “girl next door” who works in an office and isn’t initially thrilled that Joe takes in interest in her. She breaks her heel and he offers to help her, but he’s so pushy that it’s a bit of a turn-off. He refuses to take “no” for an answer, following her onto a bus, questioning her incessantly, and attempting to arrange to see her again. He also does it in such a naïve, corn-pone manner that it’s obvious that a polite girl like Alice would have a really hard time just telling him to shove off. Part of the problem, for me at least, is that Walker just doesn’t have the necessary charisma to pull off the “aw shucks” persona the script calls for and get away with it. In any case, after some indecision (and after ignoring her roommate’s advice that the young serviceman she met is “just looking for a pick-up”), she goes back to the Astor Hotel to meet him under the clock where they first met. They spend the entire night together, exploring New York City, and even end up helping a milkman (James Gleason) make his appointed rounds after a drunk (Keenan Wynn) punches him in the face, partially blinding him. Over the course of the night, they fall in love, but are separated on a busy subway the next morning. How will they ever find each other in a city of seven million people? (I don’t want to give anything away, but the way they find each other again won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention.) After they reconnect, Joe asks Alice to marry him, and she accepts his proposal, but they have to run through a mess of red tape to get the necessary documentation to get married immediately, before Joe has to ship out again.

The Clock has a lot to recommend it. Garland looks beautiful, and her performance is natural and engaging. Walker only has one mode, “wanting Alice,” but Garland wonderfully expresses confusion, excitement, and ambivalence on her path to falling in love. Also, the film does a good job of playing through the stages of love, from initial infatuation to full-blown romantic love, marriage, and even the quiet vicissitude of the “morning after.” The film looks fantastic. Minnelli recreated New York City on the MGM backlots in Culver City, California, mixing sets with stock footage, but I never realized this while watching the movie, and I live in New York. He reportedly spend almost $70,000 recreating Penn Station, and it certainly doesn’t look like a set. (The original Penn Station was torn down before I was born so I can’t say if it’s perfectly accurate, but it certainly fooled me.) I liked The Clock, and would recommend it to anyone who likes old movies, especially anyone who loves tales of wartime romance, but a more interesting actor than Walker in the lead role might have elevated it to a truly great film.

This is a love story, but it’s a melancholy one, especially during its second half. I’m not sure if the sense of sadness that pervades the film is by design, or is due to the fact that both stars were plagued with personal problems throughout filming. Garland became increasingly addicted to the prescription drugs the studio gave her to control her weight and perk her up, and Walker had recently found out that his wife, actress Jennifer Jones, had been cheating on him with producer David O. Selznick and wanted a divorce. Reportedly, Garland would often find Walker drunk in L.A. bars during filming and she would help him sober up during the night so he could appear in front of the cameras the next day.