The Search (1948)

The_Search_posterAny knowledge of director Fred Zinnemann only aids in informing The Search. Formerly living in a Jewish family in Austria, he would immigrate to the bright lights of Hollywood in the 1930s only to have both his parents killed in the Holocaust. So if you think he had no stake in this picture you would be gravely mistaken.

Like Carol Reed’s Third Man of the following year, Fred Zinnemann’s film does an impeccable job in its opening moments placing us in a landscape that feels all but tangible. Improved by true post-war locales, The Search gives audiences a fairly frank depiction of the trauma and destruction left in the wake of such an all-encompassing wave of carnage like WWII.

At least in this area alone, there is no sense that this is a facade or something fake and done up to look real. There’s little of that. Not least among the casualties are children displaced from all different nations and backgrounds. Subsisting without families through much of the war.

Now, with the clouds dissipating there is work to be done. It’s the task of understaffed personnel to begin sorting through all the pieces to try and get everyone back where they need to be. It seems an insurmountable job but they get on as best as they can.

Mrs. Murray is one of the workers we get to know, a woman with both a sense of pragmatic industry but also an underlying warmth. She knows if her job is done well, there will be many children given far better lives. She does everything in her power toward those ends.

Carrying a few points of reference from Aline MacMahon’s early career, it truly is a joy to watch her fall into this role which is a stark departure from the likes of One Way Passage (1932) or Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). Certainly, it’s less flashy but no less meaningful. She makes it count.

The pure ambiguities created by language barriers is made palpable and for American viewers, there is a narrator but little in the way of interpretation. So much of what goes on is either left unsaid or must be taken with a grain of salt. That’s compounded by the fact the reticent children are afraid men in uniforms might be SS troopers or any word they let slip will be subsequently used to send them away to a concentration camp.

While it’s near impossible to take on two viewpoints at once, at any rate, we begin to understand not only Mrs. Murray’s predicament but also the well-founded fears of these displaced youths. That’s what leads one group of children, crammed into an ambulance marked with an ominous red cross, to scatter at the first opportunity. One includes a pale-faced boy named Karel who has remained all but silent during his initial questioning and yet his will to survive is insurmountable. Still, one needs food to survive and he doesn’t have any.

This problem is what prompts the initial meeting of the two figures who we might consider our heroes. It actually happens 40 minutes in and it nearly doesn’t amount to anything at all. Sitting in his jeep, lazily kicked back, eating a sandwich, is an army engineer named Steve (Montgomery Clift) who is soon being shipped back home.

He sees a small body pop up behind some rubble obviously eyeing his lunch. The boy’s afraid to take a handout and so the soldier puts his jeep in gear to drive off but thinking better of it, he turns around and tosses the boy his sandwich. Here we have the genesis of their curious relationship, at first tenuous, because Karel has learned to fear other people and their lack of formal communication lines makes mutual understanding even more difficult.

Though not as intense as his most revered parts, Monty Clift provides a genuine charm to the role, an all but effortless job at character building. Young Ivan Jandl knew no English going into the shoot but this same undoctored quality makes the opening sequences all the more imperative. He and Clift build a rapport that’s right there in front of us.

Initially, Karel lashes out thinking he is being held prisoner again. Steve tries to get him to understand his newfound freedom and when that is established, next comes the acquisition of language which the bright boy picks up quickly. One could say that The Search is at its finest when the pair is stuck in a space together. I’m not sure about others but I resonate with these scenes. The moments where a language barrier necessitates some form of universal understanding. Words have no meaning. Like in Film itself, actions can be far more universal than any amount of exquisite dialogue. For example, chocolate tastes “good.” Alcohol smells “bad.”

Together the soldier and the boy form a bond to the point Karel follows him around like a lost puppy. He doesn’t want to be abandoned. Not again. Of course, we know Steve must ship out soon… Meanwhile, Mrs. Murray enlists the help of a concentration camp survivor (Jarmila Novotná) who is looking determinedly for her son — the dramatic irony all but apparent, if it wasn’t already.

As Steve begins to teach “Jim” English lessons, he and his buddy Jerry (Wendell Corey) try and get some news on the boy’s origins. And all they have to go on is the telling tattoo on his forearm. It’s the arrival of family from stateside that sets something off. A switch goes on inside of Jim’s brain and he realizes he needs to find his “mother” because he comes to understand what that word means and that his is missing.

The Search endangers itself with a melodramatic turn of events and to a degree, they do come. Speaking for myself, I was a most agreeable recipient if that’s what it was. With the trills of angelic voices and a final maternal embrace — the conclusion the entire film has been charted for — some emotional manipulation might be on hand. However, in a period of rebuilding, though the past must not be forgotten, nevertheless, there is a deep abiding need for hope.  I would like to think that The Search is a film acknowledging precisely that and offering some solace.

Out of all the bombed out buildings, emaciated children racked with trauma, and horrors upon horrors, there is still something that can and must be clung to. When we are lost and alone, we can be found and returned to the place where we belong. There is no need to wander aimlessly because we have a home. Whether or not you believe this picture to be a purveyor of authenticity, Zinnemann has provided a revelatory parable of genuine sensitivity. I for one admire its aspirations greatly even if they might be imperfect. Such a time calls for this kind of hope.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: High Noon (1952)

highnoon1Drums softly beating. A voice mournfully bellowing,”Do not forsake me, oh, my darlin‘.” It can only mean one thing, the beginning of High Noon, a western that has grown near and dear to my heart in the recent years. And yet how can a western of under 90 minutes mesmerize and cause goose bumps to form time after time? That opening ballad sung so wonderfully and folksy by Tex Ritter is one great reason. It’s a mournful dirge of a song which nevertheless draws us into this film, and personally, I cannot help but belt out a few lines now and then (I’m unashamed to say I know the whole song). After all, it’s this song that reflects the story of our main character Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) and reiterations of the tune can be heard throughout for the following hour as we all wait for the noon train.

The song makes it clear that Ben Miller is coming after Kane for sending him to prison. He’s got revenge on the mind and three of his buddies, including his brother, are waiting for his arrival, along with everybody else in town. Meanwhile, the Marshall is about to hang up his badge as it were, because he’s gotten hitched to a pretty young quaker (the estimable Grace Kelly), and they look to settle down with a store in some sleepy town. He’s well-deserving of it after all he’s done and the town stands behind him.

But the news of Miller’s return is no way to start the honeymoon. Still the couple sets off, but Kane turns around realizing he cannot run (I do not know what fate awaits me. I only know I must be brave. For I must face a man who hates me, Or lie a coward, a craven coward; Or lie a coward in my grave).

Thihighnoon4s is the backdrop that he’s trying to scrounge up a posse with. Others getting out of town, some telling him he should get out of town too, and a general commotion about what they should do about the whole mess. There are numerous cross sections and enclaves all with different motives and most importantly excuses. They all turn down a chance to help Kane for one reason or another (even his closest friends). It seems so easy to pass judgment, but then again what would we do in such a situation? In fact, it brings to mind the Hollywood Blacklist which this story was supposed to be an allegory for. This is not just some fictionalized parable, it was mirroring real life to some extent.

What really resonates about this film is the resolve of one man, because when it comes down to it, Kane did not need to stay, he did not need to do what he did, but he stood by his guns, literally, when no one else would stand with him. It’s easy to conform, easy to go with the crowd. It takes real courage to walk out on your own — although the Marshall did have a little help. So whether or not John Wayne thought this film was wholly “Un-American” or not, I think I would have to disagree with him on this one. Maybe what Kane has is reluctant courage, and I could see how the Duke would be disgusted by such a “spineless” individual. But for me, he’s all the more relatable played so aptly by Gary Cooper.

highnoon7It continues to amaze me that a film of this length can have so many wonderful characters who leave an indelible mark on the story. Certainly, you have the hero and the villains, but then we have character actors such as Thomas Mitchell, Harry Morgan, and Lon Chaney Jr. playing some of Kane’s buddies. There’s the gang at the bar and the hotel clerk, who are no friends of the Marshall. There’s his former flame Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado) and his hot-headed deputy (Beau Bridges). The rest are filled out by men, woman, children, town drunks, and churchgoers. Zinnemann does a wonderful thing aside from just using the clock as a plot device and tension builder. He also calls back all these many characters as the noon train comes in with smoke billowing black. The audience and all these people know what that shrill whistle means. Things are going down, and Kane is going to face it all alone.

highnoon2The isolation is so wonderfully conveyed by an aerial shot where the camera moves up to show the stoic Marshall standing in the middle of a ghost town. No people around and no one showing their faces. Then of course, when it’s all over, the floodgates open and all the folks rush into the center of town. Fittingly,  Kane drops his tin star in the dirt in disgust as the refrains of Tex Ritter’s ballad continue.

Put High Noon up against other films and it could be criticized as nothing more than a western, but perhaps that’s why I like it. I cannot help but gravitate towards it. In some ways, it reminds me of growing up and it allows me to forget about any sort of deeper meaning for an instant so I can be fully enraptured with this story, this song, and these characters. It’s a worthy incarnation of the mythic west, that also leaves a little space for some humanity.

People gotta talk themselves into law and order before they do anything about it. Maybe because down deep they don’t care. They just don’t care.” – Martin Howe (Lon Chaney Jr.)

5/5 Stars

People on Sunday (1930)

peopleonsunday1One of the last German silent films was People on Sunday, a modest project from a group of young men. Our stars are young professionals in real life and only amateur actors who did not quit their day jobs. They only could film on the weekends and that’s how we end up with People on Sunday! It takes on a faux documentary style, and it follows the lives of four individuals as they meet one another and then spend a pleasant Sunday afternoon together. There is certainly a breezy playfulness to the film as the two men and two women spend time frolicking at the beach and reclining in the sun. They share laughs while eating and listening to records. It quality fun and there seems to be a general innocence to their behavior that while sometimes rude is all in good fun.

This is, in fact, a film of the late Weimar Republic, without the cloud of Hitler’s Nazi regime hanging over the country (not until 1933). It stands in sharp contrast to later works or documentaries because People on Sunday is seemingly free and wholly unrestrained by ideology or prejudice.

We should undoubtedly be grateful for this historical piece of New Objectivity cinema and the reasons are twofold. First, since the film essentially works as a documentary, it gives us a wonderfully clear picture of what life was like in the world of Berlin. There are continuous shots of the city streets, passing vehicles, and people making their daily rounds. One especially memorable moment occurs when the story takes a short aside to afford time for a montage of faces. The camera slowly captures face after face providing a sample of all the individuals who walk these streets. They transcend time and space because of their humanity, their mundane quality, and they have the same lightness of our main characters.

When we look at the names behind People on Sunday, it is almost staggering to acknowledge these men who were formerly unknowns.

As directors, you have Robert and Curt Siodmak. Your main writer is the great Billy Wilder. As cinematographer, you have another great in Fred Zinnemann, and finally, production was helped by the B-picture master Edgar Ulmer. Due to the rise of the Nazis, all of these figures would end up emigrating to Hollywood and the rest was history. In many ways, we are indebted to them, because they helped form some of the great American classics and you can already see them honing their craft. The images are visually arresting and there is even a sense of humor that we could seemingly attribute to Wilder. It would only get better from then on.

If I’m not mistaken there are several scores that have been used to accompany the film, but I did really enjoy the Czech film orchestra because it added a lot to this otherwise silent picture. Hope you enjoy this unassuming jaunt as much as I did.

4/5 Stars

Act of Violence (1948)

ActofViolenceAct of Violence is an interesting post-war moral tale from director Fred Zinnemann. Frank (Van Heflin) returned home from war a hero. He now has a small child with his pretty young wife Edith (Janet Leigh) in the vibrant California town of Santa Lisa.

Little is known about his P.O.W. past and all his comrades were killed. Except one. His friend Joe (Robert Ryan) is still alive but he is plagued by a crippled leg now. He finds out about Frank’s whereabouts and it become his personal vendetta to straighten him out. The innocent Edith is in the dark about the whole ordeal and with the shadow of Joe constantly haunting him, Frank must family face the specter of his past.

He goes off on a business trip to escape and there out of desperation he winds up hiring a hit man to get Joe off his back. The two former buddies set up a meeting (which is really a trap), But as would be expected it does not work out as planned. Justice is dealt but there is still a strange sense of moral ambiguity. This is  certainly not Zinnemann’s best work, but it brings up some interesting questions about moral scruples and personal conflict.

3.5/5 Stars

A Man For All Seasons (1966)

a4d49-a_man_for_all_seasonsSir Thomas More had the misfortune of getting in the way of perhaps one of the most notorious kings in history, and it proved costly. It is the early 1500s in England, and the Reformation has shaken the world but Henry VIII (Robert Shaw) has his own plans for the church in his country. He is bent on getting his marriage annulled by the pop,e because young Anne Boleyn will be much more likely to give a healthy heir to the throne.

A Man For All Seasons focuses on the position of More who at the time was Lord Chancellor of England. First, in talking with Cardinal Wolsey, More resolves not to sign the letter to the pope on the king’s behalf, because it goes against his conscience. Later, in his dealings with Thomas Cromwell, More resigns rather than to sign an oath making Henry VIII the supreme leader of the church in England.

Except there is more to it than that. More certainly was not a dissident or a rebellious political figure. Far from it. At least in the film, he is portrayed by Paul Scofield as a constantly even-keeled and gracious man in all circumstances. When a young man named Rich (John Hurt) sold More out for a high title, in a Christ-like response More has only pity for the fellow. Selling his soul for the world is worse enough, but Rich did it for Wales.

Not even the pleading of his newly-wedded daughter (Susannah York), or his strong-willed wife (Wendy Hiller) can change More’s conviction as he wastes away in the Tower of London. Sir Thomas went calmly to his death confident that his faith in his Lord would give him eternal peace. He died there for a seemingly trivial reason at the hands of men who used to be his friends. But he died with his conscience intact.

As I acknowledged, Paul Scofield is such a serene force during the storm of this film. The portly Orson Welles and Leo McKern seem to fit their roles well, and Robert Shaw has enough bluster to pull off Henry VIII. A young John Hurt turns in a fine performance as the Judas of the film and Nigel Davenport is commendable as More’s exasperated friend the Duke.

Adapted from a stage play, here is another highly acclaimed film from director Fred Zinnemann. Perhaps it is the period drama, but this film strikes me as very English and it did very well for itself. I suppose because it’s a tale that is universal and audiences love to identify with men such as Sir Thomas More. Zinnemann was always superb at capturing the inner struggles that humanity is often forced to confront, and he did it once again here.

4/5 Stars

The Nun’s Story (1959)

b2aa8-nun_storyFrom director Fred Zinnemann and starring Audrey Hepburn, here comes a very unique film indeed. Hepburn is Gaby also known as Sister Luke, who makes it her life mission to become a Nun. She leaves behind her loving father (Dean Jagger), young love, and siblings to lead a life of solitude and sacrifice.

She learns and is disciplined at the convent, finding out what it means to “die to self.” However, it is by no means easy, because as with any human being pride and other struggles impede her progress.

Quickly she shows her skill as a nurse, and yet she is challenged to act with more humility. Sister Luke winds up not in her desired location of the Congo, but in Europe to continue to grow spiritually.

Finally, she is rewarded for her patience and goes to the Congo only to fall into her element. There she is beloved by the natives and nuns alike, while also gaining the respect of the local practicing doctor (Peter Finch) who is not a believer.

He however rightly concludes that Sister Luke is not your typical nun, because she has too much self-determination and individuality. As a good sister she tries to block out his words, but after she is sent back to the convent she must face this reality head on. World War II has erupted and the Sisters are called not to intercede on either side, but after personal tragedy Sister Luke realizes she must give up the life of the nun.

After so much loving service to her fellow man while wearing the robes, she is forced to shed them on her own accord. It is a solemn moment as Gaby once again removes her ring of commitment and walks off into the unknown world plagued by war. It is an unsatisfying conclusion but a moving ending nonetheless.

Zinnemann is often interested in the inner struggles of his protagonists and that is on display again in this film. Furthermore, his on location shooting in the Congo adds a sense of authenticity to the story. I am convinced that no actress other than Audrey Hepburn could possibly have done justice to this role, or at least no one else could have played it so wonderfully. She exudes such a sweetness and innocence it is difficult to see how anyone could every get annoyed with her. Her Sister Luke is seemingly spot on, and the lengthy film would have certainly faltered without her.

4/5 Stars

The Best Films of Fred Zinnemann

1. High Noon
2. From Here to Eternity
3. The Search
4. A Man For All Seasons
5. A Nun’s Story
6. Oklahoma
7. The Men
8. Act of Violence
9. The Day of the Jackal
10. The Seventh Cross
11. Julia
12. People on Sunday

The Men (1950)

2c6ea-the_menI was really drawn into this film and I appreciated Zinnemann’s realistic style in capturing Marlon Brando’s powerful screen debut. I would have rated this film higher because the topic was interesting, the performances were good, the supporting cast was respectable, and so on. The only thing is although Brando is a good actor and I really love Teresa Wright, they just seem wrong opposite each other. Wright was made for a Best Years of Our Lives and Brando for Streetcar or On the Waterfront. I will say I was surprised to see a young Richard Erdman, who is known to modern audiences as Leonard in Community.

3.5/5 Stars

High Noon (1952)

14bd7-high_noon_posterThis may not be the greatest film of all time, but it is certainly one of the greatest westerns gifted to us so generously by Fred Zinnemann. It tells a very simple story, yet it is, in fact, so powerful simply, because of the hero it depicts. In its time it also served as a condemning allegory of the finger pointing going on in Hollywood.

*May Contain Spoilers

The film tells the story of Marshall Will Kane, who is willing to face his foes even when no one else will help him. Gary Cooper plays the newlywed lawman, who must flee town or face the killer coming on the noon train. He resolves to do just that, despite the pleas of his loving wife (Grace Kelly). The sheriff scrambles against the clock to get help. However, no one is brave enough to face the enemy with him. Even with the odds against him, he faces them in a showdown. Cooper is outgunned, but not outmatched — heroically prevailing.

This film is so powerful, because it is full of human emotions, and it feels so real since the events unfold almost in real time. The somber ballad, sung by Tex Ritter, also helps to create the mood right from the opening credits. In fact, I must admit that multiple times I have found myself humming or crooning the words, but then again I suppose it makes sense since the song is woven into the very fabric of the film.

The score by Dimitri Tiomkin utilizes the tune throughout to complement the images of the town. In that respect, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin'” is not just a song, but an important piece of this story. It is easy to forget the supporting players since Cooper often steals the show. Nevertheless, there’s Lloyd Bridges, Grace Kelly, Katy Jurado, Thomas Mitchell, Lon Chaney Jr.,  Harry Morgan, and even a young Lee  Van Cleef. Many have pasts with Kane that we cannot expect to fully know. All we can understand is the here and now that causes a person to weigh their options, and either follow or go against their conscience. Kane and then his bride both did what they thought was right even when others would not follow suit.

It struck me how simple the story is, and yet on the other side, it is a complex allegory that critiques humanity. Will Kane is a man, who helped make the town what it is, but when trouble comes and the odds are bad no one is willing to help him. Besides the obvious positives like a good story and a heroic protagonist, this film stands out because it feels so human. Here we are as an audience watching the events unfold almost minute for minute. Then we see the various town folk and their fear of getting involved, and to make matters worse a lot of them are Kane’s very good friends. It makes us question what we would have done in their position. Because some of them were obviously good people, who were scared to be involved. Of course, during this time McCarthyism was prevalent and it is suggested that this film alluded to that. However, whatever you think it is still unquestionable that High Noon is a powerful film, a love story, and at its simplest a classic western.

5/5 Stars

 

 

From Here to Eternity (1953)

b0508-from_here_to_eternity_film_posterDirected by Fred Zinnemann, the film has an all star cast including Burt Lancaster, Monty Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, and Frank Sinatra. Clift is a former boxer and bugler who has been transferred to a post in Hawaii. The commanding officer wants to have him fight for the company but Clift is adamant that he will not. From that point on life is made difficult for him on the base. However, he still finds time to go to a club with his friend Maggio (Sinatra) where he meets Lorean (Reed) and falls in love. At the same time the intelligent company sergeant Lancaster, finds himself falling for the commander’s wife (Kerr) who has an unhappy marriage. However, he feels he cannot become an officer effectively terminating their relationship. The dramatic events culminate in the attack on Pearl Harbor which overshadows a smaller tragedy. This movie certainly had a cast full of famous people, but I have to say it was not my favorite film. All the same there definitely are some good moments.

4/5 Stars