Tag Archives: Fred Zinnemann

“The Nun’s Story” (1959)

Fred Zinnemann (1907-1997) directed some of the iconic 1950s movies (From Here to Eternity, High Noon, A Hatful of Rain, Oklahoma!), as well as such lauded and honored later movies as “A Man for All Seasons,” “Julia,” “The Sundowners,” and “The Day of the Jackal.” Having started with documentary movies, Zinnemann’s movie often showed different settings and occupations in meticulous detail (the procedures in “The Day of the Jackal,” in particular) and showed very determined (some would call them stubborn) protagonists (Prewitt in “Eternity,” Thomas More in “Seasons,” Julia, mountain climbing in “Five Days One Summer,” the assassin and his hunter in “Jackal”).

Zinnemann won two Oscars and was nominated for six others. He also won four “best director” New York Film Critics Awards, and directed 19 different actors in Oscar-nominated performance (8 of whom won the award). Although one could not say he was obscure or unhonored, he tends to be forgotten by those canonizing “auteurs.” Perhaps he was too tasteful and too unobtrusive at his craft to get his due. Or his movies were too successful at the box office.

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When he obtained the rights to Kathryn Hulme’s best-selling The Nun’s Story, there was no enthusiasm among Hollywood studios to finance a movie about the difficulties a Belgian nun had with her vocation(s). At least there was no enthusiasm until Audrey Hepburn signed on to play Sister Luc. Then there was something of a bidding war, which was won by Warner Brothers. The studio was rewarded with its highest-grossing picture of 1959, one that was nominated for eight Oscars (in the year in which the bad but big “Ben Hur” swept eleven).

Most Hollywood movies featuring nuns sentimentalize them. Zinnemann’s movie is a very serious portrayal of one who is a great nurse and a nun who has no difficulties with her vows of chastity and poverty, but great difficulties with humility (the sin of pride). She is smart and accomplished and beloved by her patients. Her vocation as a nurse is unquestionable, but she has a very strong will that the order (claiming it to be “God’s will”) attempts to stamp out. As a nurse, she is recurrently unwilling to stop what she is doing just because bells ring.

Also, once she finally gets to the Belgian colony of the Congo (filmed in what was still the French colony of the Congo), she becomes the indispensable assistant of a physician (Peter Finch) with a vocation of medicine similar to his. She clearly falls in love with him and he with her, though she seems to block awareness of this (let alone any acknowledgmen

She has to accompany a VIP back to Belgium and with World War II about to begin, is unable to return to Africa. After she learns that her beloved father (an eminent surgeon who first trained her) has been killed as he was trying to help wounded and was strafed by a Nazi plane, she is unable to maintain the neutrality that her order insists upon (for its own convenience and ability to persist). She realizes that she will not ever be able to annihilate her own judgment of priorities and happily submit to orders.

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For more than two hours, covering about a decade, she struggles mightily to be a good nun. The movie is in no rush as it shows the ceremonies and the daily grind of her career. Because of the intensity of Audrey Hepburn’s performance (widely regarded as her greatest one), this unfolding is not boring. Peter Finch’s surgeon who sees much that Sister Luc has suppressed from consciousness injects the equivalent of a shot of adrenaline 3/5ths of the way through. There are also subtle (unstereotypical) performances by Sister Luc’s superiors (elders in the order), including Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Mildred Dunnock, and Beatrice Straight). There are only two whom I regard as “twisted sisters.” (Ruth White’s Mother Marcella and Margaret Phillips’s Sister Pauline). To liven things up, there is Colleen Dewhurst as a schizophrenic who believes she is the Archangel Gabriel and provides an occasion for Sister Luc to exercise her own judgment that shows it is sometimes flawed. Plus Dean Jagger as her father (a very sympathetic character who supports his prized daughter doing what she thinks she wants to do rather than what he thinks she should do). And there is a long-bearded Stephen Murray as Father André (the pictures of God have long beards, so the Congolese expect them of their priests).

In addition to an outstanding cast, the movie had location shooting in Belgium and Africa by Franz Planer (whose filming of Audrey Hepburn was nominated for Oscars in “Roman Holiday, “The Nun’s Story,” and “The Children’s Hours” and won Golden Globes for shooting “Champion,” Cyrano de Bergerac,” and “Death of a Salesman”; he also shot Hepburn in “Unforgiven” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s, plus such other memorable-looking films as “Letter from an Unknown Woman” and “The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T”). Franz Waxman (who received one of eleven Oscar nominations for it) supplied an unsubtle but not ineffective musical score.

The book was adapted by Robert Anderson, who also was responsible for the screenplay of Robert Wise’s “The Sand Pebbles” (1966), and whose own play “I Never Sang for My Father” provided unforgettable roles for Gene Hackman and Melvyn Douglas in 1970.

The movie follows Gabrielle van der Mal from the day she goes into the convent until the door springs open to let her return to the world. There is nothing examining how she came to think that she should be a nun (or choosing so infantilizing an order as the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary, the order the real-life model entered in Ghent) and no indication of what happened after she turned the corner at the end of the alley when she walked out in street clothes.

Hepburn showed she could be mesmerizing without Givenchy couture (and with no visible coiffure). As I frequently note, great screen acting is done mostly with the eyes, and “The Nun’s Story” leaves no doubt that Hepburn was a great screen actress, not just a charming, elfin star. Even her dazzling smile is held down or held back.

 

The movie accepts the colonial order in Africa (that was about to end) the way the order accepts Nazi rule of Belgium. That and the stately pace keep me from rating the movie 5-star, though Audrey Hepburn’s performance certainly is that.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Early Fred Zinnemann (2): “The Seventh Cross” (1944)

Beside being a breakthrough in the Vienna-born Fred Zinnemann’s career, “The Seventh Cross” (1944, based on a novel by Anna Seghers) is notable as Jessica Tandy’s Hollywood debut, for an interesting (and Oscar-nominated) performance by her husband (from 1942 until her death in 1994) Hume Cronyn, and for some German Expressionism by gone to Hollywood black and white cinematography by Karl Freund. I don’t think that it is any secret that the “cinema noir” look was pioneered by refugees from Hitler. The play of heavy shadows in “The Seventh Cross” connects back to Freund’s work for Fritz Lang in “Metropolis”, for F. W. Murnau in “The Last Laugh” and “Tartuffe” and in the 1920 horror classic “The Golem.” In America, he shot Tod Browning’s “Dracula” with Bela Lugosi before being promoted to such prestige projects as “The Good Earth” (for which he won an Oscar), “Pride and Prejudice,” and “Camille.” How he landed in television (the head cinematographer of “I Love Lucy” and “Our Miss Brooks”) in the early 1950s is, I’m sure, an interesting story, but one I don’t know.

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Back in 1944, some filmgoers may have known who Freund was and Hume Cronyn had played fairly significant roles in two 1943 Alfred Hitchcock films, “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Lifeboat.” Tandy and Zinnemann were unknown, and “The Seventh Cross” was a Spencer Tracy movie, one of the better ones, one of the movies in which he didn’t mug or blather. He delivers some overwritten voiceover narration (another link to the genre of cinema noir), but his performance rests on nonverbal reactions. Tracy had a good voice, but I prefer the Tracy movies in which he did not talk very much (Bad Day at Black Rock, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg), and especially did not put on a “man of the common people” accent (as in Tortilla Flat, Old Man and the Sea, or Captains Courageous).

 

The movie begins by showing seven men (described as “leftists”) escaping from a Nazi prison camp in 1936. When the first one is captured, the vicious camp commandant has him hung up on a cross for all the other prisoners to see and has similar crosses prepared for the other six escapees. Within a day, four are in use. Three men have made it to Mainz. The star of the picture is, of course, one. George Heisler (Tracy) has an address to go to for help, but the Gestapo has taken away the occupant already.

Heisler gets unexpected help from strangers, including Agnes Moorehead slipping money into the pocket of a suit she made for one of the captured escapees, and a Jewish doctor (Steven Geray). He runs into a naive worker he’d known, Paul Roeder (Cronyn) who invites him to dinner and to stay the night before realizing Heisler has escaped from a Nazi camp. Leisel Roeder (Tandy) provides hospitality as a dutiful wife and is eventually frightened, but continues to obey her husband.

Making contact with the underground (very deep underground!) is complicated and made more complicated by a hard-to-believe romance with a barmaid (Signe Hasso). Given that both of Zinnemann’s parents died in death camps, the transformation of Heisler’s bitterness is an interesting development. The bitter prisoner who escapes is impressed by and grateful to those whose souls had not been colonized by the Nazis. At the start of the movie, it seems that the only “good Germans” are imprisoned. The movie was made while the war was still being waged, but rather than being anti-German propaganda, it seems to look ahead to the occupation of Germany aiming to rehabilitate rather than to punish Germans. (If the film had been made at the time in which it is set, HUAC might have identified it as “premature anti-fascism,” and the film celebrates a seeming communist cell along with uncorrupted proletarians but apparently escaped the gaze of those ferreting subversives who had portrayed leftist anti-Nazis sympathetically.)

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“The Seventh Cross” is one of the wartime movies showing resistance by some surprising individuals within Hitler’s domain. Other notable examples made during the war are Lee J. Cobb in “The Moon Is Down” from Steinbeck’s novel, Walter Brennan in Fritz Lang’s “Hangmen Also Die”, Joseph Cotten in “Journey Into Fear”, and Charles Laughton in Jean Renoir’s “This Land Is Mine.” An example in a postwar film is Kirk Douglas in The Heroes of Telemark.

Aside from its interest as a historical document is it viable as a thriller? Not as much as Zinnemann’s later “Day of the Jackal,” but it is still interesting. The romantic interlude gets in the way, in part because Tracy was not a romantic leading man (consider how unerotic the onscreen relationship with his supposed offscreen mistress, Katherine Hepburn, was, as much as she looked at him with adoration…) and in part because his character is preoccupied with escape, and does not seem the sort to be diverted by a night of love (or whatever). The pacing could be tauter, but the photography is striking, the plot is serviceable, and there are well-written quite disparate characters, Cronyn’s Paul Roeder being the most interesting.

There are almost as many shots of clocks in “The Seventh Cross” as in “High Noon.” If a visual “signature” is necessary to distinguish a director as an “auteur,” this is a candidate. Thematically, Paul Roeder taking a high-risk stand for what he believe is right connects to Prewitt and Maggio in “From Here to Eternity,” Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons,” Marshall Will Kane in “High Noon,” Joe Parkson in “Act of Violence,” Lily in “Julia,” the sergeant and the boy in “The Search,” etc. (Can I make the case for “Oklahoma!”? Maybe not, though there is something of the obsessive concern with time there, too). I think Zinnemann is underrated.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

Early Fred Zinnemann I: The Search (1947) and The Kid Glove Killer (1942)

A quasi-documentary about World War II and concentration camp orphans, “The Search” (1947), is the movie that inspires the young Filipino whose parents have been ripped from him to envision Montgomery Clift as a patron in the Lavender Quill award-winning novel Letters to Montgomery Clift. Until I read Noël Alumit’s poignant novel, I had conflated “The Search” with “The Big Lift” in which Montgomery Clift also played an American soldier in occupied Germany. Having finally seen “The Search,” it is very clear why Clift would seem the kind of patron Bong Bong sought.

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The young boy who survived Auschwitz, Karel (Ivan Jandl) believes that when he and his friend/protector/fellow orphan are put on trucks to move children from a processing facility to an orphanage that they are being dispatched to be killed. They escape. The friend drowns, and Karel’s cap found in the river leads the authorities to believe he must also have drowned.

The now mute and feral child is lured out of the rubble of what is supposed to be Munich (but is actually Nuremberg) by a sandwich G.I. Ralph Stevenson (Montgomery Clift) sets out for him. Gradually he wins the boy over, takes him to the house where he is billeted with a wry but supportive buddy Jeff Fisher (Wendell Corey), and is making arrangements to adopt the boy and take him to America—having taught the child fluent English in about a week.

Karl’s mother, Hannah Malik (Czech opera star Jarmila Novotna) meanwhile has found the facility in which her son was last seen and recognized the cap dredged out of the river. Aline MacMahon (Man from Laramie, Ah Wilderness!) as Mrs. Murray), the woman in charge of sorting orphans (and the voice-over narrator is more benign than bureaucratic, convinced Mrs. Malik to help with other children traumatized like her (thought-to-be) dead son.

 

Although Fred Zinnemann (1907-1997) got his start in documentaries (and had won an Oscar for a documentary short), after the quasi-documentary of the first three-quarters hour, the movie turns Hollywood heartwarming, and there is little doubt that there will be a joyful reunion of mother and son. Rather than the neorealism of Rosselini’s portrayal of children who survived the war (the Naples episode of Paisá, and Germany, Year Zero) or of the young boys in de Sica’s Shoeshine, Zinnemann provided neo-Shirley Temple, adding a slew of wise, caring, and nearly saintly adults. If pressed, I’d claim that the leitmotif in Zinnemann’s films (From Here to Eternity, High Noon, A Man for All Seasons, Julia, A Member of the Wedding, etc.) is individualism, lonely standing out/standing alone. Though many of his films were honored and continue to be held in high esteem, no one has made a case for him as an auteur. His films do not share a particular look, even if there is a recurrent shared theme in them.

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Though ultimately cloying and conventional, there are some good reasons to watch this film:

(1) It is the first movie performance of Montgomery Clift that was released (though “Red River” was made first). (Zinnemmann also directed a quasidocumentary, “The Men,” which was Marlon Brando’s first screen appearance.)

(2) It is one of the few movies in which one may see Jarmila Novotna.

(3) It contains one of those striking child performances: Ivan Jandl received a special Oscar for Outstanding Juvenile Performance, and never made another film.

(4) Along with “Germany, Year Zero” and “A Foreign Affair,” “The Search” shows the devastation of German cities (records Sebald ignored in The Natural History of Destruction.

(5) Perhaps it is time to consider Zinnemann’s oeuvre as an oeuvre.

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Although Fred Zinneman’s first feature-film (“Kid Glove Killer,” 1942) is only 74 minutes long, it drags some in the middle with didactic crime lab stuff. It’s also perplexing that the suave mob-paid special prosecutor (Lee Bowman) would undertake planting a bomb to blow up the cleanup mayor himself, but if that is swallowed the rest of the film with Van Heflin’s skinny forensic expert handicapped by the love interest (Marsha Hunt) being an unwitting informant about the investigation for the killer is taut. The fistfight at the end is a little hokey too, but Van Heflin’s poor dart-throwing ability has an amusing and crucial payoff. Whodunit or why are never in question. The audience knows who the fall guy will be at once, and who the killer is almost at once, but there is still the suspense of evidence collection and destruction and wondering how the lab assistant will react. (Plus looking for Ava Gardner: she has a brief scene as a car-hop.)

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Fred Zinnemman’s 1951 “Teresa”

Among Fred Zinnemann’s (1907-97) many accomplishments was directing the first American movie appearances of Marlon Brando (The Men), Montgomery Clift (the Big Lift), Julie Harris and Brandon de Wilde (Member of the Wedding), Rod Steiger, Pier Angeli, and John Ericson (Teresa). Zinnemman’s 1951 movie “Teresa” was the third of a sort of trilogy with very documentary looks about traumatized survivors of World War II: the paraplegics of “The Men,” the catatonic boy living in the rubble in “The Search,” a war bride and her weak ex-GI husband in “Teresa.”

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It is unfortunate that there is not a director’s cut. This is one instance in which the result would be shorter. Zinnemann’s autobiography recalls his frustration at knowing where the movie dragged and not being allowed to make the cuts he thought would solve the problem.

A tall blond American soldier who was a petulant coward and, as a voice-over near the start of the movie says has made a career of running away is a tough sell. John Ericson plays the part very well (so well that it probably hurt his career). In the title role, Pier Angeli was lovely and very sympathetic. Steiger’s part as a psychiatrist was small (parts for Robert Wagner and Lee Marvin were smaller still). Ralph Meeker made a strong impression as the more seasoned soldier who tries to help Philip (Ericson), and Bill Mauldin (who was also a technical advisor) registered as the one riding the green pretty boy.

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In good 1950s Freudian fashion his neuroses are blamed on his mother, though the love of a good woman—a furrener (Pier Angeli in the title role) has some chance of getting him away from his failure of a father (Richard Bishop) and undermining and smothering Mama (Patricia Collinge). (The family prefigured “Rebel Without a Cause,” whose lead had a publicized romance with Angeli. Both screenplays were written by Stewart Stern. Nicholas Ray seems to have copied the first Steiger-Ericson scene in “Rebel” with James Dean and a policeman. And while on intertextualities, Zinnemann cast Angelli again in “Someone Up There Likes Me” and was pained to watch Hollywood destroy her.)

The location shooting (in northern Italy, Rome, and Bellevue) of William J. Miller is a major plus. (Zinnemann started as a cameraman and the painterly visual compositions must owe more than a little to him). The wedding and reunion scenes are very impressive. The jagged, jazzy score by Louis Applebaum is also notable.

The whole (the movie) is less than the sum of many excellent parts, partly for structural reasons, partly for having such a failure (and one so devoid of self-knowledge) as its protagonist. It was very overshadowed by Zinemman’s multiple award-winning 1953 “From Here to Eternity” (which is mostly set before the attack on Pearl Harbor).

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

 

A muted thriller from Fred Zinnemann

Like Joseph L. Manckewicz, Fred Zinnemann was a director of films of more-than-ordinary intelligence with fine performances, who has been neglected by auteur theorists. Though neither had a consistent visual style, each met the auteur criterion of having a recognizable theme or set of themes. They also versatile writer-director Billy Wilder was also ignored by the French auteur theorists and their American epigoni like Andrew Sarris. (Sarris eventually acknowledged having been wrong about Wilder).

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The 1964 Columbia movie “Behold a Pale Horse,” based on a novel by Emeric Pressburger (who had been half ot the Archers with Michael Powell through the astonishingly dull “Ill-Met by Moonlight”) is IMHO too long (121 minutes), but strikingly photographed by Jean Badal      (best known for lensing Jacques Tati’s “Playtime”) with an exceptionally good soundtrack written by Maurice Jarre, between the ones with indelible themes he wrote for “Lawrence of Arabia” and for “Doctor Zhivago” (rhough my favorite was later, the one for the 1982 “The Year of Living Dangerously”).

One could see the movie as reuniting Omar Sharif and Anthony Quinn from “Lawrence of Arabia,” though perhaps more apt is to see it as reuniting Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn from “The Guns of Navarrone” (in which their characters intensely disliked each other). “Behold a Pale Horse” is a sort of muted thriller, but far more character-driven than Zinnemann’s “The Day of the Jackal” (1973). In this it prefigured “Julia” (1977), Zinnemann’s last hit (I’m curious about his last movie, “Five Days One Summer” (1982)).

1964 was a good year for Hollywood movies and the apogee of Anthony Quinn’s career (“Zorba the Greek”). Quinn was more restrained than usual as Captain Vinolas, the police chief of a Spanish (Basque) border tow, San Martín, that has been regularly raided in the two decades since the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 but Manuel Artiguez (a grisly and otherwise unpleasant Gregory Peck), who lives in southern France and has never surrendered or otherwise moved on (he’s not as weary as Yves Montand in the contemporary-to-it “La guerre est finis” and far more a rebel than a disciplined revolutionary like Montand’s character).

The movie’s point of view is provided by 11-year-old Paco Dages (Marietto Angeletti) whose father was recently tortured to death by and crosses the border seeking out Artiguez whom he wants to kill his father’s murderer. It looks like Artiguez has gone soft, more interested in wine bottles than in raiding Spain and embarrassing Capt. Vinolas.

Artiguez’s mother, Pilar (played by John Ford repertory company actress Mildred Dunnock), is dying in St. Martín, She does not want to go into a hospital, but Capt. Vinolas sees an opportunity to use her as bait in a trap for his nemesis. Before she dies, Pilar asks a priest Father Francisco (Omar Sharif), who is about to go to Lourdes to tell her son to stay away.

As anti-fascists the Artiguezes, mother and son, loathe the priests who supported the fascists in overthrowing the Spanish Republic and blessed the continued torture of dissidents in Franco’s Spain. Neither Paco nor Manuel believes the priest, especially since Carlos (a jackal, though not The Jackal of Zinnemann’s later movie!— Raymond Pellegrin) has brought a message that Manuel’s mother wants to see him before she dies (a message composed by Capt. Vinolas).

Father Francisco is the most sympathetic adult character in the movie, and Manuel decides which message (and which messenger) is telling him the truth.

The title derives from the Book of Revelation 6:8: “Behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” The verse appears before the movie (which includes some minutes of documentary footage from the Spanish Civil War and the Republican troops crossing into France, reluctantly giving up their rifles) and guarantees there will be death. My interpretation of the movie is that living is more difficult than dying, and least for aging heroes, though I also wonder how safe the road to Lourdes is going to be after “THE END” flashes across the screen. Pedro (Paolo Stoppa) will have sobered up by then…

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BTW, the portrait of Capt. Vinojas so enraged Spanish authorities at the time that not only did they ban the movie, but they banned all movies released by Columbia. (What upset the Franco censors was not that the police beat Paco’s father to death or used a hospital as a trap for a shootout, but that Capt. Vinojas was shown with a mistress and taking bribes—though his opening scene shows him saying he cannot take a gift, though implying that the price he will pay for the horse he wants will be very far below the market rate.)

The movie did not get into the long-running reign of terror by the Franco dictatorship, and I didn’t think that Capt. Vinojas was portrayed in unflattering ways… and the issues of the Republic vs. the insurgent Phalange were avoided, making the movie seem a personal feud of the aging antagonists.

 

The DVD includes a trailer for “Behold” and ones for “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Guns of Navarrone” (the latter with voiceovers from Peck). The images did not seem too dark to me, though I wondered when it rained so that the streets and sidewalks of San Martín glistened by streetlight.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray