Retrospective: The Cinema of Fred Zinnemann

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Time has not been kind to the once revered classic Hollywood director Fred Zinnemann. During the height of his career he was a filmmaking giant – with the likes of Hitchcock, Huston, and Kazan. Forty years later, those directors are now icons of cinema, while Zinnemann has unfortunately been forgotten. The director of Academy Award-winning classics such as “High Noon,” “From Here to Eternity,” and “A Man For All Seasons,” Zinnemann’s films are still highly regarded but the director himself is rarely mentioned in lists of the greatest directors of all time.

But after watching the majority of his work including both the previously mentioned classics and many other lesser-known pieces all of which show his inimitable, self-effacing directing style with the use of documentary style shooting to attain realism and by following key, humanistic, and often underused themes such as “character as destiny” and “the inner struggle,” it became very apparent that he truly deserves the same recognition as his fellow film giants of the 1950s and 60s.

Raised by a Jewish family, Zinnemann grew up in Austria. His family was hit hard by the Nazi take-over and he lost both of his parents to the holocaust (a lot of which would become a painful inspiration in many of his early features). He began to study law at the University of Vienna but soon found his true passion in filmmaking. He studied film intently, learning as a cameraman and working with another future film pioneer – Billy Wilder.

Zinnemann finally found his way to Hollywood. He began working on shorts and then B-movies such as the lightly comedic, yet strangely dark “Kid Glove Killer” and the blind-detective piece “Eyes in the Night.” In an act that would truly affect his filmmaking style forever; he collaborated with the father of the documentary – Robert Flaherty. Flaherty was already famous at that point, having directed the fascinating “Nanook of the North.” He was a major influence on Zinnemann.

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Zinnemann’s first feature, 1944’s “The Seventh Cross,” was an excellent beginning for an extraordinarily promising career. The film is an greatly underrated classic. It features Spencer Tracy in the lead role as George Heisler, an escaped WWII P.O.W., on the run across Germany. Heisler is aided by his old friend Paul Roeder portrayed exceptionally by the late Hume Cronyn. Cronyn is easily the best part about the film. He delivers an unexpected lovability, which is rarely seen in films as dark as “The Seventh Cross.”

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Zinnemann also shows the first signs of his signature directing style. There are a few intriguing uses of imagery, most memorably a shot used towards the very beginning. As George remembers his former love, he sits quietly in a church. The camera cuts to an image of the Virgin Mary and then dissolves to the woman George is lamenting over. It’s a brilliant technique to deliver an intriguing metaphor.

The most interesting part about the film is its theme of trust. As the audience, each character that is introduced is introduced in such a way that we are unsure whether or not we can trust them. For example, at an early part of the film George ducks into a small clothing boutique to change his clothes. Instead of staying with George, Zinnemann keeps the camera on the creepy old storeowner, who stares with distrust at the changing curtain.

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Even in the next scene, Zinnemann brings George into a doctor’s office and the way that the scene is shot also derives a feeling of awkwardness. The use of imagery also intensifies this theme. Doors are also often used in the film to convey the loyalties of the different characters. As the audience, we know a lot more than the actual characters within the film – which excellent shows us Zinnemann’s unbelievable self-effacement. The only real problem with the film is its unnecessary narration by actor Ray Collins. The narration doesn’t give the audience a lot of credit, something that Zinnemann strongly avoided in the rest of his work.

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Zinnemann’s next major piece was his directorial break-out film. The sad yet charming “The Search,” won and deserved a 1949 Oscar for the now-defunct cateogory of Best Writing, Motion Picture Story. The film is a fantastic post-war piece, much stronger than a lot of the more famous films of the time (even stronger more effective in its anti-war message than “Casablanca”). Zinnemann’s Flaherty influence truly shows through, especially during the long shots of convoy trucks driving through war-torn Berlin. These simple shots are extremely emotive and chillingly moving.

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The story is of young, Auschwitz survivor Karel Malik (portrayed brilliantly by Ivan Jandl, who won the Academy’s Juvenile Award, a miniature Oscar that was not often handed out), a boy who flees a juvenile center due to his confused fear of the uniform and the conspicuous medical bus. He is found by Ralph “Steve” Stevenson, a U.S. Army private. In the role of Steve, the late Montgomery Clift made his excellent film debut and earned an Oscar nomination. His performance is outright lovable.

Karel quickly becomes very trusting of Steve. The boy has seen atrocious things in his short life and the fact that he takes so well to Steve is so believable because of Montgomery Cliff’s lovable performance. At first it seems that their relationship is a father/son metaphor, but Steve turns out to be more like a big brother. He teaches him life lessons much in the way that a proud older brother would. Ivan Jandl’s performance as Karel should also be given a lot of credit. At the very beginning of the film he is a very different character than how he turns out at the end. When Karel is introduced we feel emphatically sad for him because he is so very afraid and by the end of the film he really matures into the happy kid that he was before the war.

The film also features wondrous performances from Aline MacMahon as Mrs. Murray, the facilitator of the juvenile center and Jarmila Novotna as Karel’s maligned mother Hannah Malik, who is on the search that derives the film’s title.

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But the real magic that sparks this film comes from Clift. From the moment he pops up on the screen, the film becomes utterly addictive. As he teaches Karel to speak English (a bit too quickly, but the performances make up for practicality), Zinnemann cleverly opens the scene by adding a radio, playing jazz. Steve turns off the radio to begin Karel’s lesson. Instead of letting the music influence the scene, Zinneman lets the natural chemistry between Steve and Karel create the music. It’s one of the most brilliant scenes between any two actors in film history.

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Another treat that Zinnemann serves us is the lack of subtitle. Instead of using a subtitle to translate, we have to assume what is being said. This happens mostly in an interview scene with the children at the school. The children are full of fear and we don’t need to understand what they are saying to comprehend that terror. Also, Zinnemann’s amazing self-effacing style comes through. Karel and Hannah are not that far apart during her search, and every time she receives false information we cannot help but feel sad for her. The director does not take the audience for granted – in fact he shows the utmost respect for them. “The Search” garnered five Oscar nominations, one for Zinnemann’s direction, and was just the beginning of a glorious career.

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For his next film, Zinnemann formed his first and only true film noir piece. “Act of Violence” starred Van Heflin and Janet Leigh as Frank and Edith Enley, a seemingly happily married couple. When we meet Frank, he appears to be the pillar of his community. Unfortunately, Frank has been keeping secrets about his past in the P.O.W. camps during WWII. Unbeknownst to Frank, one of his old prison mates Joe Parkson is on a manhunt to take revenge. As the story progresses, Frank confesses the secret that haunts him and that breeds Parkson’s hate. At some point during their imprisonment, Parkson tells Frank of his plan to escape with the rest of the camp. Frank doesn’t want his friends to get caught and killed, so he informs the commandant of their scheme to try to spare them. The commandant rewards Frank with a meal, and then orders the termination of all the prisoners. Parkson escapes and then eventually Frank gets out.

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It is the uncertainty of Frank’s guilt that drives the intrigue of the film. The themes of trust, honor, betrayal, paranoia, violence, and survival all intertwine and create an unbelievable tension that is only intensified by Zinnemann’s excellent directorial choices. The way Frank and Joe are lit during certain scenes show a flair for tension that would make Hitchcock blush. There is one particular scene in which 97% of the screen is shrouded in blackness, and only draws the viewer in closer. The influence of German Expressionism is terrifyingly evident in this film.

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The performances are very strong, especially from Van Heflin. The actor uses his eyes quite interestingly to portray the fear that mounts from beginning to end. The character of Frank Enley and the character of Joe Parkson actually switch in terms of depiction and Heflin does a great job turning into the villain. The idea that these two are in fact alter egos is terrifically compelling.

Janet Leigh is also impressive. She does an exquisite job at creating the anxiety towards the end of the film. At one point, Frank returns home. Unfortunately, Edith’s gesticulation of the facts and her now growing fear of the man that she married has destroyed the happy domestic life she believed she had been living. She wants that happy life back, and tries to give Frank her full support but he has fallen too far into the depths of insanity and purges her consoling by grimly stating “Thank you Edith.” The scene shows champion directing in a marvelously discomfited two-shot by Zinnemann.

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“The Men” was Zinnemann’s next picture (and his first after his departure from MGM) and was also the feature film debut by a young actor who would change cinema forever: Marlon Brando. It’s another war era drama, about a young man named Ken “Bud” Wilozek (played with that familiar ferocity we soon became aware of in Brando) who lost his legs in a horrific war accident. Bud is a very self-possessed individual, and is severely embarrassed by his handicap.

When Bud is introduced, he is in a single room in the rehabilitation center but is soon moved to the ward (if you look closely at one of the doctors, you might recognize a young Deforest Kelley who played Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy on “Star Trek”). Everett Sloane (“Citizen Kane”) plays Dr. Brock, Bud’s inconsistently temperamental doctor. He is interestingly introduced giving a speech to a group of wives and mothers whose husbands and sons have recently found themselves in Bud’s predicament. Brock’s speech is unfortunately dated and horribly misogynistic, but the scene is important as it introduces us to Bud’s love interest Ellen. Ellen tells Brock that she wants to visit Bud, but we find out that that is the last thing Bud wants.

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Zinnemann uses a lot of subtleties to affect the emotions of the film. The color of Ellen’s dress throughout the entire film is a tool for thematic mirroring. When we first meet her, she’s in the hospital chapel with the other women being addressed by the doctor. She wears black, and her setting is unquestionably used to bring out funereal imagery. The doctor is situated in the middle of the darkly lit room, and all of the faces are sullenly depressing. Ellen wears the same dress the next few times that we meet her, and it is especially prominent when she meets Ken in the empty dark ward. The room is silent like a cemetery and she’s just there to see if she can get him back.

Bud affirms that he is ready to love Ellen again, and after a hilarious work-out montage, we meet her again. This time she’s dressed in white, a symbol of marriage and hope. As the film progresses, her clothing choice makes only a few changes but stays within its use as a thematic device. Later, when she’s being scolded by her parents for her choice in Bud, she’s wearing gray – indicating the gray area of her love for Bud and her loyalty to her parents and to herself. However, every time things seem to go wrong for their relationship, Ellen seems to bring out that black dress.

Brando does an outstanding job in his debut. His restrained style of both speaking and acting delivers the pain and anger that Bud holds inside perfectly. Zinnemann also shoot the entire piece with ease. While “Act of Violence” was astonishingly claustrophobic due to its extreme darkness, the mere setting of “The Men” accomplishes this theme phenomenally. The most memorable scene of the film is the dreaded wedding scene (a common thematic location in Zinnemann’s films). Bud tries to stand up during the proceedings but then painfully falls. That scene is followed by an even more excruciating scene in which Bud’s paranoia gets the better of him and begins to accuse Ellen of seeing him as a freak.

The end of the film features another trademark Zinnemann tool: the open ending. Bud finally accepts Ellen’s help, but we can’t help but wonder if the old wounds are going to open up and if this couple really can work out. Many times throughout the film the audience is thrown around a bit, given hope about their life and then having that hope smashed. Bud returns to Ellen in his wheelchair and finally allows her to help push him up the stairs and into their life together. Zinnemann cleverly puts the camera behind the couple and in a long-shot. This shot neither indicates that these two will actually make it, or if they are ultimately doomed. “The Men” is simply another Zinnemann masterpiece.

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The name Zinnemann was gaining a lot of momentum in Hollywood after his string of critical hits but nothing could have prepared the director for the response to his next film. “High Noon” premiered in New York on July 24th, 1952 and from that moment on, the American western was never the same. Featuring the great Gary Cooper as Marshal Will Kane, and the relatively then-unknown Grace Kelly as his Quaker wife Amy, “High Noon” is a consummately classic American film.

For Marshal Will Kane, the town of Hadleyville is a home that he loves but ultimately does not feel welcome. At the beginning of the film, he marries the beautiful Amy Fowler. She is a Quaker; a woman who does not live a life that includes violence. He is a Marshal; a man whose life cannot help but involve violence. Regrettably, Kane is informed that his sworn enemy Frank Miller and his gang are making their way back to the small town. Kane must stay for one more fight, and wait for the noon train to arrive. As Kane waits, he must try to rally the town and hire deputies to protect the innocent from an ambush.

We soon find out that Kane is not the most popular man in his small town. A lot of this has to do with the abundance of cowardice. One particular townsperson is Kane’s former deputy Harvey Pell, as portrayed by Lloyd Bridges. Pell is a very fascinating character. He desperately wants to be like Kane, but he knows of his former boss’ lack of popularity and also does not agree with Kane’s decisions in terms of staying to fight Miller and quits the force. Bridges does a magnificent job in the role. He has a very youthful look and the way he uses his eyes to evoke both excitement and anger are equally emotive and strangely moving.

Cooper won an Oscar for his performance in the film. He delivers a decidedly layered role to a character that, in many other films had always seemed superhuman. Cooper’s Kane is superbly flawed, and the fact that we actually have a character to root for that deserves our pride is a spectacular feat. The theme of “character as destiny” is strong in “High Noon” and our ability to trust Kane is only accentuated by Cooper’s terrific strength in the role. Grace Kelly is also breathtaking, and like Cooper she adds a level of humanity to a character that had always been a bit one-note in the typical American western.

“High Noon” also provides proof that Harry Morgan of TV’s “M*A*S*H*” was actually young at one point in his life.

Although the director never had any political intentions in making the film, its screenwriter Carl Foreman certainly infused his McCarthy era allegories. Foreman, like many Americans were called to the committee to face Joe McCarthy’s wrath in his communist witch hunt. No one would stand up to McCarthy, much like no one would dare stand up against Frank Miller. In his direction, Zinnemann was more interested in making a drama of conscience rather than a movie with a message such as that of Foreman.

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Zinnemann truly showed his amazing craftsmanship on this piece. The whole film is excellently timed, especially due to the marvelous use of clocks to emphasize the growing terror. “High Noon” also features Zinnemann’s best camera choices out of all his feature films. The most famous shot in the film is the crane shot used at the very end. Noon has come, and Kane is now alone. The camera deftly rises up to show a stark town, and its only savior left in the dust. It’s a brilliant shot – one of the best in cinematic history. The film is also severely realistic due to the washed-out cinematography and the lack of Hollywood lighting – making it only more compelling. Zinnemann earned an Oscar nomination for directing “High Noon” and there is no question that it is one of the most skillfully created films of all time.

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Released in the same year as “High Noon,” Zinnemann’s next film “The Member of the Wedding” was also the director’s favorite of all his films. Starring Julie Harris, Brandon De Wilde, and Ethel Waters – stars of the original stage version – the film got mixed reviews due to its leading actress’ overactive performance and the lack of cinematic licenses.

The film is about young Frankie Addams (Harris), a tomboy who is going through the hard early teenage years. She’s dreadfully awkward, overgrown, and excessively articulate. She spends most of her time in the kitchen talking to her one-eyed black maid, Bernice (Waters), and the little awkward boy next door, John Henry (De Wilde). Her older brother Jarvis is about to marry Janice, and Frankie imagines that she will get to leave town with them and live a life of luxury. Much of the film is centered on Frankie’s childish desires to be something bigger than her tiny world, but by the end of the film she flourishes into a mature, young lady.

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The script is an infallible classic and Harris’ overacting fits the role in a strangely perfect way. Her performance underscores the transformation that Frankie makes in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. In terms of subtlety, there are many moments in which we catch glimpses of what Frankie will be like as an older woman especially due to Harris’ use of pauses while the rest of her performance shows her unrestrained transformation.

The critical response’s biggest complaint has been about the performance by Julie Harris as Frankie. However, Harris was nominated for an Oscar for the role and she had been performing as the young tomboy on stage for years. After multiple viewings of the film, her performance feels very lived-in. Harris knew the role in ways that audiences were not ready for and are still not comfortable with. Her portrayal isn’t necessarily a milestone in the public eye, but we certainly have or never will have seen anything like it. Also excellent in their roles are Ethel Waters and Brandon de Wilde whose portrayals work perfectly as the water to Harris’ fiery flames.

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The most poignant scene of the film is the title wedding scene. Everything prior to the nuptials builds up tension. The scene is classically constructed by Zinnemann. Frankie is situated in frame between Janice and Jarvis during the ceremony, and the look of confusion and anticipation on Harris’ face is unbelievably realistic. She then runs out to their car and places herself in the back seat. As her family members try to coerce her out, the scene explodes into levels of excruciation that is rarely captured on the screen.

Zinnemann again proves his talents with “The Member of the Wedding.” His style is again classical and very moving. “The inner struggle” theme is very apparent this time. Frankie is quite open about her feelings, however there are many things that go on inside her head that we don’t exactly know and that she doesn’t exactly know. It takes major life changes for her to find herself, and when she does one can’t help but feel completely happy for her. Critics complained that the film didn’t open up into a cinematic experience, and rather stayed in the play’s singular location. This is an understandable opinion, but an extravagant setting would not have intensified the themes of Frankie’s tale and it just wouldn’t have been a Zinnemann film.

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1954 Best Picture winner “From Here to Eternity” was Zinnemann’s next film, and arguably his best piece of work.

The film takes place right before and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Robert E. Lee “Prew” Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) has appealed for Army transfer and ends up at the doomed base in Hawaii. His new captain, Dana Holmes (Philip Ober), has heard of his Prew’s box talents and is keen to get his new private into the ring. That’s too bad for Holmes, as Prew doesn’t fight anymore due to a horrible accident. Out of anger due to his failing marriage and Prew’s insurgence, Holmes gets his subordinates to make his life a living hell. In the meantime, Sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster) falls for Holmes’ wife Karen (Deborah Kerr), and the two must make keep their love a secret. Prew’s friend Maggio (Frank Sinatra) clashes with the brutal stockade Sergeant ‘Fatso’ Judson (Ernest Borgnine), and Prew himself begins falling in love with nightclub “employee” Lorene (Donna Reed).

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The film is remarkably complex, and deserves multiple viewings for true appreciation. Unlike Michael Bay’s daft “Pearl Harbor,” “From Here to Eternity” has a heart and a brain. The action that leads up to the inevitable doom is engaging and each character is miraculously interesting and worthy of our attention. The cast is outright fantastic, with all the actors and actresses giving their best career performances. Deborah Kerr defined sexiness in her role, by adding a sumptuous level of lust with just enough innocence for us to sympathize with her. Burt Lancaster is equally terrific as is Zinnemann favorite Monty Clift. The decency of their characters come through due to Zinnemann’s superb talent for casting of actors.

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The supporting characters are in fact the standout performers and both won Supporting Oscars for their triumphant accomplishments. Donna Reed steps out of her usual wholesome image to bring her sexy Lorene to the screen, in what might be one of the best casting decisions in silver screen history. With ease yet bittersweet flair, Frank Sinatra puts on his natural charm and infuses it with a heartbreaking real portrait of alcoholism.

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“The inner struggle” and “character as destiny” are outstandingly manifested in the film. Each character has to face their demons, by themselves, and by the end of the film their respective outcomes are all determined who they are as people. For Prew, we want to see him succeed, but his ignorance gets the better of him. For Warden, he can’t seem to commit to Karen as he’s already married – to his job. Maggio’s party-boy lifestyle and penchant for aggravating Fatso eventually gets him killed. The film is spectacularly layered, absolutely addictive, and seductive from beginning to end.

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It is the film’s realism that captured the eyes of moviegoers. Instead of a glossy version of war, Zinnemann presented realism by painting a portrait of realistic characters that are painfully flawed and that we can truly connect to. Our views of the military have skewed severely in recent years, but a film like “From Here to Eternity” can remind us that there are real people in the army with even more real problems than we can imagine. Without a doubt, “From Here to Eternity” is one of the best American films ever made of all time and most deserving of its eight Oscars.

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In keeping with his famous ability to cast against type with extraordinary results, Zinnemann picked the adorable Audrey Hepburn to star in his next film: the serious drama “The Nun’s Story.” The film was a wonder, practically genre-free and simply one of the most fascinating cinematic experiences ever captured. It also happens to feature one of the best performances by an actress – ever.

Gabrielle van der Mal (Hepburn) is the daughter of a well-respected doctor, and is herself an aspiring nurse who wants to serve in the Congo to aid the thousands of sick individuals. The only way she can reach her dream is to enter the convent and become a nun. She proceeds with her plan in a quite heartbreaking way. When we first meet Gabi, she seems to be an outwardly friendly person and the life of a nun is unfortunately the opposite. The intricate process of becoming a nun is depicted through Zinnemann’s classical documentary style, which is an excellent way to show how she changes from the girl she once was into the girl she would become. Even though Gabrielle, now Sister Luke, has fully become a nun, she is still the same person underneath.

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It is that looming innocence to Sister Luke that makes the film so gripping. Audrey Hepburn teaches an acting master class with her performance. Everything Hepburn does is a little out of step, which works perfectly in terms of our sympathy toward her situation. As the film progresses, Sister Luke is finally able to take the steps to actually go to the Congo. During her nursing exams, she is asked to fail the tests for humility by her mother superior. Hepburn uses only her eyes to show the pain that Sister Luke is feeling inside is enough to demonstrate what an underrated talent the young actress was.

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The film is the most layered in terms of Zinnemann’s themes and style. Sister Luke’s situation itself is worthy of hours of discussion. The limitations of the convent are enormously powerful in terms of “the inner struggle.” Every time Sister Luke breaks one of her vows, her situation becomes even more lamentable. When she finally makes it to the Congo, she finally gets to work with the poor that she had always dreamed of. Sadly, when she arrives she finds out she will instead be working at the white hospital – another huge disappointment. There she aids Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch). The sexual tension between the two is magnificent, and the lack of consummation is unthinkable to today’s standards.

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The most significant part about the film is that by the end, we finally get to truly appreciate everything out heroine has gone through which makes the ending all the more brilliant. “The Nun’s Story” is filled with excellent and appropriate music, but the very final scene contains no score. Zinnemann brilliantly decided to remove Franz Waxman’s music in order to open the ending. As Sister Luke finally leaves the convent, Audrey Hepburn slowly walks down the path. In that one instance, Zinnemann leaves interpretation up to the audience, and again proves his gift for filmmaking. A consummate film, “The Nun’s Story” is cinema at its best.

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“The Sundowners” was Zinnemanm’s next release, and celebrated the veteran director’s reteaming with Deborah Kerr. Starring the late beautiful actress, Robert Mitchum, Peter Ustinov, and Glynis Johns – this next piece took Zinnemann to Australia to make his first comedy.

The Carmody family is a group of dedicated sheep herders, going from place to place looking for work. Paddy (Robert Mitchum), his wife Ida (Deborah Kerr), and their son Sean (Michael Anderson Jr.) aren’t quite literally sundowners – defined as an Australian expression describing a person who arrives at a homestead near sundown in order to avoid having to work in exchange. Instead, the use of the word “sundowner” is more of a suggestion of their situation. Paddy is the driving force behind this metaphor. He’s the kind of man who wants to work off the land for the rest of his life; always hesitant to settle down. His wife and son are in the opposite mindset.

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The film depicts the Carmody family, in tow with the peculiar Rupert Venneker (Peter Ustinov), through their trials of sheep herding. The clan heads into a small town where Paddy becomes a proficient sheep shearer. As Ida and Sean plan for higher things, Paddy acquires a horse in a bet. The horse, aptly named Sundowner and bred for racing, becomes the Carmodys’ saving grace.

An impressive piece, although seeming to be largely influenced and imitative of John Ford’s work such as “The Quiet Man”, Zinnemann’s “The Sundowners” is truly an actor’s film. More specifically, the film belongs to Deborah Kerr. She portrays the aching wife searching for a real home with beauty and grace. There is one particular scene in which Ida explains to a very troubled Sean that if it came down to picking between him and his father, she would have no choice but to go with Paddy. Kerr quickly turns around, realizing what the impact of her words might be. As the audience, we don’t even have to see her face to apprehend what she is going through. The scene illustrates the multi-Oscar nominated actress’ superior talent, and also Zinnemann’s classic self-effacement.

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Mitchum also serves a great performance as Paddy, a man who must stand up for what he believes in even against his own wife and son. Mitchum’s grim voice, accented with the slightest hint of an Aussie inflection, works very well as a man who is hard to read yet still garners our empathy. For those not really familiar with his work, it’s an excellent film to begin with because it offers a rare comedic performance out of the often dramatic actor. The same can also be said about Ustinov, who is utterly addictive in his highly comic performance as Venneker.

“The Sundowners” is the most forgotten of Zinnemann’s later films, which is unfortunate but understandable. The films of John Ford (which this film unquestionable emulates), had already achieved their respective acclaim and are still the more revered pieces of the era. Nevertheless, the film had many of Zinnemann’s signature styles, especially seen through both the agony of Paddy and Ida in their respective inner struggles. However, this time the director used humor as a medium to highlight his themes and send the message to his audience (no matter where the Carmodys’ end up, their home is with each other).

The film picked up five Academy Award nominations and in some ways it was ahead of its time (the outback was rarely featured in popular film). Unfortunately “The Sundowners” is a bit like Zinnemann himself: overshadowed and neglected.

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Six years passed after the release of “The Sundowners” until 1966 when a little masterpiece called “A Man For All Seasons” heralded the Austrian director’s return to success and went on to become a highly decorated movie and brought Zinnemann two Oscars for both Best Picture and Best Director. The film is a substantial classic, taking Zinnemann’s themes and styles in new territory to accumulate astonishing results.

For those unfamiliar with the story of “A Man For All Seasons,” it is the harrowing tale of Sir Thomas More’s (Paul Scofield) stand against King Henry VIII’s (Robert Shaw) rejection of the Catholic Church in order to achieve his divorce and the ability to remarry. King Henry VIII is determined to achieve More’s blessing, but the god-fearing martyr does not believe in such acts and keeps his solemn promise to the lord until the very day of his inevitable beheading.

The film works essentially as a character study. More will not stand down to the King’s heretical desires much in the way Prew chooses not to fight in “From Here to Eternity.” He has morals, and no matter how much we want to see him give in to save his own life, we still feel innumerable pride in our protagonist. In this way, we often find that Zinnemann characters can be very hard to like, but it is their immovable conscience and sympathetic ideals that make us follow them to the very end.

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The late Paul Scofield won an Oscar in his portrayal of More. His demeanor, calm yet direct and strangely dominant works flawlessly in the part. Scofield, like Hepburn in “The Nun’s Story” and Julie Harris in “The Member of the Wedding,” had a consummate understanding of the role and delivered a real, lived-in performance that is not often seen on the screen. Zinnemann had an amazing eye for casting, and in terms of this role he knew that no other actor could have done what Scofield did for the patron saint’s greatest film iteration.

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“A Man For All Seasons” also features a gem of a performance by a very young John Hurt as the treasonous Richard Rich. For any fan of Hurt, the film is an absolute must-see, as he delivers nothing but genius. The film portrays a wondrous young talent that we would only get to see bloom into greater things.

Recent adaptations regarding this tale often over-romanticize the story by focusing on the King’s scandals (like “The Other Boleyn Girl” and “The Tudors”). “A Man For All Seasons” is far more compelling due to its Zinnemann quality. The character of Thomas More is in the same vein as Marshal Will Kane and Sister Luke. The inner struggle of More is possibly the most obvious of all of Zinnemann’s films, yet his is the most honorable due to the extremely sensitive material that allows us to feel both pity and anger at the same time. While More is less popular as a saint in a historical sense, the film is not interested in painting a picture of a great man. Instead, Zinnemann again depicts a character who we can feel compassionate about due to his ideals and his extreme moral conscience.

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Zinnemann’s second directorial Oscar was earned in the making of “A Man For All Seasons.” The film is visually succulent in terms of brilliant direction. At the very beginning of the film, More is called to the office of the Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles), a physical monster of a man. Wolsey/Welles terrifyingly engulfs the starkly red room, and tries to intimidate More. Instead, we get our first glimpse at the saint’s unbending conscience. The scene is short but especially effectual and classic Zinnemann. The character of More is set up through this very quick scene, and eventually we realize that, in true Zinnemann form, this character will lead him to his ultimate destiny: martyrdom and death.

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One thing that sticks in one’s mind after watching this piece is the portrayal of King Henry VIII by Robert Shaw. Paul Scofield has always garnered acclaim for his work in the film, but Shaw’s short screen time is succeeds in becoming absolutely addictive. His crazed performance is a deliciously underrated gem of a role, and is certainly the actor’s best job on screen (even better than his spectacular cult role as Quint in Spielberg’s “Jaws”). While the film may demand one’s attention on its lead performance, Shaw’s portrayal as the bizarre king will stay with you for weeks.

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Seven years passed without a directorial return by Zinnemann. Finally in 1973, the director’s next film “The Day of the Jackal” hit theaters. While it is often his most maligned piece, the film serves as an excellent suspense story and in some ways is a precursor to the highly successful “Bourne” films.

The film, atrociously remade in the 90s as “The Jackal” with Bruce Willis and Richard Gere, features a cast of still little known actors. Edward Fox stars as the titular Jackal, a man with no inner struggle or moral conscience. “The Day of the Jackal” strays far from Zinnemann’s thematic canon of work, yet it still has many tones in terms of its suspense that reflect his earlier works such as “Act of Violence” and “The Seventh Cross.”

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The Jackal, a dashing young Englishman, is hired by a group of disgruntled French liberals to assassinate President Charles De Gaulle. The Jackal’s tale then progresses as he hides through the European countryside, plotting and working to the day of his unscrupulous task. He is pursued by Claude Lebel (Michael Lonsdale), a likable detective whose wits are tirelessly beaten by his opponent.

One stipulation that the film should have problems with is the fact that the De Gaulle was not famously murdered. In fact, he died of an aneurysm a year after his resignation as the leader of France. Fortunately for the viewer, Zinnemann still manages to create a film that is both convincingly mysterious and offers tension that builds up to the very end.

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Fox delivers a wonderful performance, and proves an underrated status. For a protagonist without the previously mentioned Zinnemann characteristics, Fox’s natural charm is what provides likability and gains our attention. The best part about the Jackal is the gray area of his personal reasons for his career of choice. Does the Jackal get anything out of his job, like a sick blood lust? Is it ecstasy or pain? The film remains open about this, and in this sense it stays true to Zinnemann’s style.

Lonsdale is also great as Lebel, adding a “teddy bear” quality to the role of the gristly detective which brings both loathing and empathy to Fox’s Jackal. Their cat-and-mouse style of chase is classically directed using both drama and humor (Lebel is informed by his superiors that he’s not needed on the case anymore and is then later brought back, through a very humorous cut).

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Although in many ways this is Zinnemann’s weakest film, it certainly has merit. One particular scene – the centerpiece and best part of the film – is the scene in which the Jackal tests the weapon he plans to use to kill De Gaulle. The scene takes place in an open field, miles away from civilization. The setting is ablaze with life, from the naturalistic sounds to the profuse ultra green of the environment. The Jackal hangs a watermelon between two trees, takes aim, and after a few shots the melon blasts into pieces. The visceral sequence is excruciatingly metaphoric and wildly affective, and while Zinnemann is famous for not creating political implications, one can’t help but realize who a 1970’s audience would perceive as the doomed melon: J.F.K.

However, the film does have its problems. For one thing, it’s just too long. There are surpluses of seemingly pointless scenes that are either too long or completely out of place. One of the Jackal’s many victims, a rich woman with whom he shares a bed, is realized to be dead and the chain of events that lead to this realization is just too stretched. The film earned an Oscar nomination for Best Editing. Maybe it would have won the award had the film been cut a bit shorter and felt just a little more organized. Nevertheless, with “The Day of the Jackal” Zinnemann further proved that he still had the directorial panache for creating exceptionally captivating tales.

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Zinnemann’s penultimate film would be his last hit, and the last film he’ll most likely be remembered for. 1977’s “Julia” starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave is a painfully emotional film, and earned eleven Academy Award nominations (three of which it won). A forgotten classic, it can honestly be said “Julia” is a cinematic pioneer due to its use of both cinematography and out of sequence flashbacks as thematic devices. The movie is not for everyone, but then again what movie is?

The story and style of “Julia” is construed from an idea written by famed author Lillian Hellman. She wrote of “pentimento,” an artistic term that describes the lines, shapes, images, and meanings hidden by an artist under the completed layers of paint on a painting. In other words, the painter has atoned by concealing their faults under the finished product. The story is told from Lillian’s (Jane Fonda) perspective of her own life and her relationship with her childhood friend turned war activist Julia (Vanessa Redgrave).

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As Lillian lives her life, married to famous author Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards) and gaining her own fame through the publication of her work, her childhood friend Julia becomes crippled during a revolt. Lillian attempts to visit her friend and due to the lack of translation she feels as though her best friend has lost the love they once shared. As the years pass and both women become more famous through their respective work, they seemingly get even further apart.

Finally, Lillian meets a mysterious man named Johann (Maximilian Schell) who assigns her with carrying a package to Berlin to Julia. Lillian takes the package to Julia and then finally realizes that they were never really apart and that their friendship/love can never be beaten, even by the ravages of war.

“Julia” is technically an art film, using pentimento and transforming it into the blanket theme for the entire movie. The film is a little hard to watch at times, as the over-romanticized cinematography can feel exceedingly weighty at times. On the other hand, in terms of Julia’s point-of-view and Zinnemann’s mise-en-scene it is absolutely necessary. While the intense dream-like vision may seem distracting, without it “Julia” would not be the cinematic milestone that it is. Films like “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” have the same kind of theme-driven style and without pioneering movies like Zinnemann’s second to last film we may have never seen this kind of cinema.

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The performances again do not disappoint. Jane Fonda is breathtaking and typically amazing as Lillian. However, it is the odd lack of screen time and the achingly superb performance by Vanessa Redgrave that really blows every performance of 1977 (Sorry “Star Wars”) out of the water. At the very end of the film when Lillian and Julia finally meet for the last time, it would be a crime not to keep one’s eyes on Redgrave for the entire scene. She wants her friend Lily to know how much she cares about her and how bad she feels for breaking their bond. Instead of bawling over the entire scene, she subtly yet profoundly uses her eyes to let both Lillian and us how she feels. Zinnemann also seats the two actresses perfectly; in a restaurant booth sitting just close enough to insinuate their connection but not too close as too alienate the audience. The scene goes above and beyond any scene in any Zinnemann film in terms of realistic emotions portrayed, and is miraculously powerful.

“Julia” takes multiple viewings to appreciate, as it’s exquisitely layered and deserves appreciation. In many ways it takes a while to actually get into the film. The first act can feel repressively dreary, and in some means it doesn’t really pick up until Lillian’s mission during the last 45 minutes. That last section of the film is certainly the most engaging and strong. The romantic, dreamy cinematography definitely could draw both praise and criticism. While some believed it to be disrespectful concerning the delicate subject matter it is better seen as a wondrous thematic. Lillian is truly a Zinnemann character and it is seen through this choice of photography. “Julia” is a story that takes place through Lillian’s memory, and it is through her romanticized view of how the cinematic events took place that we observe. It is this simple idea that makes the film so grand.

Zinnemann’s last film was the extremely personal “Five Days One Summer” starring Sean Connery and Betsy Brantley as an uncle and niece spending time in the Swiss Alps. Their relationship is sexual and it is this tension that brings upon the themes of morality, inner struggle, conscience, and intensifies the Zinnemann quality of the entire piece. As the film didn’t achieve the kind of fame or critical response as Zinnemann’s other works it is the hardest one to find on either VHS or DVD and this film critic only got the chance to see about 15 minutes.

Fred Zinnemann died on March 14, 1997 of a heart attack, a month before his 90th birthday. He achieved four career Oscars and the ability to state that he started the film careers of legends such as Brandon De Wilde, Marlon Brando, Monty Clift, Rod Steiger, Lee Van Cleef, and Meryl Streep who stars in “Julia” in a truly unremarkable performance! There are few directors any more that have the similar respect to the medium of film like Zinnemann. Each of his films are sufficiently different but it is their linking themes that make Zinnemann so inimitable. The themes are not there to impress, they’re just there because they work as a niche for Zinnemann’s desires to paint truly realistic portraits of humanity. A Will Kane or a Sister Luke without the constant inner struggle would just appear as ordinary, rather than timeless.

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A film career that spanned over 50 years, Zinnemann certainly had the respect of his filmmaking colleagues, although the new young Hollywood were completely unaware of his prestige. When Zinnemann met with a younger mogul towards the end of his career, the inexperienced nitwit had never heard of the Austrian director. He wanted to know what this old guy had done, to which Zinnemann replied, “You first.” It’s a great story, but still reminds us how we’ve buried these hundreds of terrific, classic directors and focused on the more sensationalized auteurs. He’s a national treasure, and it’s a crime that his films are more famous than he. If you go back and watch any AFI list featuring any of his works they never mention who even directed the classics they are purporting as spectacular and important. Give any of these films a chance and it can be safely said that one little introduction will bring you into a world of filmmaking and self-reflection you never knew possible.

Thank you to A. Nolletti & N. Sinyard for my education of all things Zinnemann


Filed under Arthur Nolletti, Fred Zinnemann, Retrospective, Uncategorized

17 responses to “Retrospective: The Cinema of Fred Zinnemann

  1. Sean Kennedy

    Thank you.

  2. monorail77

    Excellent retrospective, well done. You are right, Zinnemann is an overlooked master. Maybe Criterion can have a run at some overlooked Zinnemann and garner him some of the lost prestige that has recently been restored to folks like Jules Dassin, among others.

  3. Jay DeFelice

    Due recognition for sure! There was a slight error in saying he won best director for HIGH NOON.

  4. heyjude68

    Thanks for that, I totally had it in my head that he won for that for whatever reason. Thanks for reading!

  5. Ron3853

    Fine retrospective. I would have enjoyed learning more about Zinnemann’s proposed version of “Man’s Fate,” which MGM shelved in 1969/70.

  6. Albert

    “The Nun’s Story” was NOt Zinnemann’s first color film. Whoever wrote this article has conveniently overlooked “Oklahoma!”, Zinnemann’s 1955 film version of the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, starring Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones., and a film that is simply loaded with color. “The Nun’s Story” was not released until 1959.

  7. heyjude68

    How embarrassing… Thank you for reminding me about “Oklahoma!” I still have yet to see it, and decided to omit it from this retrospective as I wanted to focus on his more dramatic pieces.

  8. ho-hum

    “The Jackal, a dashing young Englishman, is hired by a group of disgruntled French liberals to assassinate President Charles De Gaulle.”

    Erm, nope. The OAS were about as liberal as Adolph Hitler. They were a group of ultra-natinalist army officers who wished to assassinate De Gaulle due to his decision to allow Algeria to become independent from France.

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  10. Nice work here. It’s about time people started writing about Zinnemann.

    I was surprised at first at the omission of Oklahoma!, but it’s no big deal. I think Oklahoma! is a great movie but not necessarily representative of Zinnemann’s best.

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  12. Brian Wilson

    Thank you very much for intelligently drawing attention to some wonderful films. It is hard to believe ‘The Day of the jackal’ could be Zinnemann’s most maligned piece – its documentary approach to how the enigmatic assassin goes about his work is absolutely fascinating. You describe Edward Fox as underrated. My understanding is that Zinnemann did not want a star for the assassin whose exact identity and motive would remain mysterious at the film’s end.

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  14. Lou Gubrious

    Director Alan Parker (Evita, Midnight Express, Fame, Shoot The Moon, Angel Heart) has cited Zinnemann as his mentor; certainly one can see significant aspects of his influence in all of his films in terms of complex, conflicted central characters “struggling with the self”.

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